Pathways to Student Engagement and Success in the Classroom

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2016

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia


Our classrooms are home to a diverse group of students, individuals with differing levels of academic background, income, and ability. Each student faces their own unique circumstances in meeting the challenges of the classroom, and in taking advantage of the variety of experiential learning opportunities available to them. This paper analyzes and evaluates various strategies that are being used to motivate and support today’s students to be successful and to take advantage of experiential learning offerings.


Faculty and students alike face many challenges in business and economics classrooms. Professors, in planning their courses each semester, must take into consideration a broad range of concerns including overall course objectives, types and nature of assignments, the modes and methods for content delivery, and the various types of interactions they will have with their students. Our students come from very diverse backgrounds, bringing a wide range of academic and practical skill sets to the classroom and increasingly divergent financial means—in other words, they make up a heterogeneous population of learners.

Data from the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac (2016), reveals the following demographic profile for U.S. freshmen studying in four-year degree programs in 2015: 68.2 percent White/Caucasian, 16.5 percent Hispanic, 14.7 percent Asian-American/Asian, and 11.6 percent African-American/Black. The income diversity of today’s freshmen is even more striking, with 12.4 percent coming from households where the parent’s annual income is below $25,000 annually and almost 16 percent coming from households with income above $200,000 annually (see Table 1).

Table 1: Estimated parents’ annual income
Less than $25,00012.4%
$25,000 to $49,99914.6%
$50,000 to $74,99916.7%
$75,000 to $99,99912.4%
$100,000 to $199,99918.4%
$150,000 to $199,9999.6%
$200,000 or more15.9%
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2016

Twenty-seven percent of freshmen worked 10 or more hours per week during their last year in high school, and only 3.3 percent spent 10 or more hours a week reading for pleasure. Approximately 24 percent of freshmen attended a college or university that was within 11 to 50 miles of their home, and 11 percent attended an institution that was less than 11 miles from their home. The most popular selected majors in order were biology/life sciences (14.9 percent), business (13.4 percent), engineering (13.1 percent), health professions (11.3 percent), social sciences (10.8 percent), and arts and humanities (10.1 percent). With the exception of undecided at 8.9 percent, and math and computer science at 5.4 percent, all other majors (such as physical science and education) failed to break 5 percent.

Today’s professoriate has grown more diverse and in many ways disparate than in the past as well. Of the 584,000 full- and part-time faculty working at four year colleges and universities, 319,000 or almost 55 percent work in non-tenure earning positions, and just over 175,000 or 30 percent are part-time. Women represent approximately 46 percent of the total number of faculty, 71 percent of all faculty are white, and 20 percent are minorities.

In this paper I examine the various issues that faculty members face in reaching their students in the classroom, and the strategies they consequently use to prepare them for future employment and for life after college. Students select their programs of study for a number of reasons, but certainly one primary concern for students is career training—whether that is a career immediately after their baccalaureate, or preparation for additional study, such as is the case for pre-med and pre-law students.

What Are the Issues?

There is a growing body of literature on the interrelationship between student learning, engagement, and cultural diversity. Alongside this growing body of literature is a new emphasis on experiential learning opportunities that will more fully engage the student in their chosen field of study and better prepare them for their careers.

If experience is such a good teacher, then what can the research tell us in regards to students’ own work experience and their academic performance? This is an important question given approximately 70 percent of all students work to support themselves in college, and a significant number of them work at least 30 hours per week (Carnevale et al., 2015). Many studies tend to find that academic performance (at least as measured by grades) is lower among students working just to support themselves (see, for example, Barber & Levitan, 2015; Hwang, 2013; Kosi, Nostav, & Sustersic 2013; Kouliavtsev, 2013; Yanbarisova, 2015). Body, Bonnal, and Giret (2014), looking at the impact on French university students, conclude that the effect on grades is related to the number of hours of work. The academic outcomes of students working 16 hours or more were negative. Kosi et al. (2015) come to a similar conclusion, only they find that for Slovenian students this effect is felt at 18 hours of work per week.

Our campuses reflect an increasingly diverse world and both the student body and the faculty teaching those students have become more diverse. Zhang et al. (2016), in their discussion of business programs, point out that there are not only significant cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences that may exist between students, but that diversity must be thought of more expansively than as just a matter of culture and ethnicity, and as encompassing factors such as sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. They propose a competency-based approach to incorporating diversity into the classroom, one geared towards inclusion and that stresses outcomes such as diversity awareness, cross-cultural knowledge, skills, and ability (Zhang et al., 2016).

