Designing for Engagement: Our Students

– Melissa K. Downes

Children's Reading 1

Melissa Downes

As I have been reading this summer, it’s important to design courses building from who our students are and what they know, as well as what we want them to know. Zull (2002), for example, argues, “No one can understand anything if it isn’t connected in some way to what they already know” (p. 94). What do our students know? What things do they “know” that are just wrong? What habits, beliefs, and attitudes do they have that will help them? Which will hinder them?

As Ellen Foster argued last week, knowing our audience matters. We need to take who our students are into account as we design and implement our courses.

Merisotis (2016) discusses national trends and shifts in the makeup of students: we now have more older students, more students with children, more students for whom paid employment is a necessity during their college careers. Fewer than 2/3 of full-time students nationwide earn four-year degrees within six years (Merisotis, 2016). As the previous numbers suggest, this is often because of financial obligations and competing demands (e.g., parenting and work). Merisotis also described the increased diversity of students, with many more African American and Hispanic students in college. Nearly half of first-year students live at or below the poverty line; 56% work while they are enrolled.

We do not have all of these data for Clarion University, but we can imagine that students at a regional public university would have even greater pressures. We do know that 78% of our students receive financial aid. About 9% of our students are minorities; fewer than .1% are international students. Not surprisingly, almost 95% of our students are from Pennsylvania (Clarion University Common Data Set, 2016).

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Table 1. Percent of incoming first-year Clarion University students scoring in each range on the SAT, 2014-2015 (Clarion University 2014-2015 Common Data Set, 2015).

Our incoming students are somewhat underprepared relative to those at other schools. See Table 1. Nationally, students scoring at 500 on a section of the SAT were at about the 50th percentile – only 50% of students scored less well than they did. At Clarion University, between 66 and 74% of our students scored below 500 (Clarion University 2014-2015 Common Data Set, 2015). More of our students fall in the bottom half of this distribution than is true nationally.

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Figure 1. The average time per week spent preparing for class by year, at Clarion University and in the PASSHE system (NSSE 2015 Snapshot).

Relative to students at other PASSHE schools, on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), first-year Clarion University students report spending relatively less time preparing for class (NSSE, 2015). See Figure 1. However, college students now spend fewer hours studying than was typical in the 1960s, from about 24 hours per week then, to about 14 now  (Babcock & Marks, 2010). Certainly, these numbers are far fewer than what most faculty believe students should spend studying.

* * *

It also makes sense to approach our students by thinking about the experiences they bring to the table. So many of our students are from Western Pennsylvania: how can we harness their lived experience and cultural knowledge of place and community? Many more of our students are now women: how might we adapt to this changing balance without relying on easy stereotypes or generalizations?

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Figure 2.Some of my favorites from Beloit College’s Mindset List, Class of 2020.

At this time of year, many of us turn to Beloit College for their annual list describing the mindset of incoming college freshmen – Class of 2020. See Figure 2. Yes, it makes us feel old, but it also reminds us of the importance of shifting approaches to our students. What examples will work with them? Drop Columbine and discuss Sandy Hook! (or use Sandy Hook to contextualize Columbine and vice versa).

What expectations do they have? Beloit calls this group the “right now” generation. They may believe: Text me, don’t email. How do we adjust when our own world is often email-saturated? Will they need to write professionally using email in the future? What things might we see as exciting, but they don’t? Cloning. Bo-ring! How can we get excited about what interests them? How should we engage them in what interests us?

Many differences are profound and may have impacts we don’t yet fully imagine. For example, what does it mean to have one’s entire lived experience one where the US “has always been at war”?

* * *

Our students’ backgrounds, expectations, and knowledge base don’t mean that we should become easy graders or reduce their workload. I never advocate dumbing down the curriculum. Effective communication requires adapting to the audience while still staying focused on achieving one’s purpose. Just as we need to understand who our students are, we also need to consider where they are going and what content, skills, behaviors, and attitudes we can help them develop to reach their goals, their destinations. Demanding little of them in terms of work or intellectual depth might well undercut their long-term goals and needs.

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Figure 3. My values.

I value the skills in Figure 3, both as a learner and teacher. I worry sometimes that our students don’t get enough exposure or practice when it comes to things like these. While they may not end up sharing my values, I still believe I have a responsibility to foster these skills – as I try to imagine both their college careers and their futures and what tools and resources they will need.

Imagine what you would put on your own list. In the context of who our students are, what do you want for our students? What attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, skills, and/or content do you want them to gain from their experiences in your classroom?

And how will we purposefully design our courses and our lesson plans to meet our goals for these students? Not the students we were (or sometimes pretend we were) and not our imaginary students: how do we design our courses – right now – for our very real students?


Babcock, P., & Marks, M. (2010). Leisure College, USA: The decline in student study time. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Education Outlook, No. 7. Retrieved from

Clarion University of Pennsylvania. (2015). 2014-2015 common data set. Retrieved from

Clarion University of Pennsylvania. (2016). 2015-2016 common data set. Retrieved from FINAL2 REv 071116.pdf

Merisotis. J. (2016, August 2). Zombies, college, and today’s student. Pulse. Retrieved from

National Survey of Student Engagement. (2015). NSSE 2015 snapshot: Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Accessed from

Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain: Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at

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