Student Engagement, Student Success

I just returned from an invigorating day with faculty at a university near Dallas. During our time together, we discussed two themes that preoccupy school administrators as much as any:

1. Student Engagement
2. Student Success

In our morning session, one instructor shared a note he’d recently received from a student. The young man had decided to drop out of school. Here’s what he said:

“People are constantly asking me what I am going to do after graduation — so I tell them my plans. I just hope I am still on the right track, and that I haven’t pushed the time limit up too much… because I can’t stand school anymore. I am tired of homework, busy work and class work. It’s all becoming a blur. All I know is that when I had a job it was easy. All I did was learn what I had to do, I did my job and I got paid for it. And, I had one boss. Here I have five “bosses” (my professors) and I have to pay to learn. It really p****s me off when teachers are not truthful with the students when it comes to life outside of college. Most kids think that they’ll get out and have a great job immediately, pay off their school debt and get married right out of college, because that’s what is supposed to happen. It makes me angry that it’s so different… but I guess this school feels the need to keep the students happy so they can make their money. I just need to be done with school and never go back. I can learn without having to pay someone to teach me.”

I wish this student’s sentiment were an isolated case. But it isn’t. According to a Noel-Levitz report, 96% of first year students say they will finish college no matter what the cost. In actuality, less than 50% do so even in six years. Somehow, there is a huge gap between expectations and reality. Students stay busy, but most are not successful. They are active, but not engaged with the things that will enable them to make it in life after college. The transition from backpack-to-briefcase is more and more difficult.

Student Engagement and Student Success
These terms change — student engagement and success — but their importance never does. The chasm that exists between adults and students troubles me. Specifically, here are my concerns:

1. The gap between the way students learn and the way adults teach.
2. The gap between students’ expectations and the way life really is.
3. The gap between the pleasurable world of adolescence and the pressurized world of adulthood.
4. The gap between the instant world of technology and the grinding world of adult responsibility.

These are issues that we, at Growing Leaders, are determined to help leaders, teachers, coaches, employers, pastors, and parents to confront effectively. As we do this, we’ll have to address the engagement and the success issues.

Student success initiatives must address the three biggest needs of young people today:

a. Emotional Intelligence — Self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, and relationship management
b. Character development — Self-discipline, personal values, emotional security, and personal identity
c. Leadership perspective — Possessing vision, problem solving skills, priority setting skills, and execution skills

Student engagement initiatives must address how students best learn:

a. Images — This generation grew up visual. Images are the language of the 21st century, not words.
b. Conversations — Pictures are worth a thousand words; students want to upload their ideas and feelings.
c. Experiences — Following a conversation about an image, students long to experience ideas firsthand.

When I created the series, Habitudes®: Images that Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes, I didn’t’ realize how wildly popular they would be. All I knew was they addressed the three biggest needs of Generation iY, and they did so in a manner that students embraced.

We must engage students with the issues that will prepare them for life after school. We cannot continue to do things the way we have done them before. The future is no longer simply a continuation of the past. So many students, perhaps the majority of them, don’t know how to succeed in life. It’s time we tell them the truth. One college dean asked me recently: “Why don’t students want to grow up?” I think I know one reason. Consider this. The adult world we are preparing them for has never been more complex. The adolescent world has never been more pleasurable. Many see no need to leave their current reality to enter a long, hard adult lifestyle.

This same dean also asked why I felt he should work so hard to creatively connect with students when those students are going to have to learn to engage with an unglamorous adult world soon. In other words, why use images, conversations, technology, and experiences when they don’t represent the rigor of classic higher education. My response was simple. It’s true, we must prepare them for a world that isn’t always fun. But to reach them — we must start where they are. Effective teachers/leaders always begin where the listener lives. I encourage you to re-think these issues:

1. How am I connecting with the young people in my life?
2. Do I need to engage them with images and conversations, and let them talk?
3. Am I preparing them for the real world as I teach, coach or parent them?
4. Am I willing to begin with their world, and gently lead them out of adolescence?

I am hopeful we can all answers these questions well.

On June 24th-25th, our National Leadership Forum will deal with these very issues. Our theme: Generation iY: Shaping the Students Born Since 1990. Come join us, and help turn research into results. Check it out at:


Student Engagement, Student Success