Piercy and Caldwell (2011) focus on the use of experiential simulations to help integrate and bring together diverse student groups and to prepare students to work in culturally diverse settings. Devasgayam et al. (2012) explore the role of experiential learning as a pedagogical device to help students learn information literacy skills. In their study, students were engaged in an exercise to collect and validate information from a variety of sources. They conclude that activities that include “involvement, engagement, application and reinforcement through repetition are one of the best ways to teach information literacy” (p.13). Ferguson et al. (2015) report on the use and effectiveness of a course blog for reflection or reflective observation on experiential class activities. At the heart of their study is the idea that experiential learning itself is not effective without students taking the time to reflect upon and evaluate the experiential learning activities they participated in.

Other studies, such as Mandel and Noyes (2016) or McCord et al. (2015), explore other aspects of the experiential learning landscape. As this brief review highlights, there is a growing body of research on the impact of student activities outside of the classroom, and on experiential learning modalities that address diversity and cultural awareness.

Teaching Today’s Students

How do our students learn and what do they know prior to entering our classrooms? These are important considerations, especially given the fact that most current faculty fall into two groups, baby boomers and Gen Xer’s (Gwoke, 2016). Almost all traditional college students today fall under the categories of millennials and post-millennials. There are some great differences between these groups. Perhaps the greatest difference is between the motivations and learning styles of millennials and post-millenials and those of the other two groups. Faculty must take into account that significantly different experiences and events have shaped these generations, resulting in millennials and post-millennials having a greater need for feedback, very often instantaneous feedback, and expecting a greater level of collaboration than past generations of students.

Additionally, many of the faculty at American universities and colleges in more specialized and technical disciplines, such as particular areas in business (accounting, finance, and operations, for example), economics, mathematics, and computer science, are drawn from a diverse pool of international scholars. Thus there are likely to be some significant cultural differences between teaching styles, classroom practices, and cultural understanding between these faculty members and the students that they teach, in addition to generational differences.

SUNY & German Framework (from the DAAD Workshop)

Only a few years ago the popular press was proclaiming that MOOCs were going to take over education, and that traditional educational models were headed for a mass extinction event such as the one that took out the dinosaurs. Though that particular critique has passed, there remains a need to find ways to reach and prepare our students for their professional lives after college. Traditional labor economic theory stresses two types of skill sets, generalized and specialized. Colleges and universities are very good at providing students with generalized skill sets, especially those that follow the typical American model of education, which stresses a significant liberal arts and science foundation.

Students entering specialized majors are required to take a broad range of courses such as mathematics, natural sciences, humanities, social science, and history, while simultaneously taking courses in their chosen specialized fields. Adding new and specialized programs and courses for many institutions is often a time consuming and bureaucratic process, that results in curriculum changing at a much slower pace than the field may be changing. This is really where the whole issue of experiential learning comes into prominence.

Experiential learning can take many forms, from the direct work experience of internships and cooperative education, to more classroom-based simulations and exercises. In Germany, for example, in many technical fields, especially business, engineering, and computer science, students very often follow an educational path that includes a significant amount of field-based work experience. Students will alternate between coursework in one semester and supervised field experience with a German firm, with which the university has a strategic partnership, in the next.

This structure is typical of programs within technical colleges and universities, such as TU Darmstadt, Hochschule Darmstadt University of Applied Science, and University of Stuttgart. Strategic partnerships with firms such as Mercedes or Trumpf are quite common, as the focus is on employability and developing market-ready skill sets. These types of programs, however, require that the universities involved develop very close collaborative working relationships with their corporate partners, which may mean the firms will have a very strong and direct influence over curriculum management and development. In American universities and colleges, industry does influence curriculum development albeit in a much more indirect manner through advisory councils. Information between industry and academe filters through the advisory councils and is used by faculty to update and align their technical curricula over time.

Within SUNY, there is movement towards a new norm in programming, a requirement for some type of applied learning experience. Applied learning in the context of this discussion means that applied learning exercises of some kind take place within the confines of the class, or it can refer to a more experientially oriented form of learning. These types of experiences could include internships, service learning, cooperative educational experiences, project based learning exercises, or classroom simulations and projects.

