What Every College Student Wants in Class

I have always loved school holidays — winter vacation, summer break, all of it — because I loved to read. My mother was a schoolteacher, and right before each holiday, she would take my sister Pam and me to the public library to check out as many books as we could lay our hands on.

This was way before our culture of guilt-free binge-watching — back when TV was bad for you. Remember those days? I can hear my mother now. “Paula Susan! Pamela Elaine! Scoot back! You’re going to go blind sitting so close!” Back then, the only thing worth binge-watching were Saturday morning cartoons. On all the other days, what Pam and I did was read. We read so much Little House on the Prairie, I once convinced Pam that if I folded any more laundry I might contract malaria.

I am proud to say that this tradition of vacation binge-reading continues in my family. During vacations over the last year, I’ve enjoyed revisiting Steinbeck’s The Pearl (1947) and The Outsiders (1967), both of which I hadn’t read in decades. I spent some quality time with Howard Pyle’s classic The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883), trying to divine why, exactly, this story continues to enchant readers, and I read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth (1991) — a book about how everybody’s a hero and all stories are, in fact, One Big Story.

All these books are timeless and captivating, marbled with insights on the human condition, but none of these classics proved as compelling as something else I read on a recent vacation: a binder holding hundreds of pages of SCAD student evaluations (i.e., the short survey each student completes in each class, near the end of the academic term, asking questions about the quality of their classroom experience). I read these student evaluations multiple times a year and have done so for nearly 40 years. I love learning the tens of thousands of fascinating “micro-stories” of the preceding academic quarter — touching tales of the personal and intellectual triumphs of our students and their tributes to the professors who nurture and challenge them every day.

You might be surprised to learn just how many improvements we’ve made at SCAD, based on what I’ve learned from reading student evaluations: We’ve improved heating and cooling, added more computer stations to student labs, created new bus routes, even initiated the creation of new degree programs. In the early 1990s, reading student evaluations revealed the collective student desire for majors in fashion and theater, and now SCAD has top-ranked programs in fashion and entertainment arts.

For the four decades that I’ve been reading student evaluations, I can tell you that SCAD students have always expected their classes to be two things: fun and hard. But there’s a third element that has begun appearing with great frequency in student comments. I’ll give you a hint:

Everything was engaging, educational, and fun. The working environment was healthy and [Prof. Auer] wasphenomenal.

I really liked how engaged [Prof. Baker] was! He offered to meet with students via technology, as well as in person.

[Prof. Bjornseth] was very approachable and engaged the class with stories and demonstrations for each assignment.

It was uncanny how often I encountered the idea of engagement in student comments. Here’s another:

[Prof. Doucet] engages the class the way a siren engages sailors: the magnificent timbre of his voice and his command of the room makes it impossible not to be engaged.

SCAD is in a constant quest to meet the Millennial mind on its own turf. What is it about Millennials — and now Gen Z — that makes engagement so essential to providing a great learning experience? According to this Ngram, the word engagement, which reached its high-water mark in 1760, is coming back in a big way. The word engaging is also being Googled more than ever. Clearly, something’s in the water.

Recently, I read hundreds of pages of student comments written about instruction during academic terms at SCAD campuses in Europe, Asia, and North America. I noticed the word engaging appeared on nearly every page, so I set out to solve the riddle by commissioning a SCAD research study to discover why engagement matters so much to our students. Is this desire connected to their use of social media and its ceaseless flow of feedback? Does it have something to do with the modern challenge of loneliness and a desire for genuine connection with their classmates and professors? How can SCAD harness this investment in engagement and use it to augment their academic experience?

I knew the answers to these questions could, and should, impact the next generation of SCAD students. Read the next essay in this series to learn what we found.

Designer. Author. President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) || http://scad.edu || http://instagram.com/paulaswallace