The component essential to all of these activities is that students must engage in some level of reflection on the activity. For a paid internship, the reflective learning component is the element that differentiates the position from a job. This cannot be stressed enough, as it is a very common experience to have business students (and even students from other fields) come into an office to request college credit for prior life experience or current work experience, suggesting that what they did or do in management, marketing, or some other business-related field qualifies as an educational experience.

While it is true that these students may be practicing some aspect of the field of management or marketing, they in general have not reflected upon that practice and its relationship with the actual business curriculum. Graduates will need to understand the academic side of business and management theory, and not just situational reactive business practice, if they are to become skilled practitioners and business thought leaders.

Extensions and Conclusions

Preparing today’s students for their careers after college is a continuing challenge. Faculty and students may have significantly different viewpoints on teaching and learning, even when the faculty in question may only be a few years older than their students. It takes time for new faculty members to adjust their focus from their immersion within their chosen field of study to teaching non-specialist undergraduate students who may only be taking a particular course, such as introductory accounting or introductory economics, because it is required by the curriculum. This is sometimes a challenge for seasoned professionals as well. Alongside these types of differences, faculty must take into account cultural and generational gaps in knowledge and learning styles as they design and develop their course materials. Additionally, many students may be working close to full-time hours in order to pay for their education, and this can have a dramatic impact on students’ academic activity, limiting the amount of time they may have to complete coursework.

As the focus moves towards a greater emphasis on high impact learning practices, ranging from faculty-student research patnerships to cooperative and service learning educational opportunities, internships, project based learning activities, and other forms of applied learning, student time management skills, faculty/external partner expectations, and program and course design become of paramount importance. Academic institutions, and faculty members in particular, will likely need to interact more with the industries that they serve. Business and technical programs especially will need to address the employability of graduates and the timeliness of offerings, meeting both the current and emerging needs of the market.


Barber, M., & Levitan, J. (2015). Balancing the books: The impact of university students’ outside employment on academic performance and emotional well-being. The International Journal of Learning in Higher Education, 21, 13-19.

Body, K., Bonnal, L., & Giret, J. (2014). Does student employment really impact academic achievement? The case of France. Applied Economics, 46(25), 3061-3073.

Carnevale, A., Smith, N., Melton, M., & Price, E. (2015). Learning while earning: The new normal. Retrieved from Center on Education and the Workforce, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University website:

Devasagayam, R., Johns-Masten, K., & McCollum, J. (2012). Linking information literacy, experiential learning, and student characteristics: Pedagogical possibilities in business education. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 16(4), 1-18.

Ferguson, J., Makarem, S., & Jones, R. (2016). Using a class blog for student experiential learning reflection in business courses. Journal of Education for Business, 91(1), 1-10.

Griffis, P. (2014). Information literacy in business education experiential learning programs. Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship, 19, 331-341.

Gwoke, P. (2016, September). When Generations Connect. Plenary presentation at the AACSB International Annual Accreditation Conference, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hwang, J. (2013). Employment and student performance in Principles of Economics. International Review of Economics Education, 13, 26–30.

Kosi, T., Nostav, B., & Sustersic, J. (2013). Does student employment deteriorate academic performance? The case of Slovenia. Revija za socijalnu politiku, 20(3), 253-274.

Kouliavtsev, M. (2013). The impact of employment and extracurricular involvement on undergraduates’ performance in a business statistics course. Journal of Economics and Economic Education Research, 14(3), 53-66.

Kratzke, C., & Bertolo, M. (2013). Enhancing students’ cultural competence using cross-cultural experiential learning. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 20(3), 107-111.

Mandel, R., & Noyes, E. (2016). Survey of experiential entrepreneurship education offerings among top undergraduate entrepreneurship programs. Education + Training, 58(2), 164-178.

McCord, M., Houseworth, M., & Michaelson, L. (2015). The integrative business experience: Real choices and real consequences create real thinking. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 13(3), 411-429.

Piercy, N., & Caldwell, N. (2011). Experiential learning in the international classroom: Supporting learning effectiveness and integration. International Journal of Management Education, 9(2), 25-26.

Yanbarisova, D.M. (2015). The effects of student employment on academic performance in Tartarstan. Russian Education and Society, 57(6), 459–482.

Zhang, M.M., Xia, J., Fan, D., & Zhu, J.C. (2016). Managing student diversity in business education: Incorporating campus diversity into the curriculum to foster inclusion and academic success of international students. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 15(2), 366–380.

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Spring 2017: Teaching a New Generation of Students