A Review of Barkley’s Student Engagement Handbook

Barkley, E. F. (2009). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass. pp. 416 Paperback $30.58

By illustrating practical and effective strategies and techniques for college faculty to use to increase the level of student engagement across different disciplines, Elizabeth F. Barkley suggests a new focus on the effective implementation of previously established techniques to increase motivation and active learning as functions of student engagement. As a well-renowned and nationally recognized scholar, educator, and consultant that focuses on issues pertaining to engaging students through active and collaborative learning, transforming face-to-face and online curriculum to need the needs of diverse learners, and connecting learning goals with outcomes and assessment, Barkley’s Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty spans across several disciplines of higher education, covering how these techniques and strategies can be applied by college faculty to facilitate different type of learning and motivation. Although it’s very technical, it is a comprehensive and engaging handbook that addresses college faculty’s questions about how they should balance motivation and active learning to facilitate a collaborative environment that engages students in critical and impactful learning experiences. Barkley possesses control of this complex narrative that is full of ideas, strategies, and techniques that are self-reflective and thought-provoking. The way the author consolidates the information and research within the text is nuanced and easily digested. To do this, the author uses scaffolding to carefully construct examples, guides, tips, strategies, and techniques to college faculty and the reader as a dynamic instructional model for engaging students through motivation and active learning.

When motivation and active learning is properly studied and applied effectively through engagement, a student’s true potential to learn and a professor’s true potential to teach is exposed and maximized. Barkley’s purpose of offering practical tips, strategies, and techniques to help college faculty transform and enhance their classroom experience and environment into a stimulating and rewarding one illuminates the importance of balancing motivation and active learning to produce effective and impactful student engagement. The handbook is structured along three parts that allows the reader to progress through the book in a non-linear fashion based on what is useful and appeals to them. Part One: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Student Engagement examines the theoretical models and frameworks (i.e., behaviorist, cognitive, goals, and need-goals) that helped to define and structure student engagement as a synergistic interaction between motivation and active learning. Moreover, Part Two: Tips and Strategies presents and explores the manner in which college faculty can implement practical and effective student engagement strategies to increase motivation, promote active learning, build community, help students learn holistically, and ensure students are appropriately challenged. Last, Part Three: Student Engagement Techniques (SETs) carefully demonstrates step-by-step directions on how to implement learning activities that enhance learning goals ranging from acquiring basic knowledge, skills, and understanding to developing attitudes, values, and self-awareness.

Compared to my review of Bain that was a more critically technical review, this review will focus more on the practical ideas and strategies that resonate and align with my teaching philosophy. The “engagement and motivation” discussion at the beginning of the book was very thought-provoking as this caused me to be very evaluative of the text throughout my time reading the book. The initial statement that caught my attention was the idea that college faculty want students to want to learn. This concept made me think about the idea of holistic students learning through various forms of teaching. The expressed desire of wanting students to want to learn doesn’t just extend to the classroom, but it can also extent to other domains and professions within a college setting. Administrators want student to learn, but this learning and teaching takes on a different form than the one in the classroom. Even though the forms are different, the outcome of this teaching is the same, in that, the goal is to ensure students are holistically developing and learning from their experiences whether inside or outside of the classroom.

Within the “engagement and motivation” discussion, I became intrigued by Brophy’s (2004) idea that the motivation to learn is an acquired competence developed through an individual’s cumulative experience with learning situations. The statement resonated with to me because it encompasses the basic understanding that whether students are externally or internally motivated, the drive to be motivated stems from the knowledge and experiences acquired throughout the time a person has been a student. Moreover, it leaves open the idea that motivation can be activated or suppressed in specific situations as the student’s general disposition is constantly in flux. Moreover, the idea that theories about motivation combine elements of needs and goals models to emphasize the importance of factors within the individual through an expectancy x value model was reflective of my teaching philosophy. In emphasizing the idea that today’s theories incorporate elements of needs and goals models, I realized that my teaching philosophy resonates with the idea of establishing and maintaining supportive relationships with students that facilitates collaborative learning, co-constructed knowledge, and transformative learning within a critical learning environment to encourage learning goals rather than performance goals. Thus, this objective is dependent upon the environment and the learning experiences within this environment minimizing the pressure that makes students adopt performance goals or work-avoidant goals.

I found that the following strategies and implementation techniques from Barkley’s (2009) handbook resonated with several of my stated outcomes and goals within my teaching philosophy as both a tutor and as an administrator.

  • Use behaviorist-based strategies to reward learning rather than behavior (Barkley, 2009, p. 82)
    • Make explicit that it is the learning and what the learning leads to that is of value rather than participation in or completion of an activity
    • Recognize the degree of individual improvement rather than making peer comparisons
    • Emphasize the quality of accomplishment rather than quantity of work.
  • Attend to students’ basic needs so that they can focus on the higher-level needs required for learning (Barkley, 2009, p. 84)
    • Incorporate activities that require social interaction and physical movement
    • Be aware of students’ psychological needs while also taking care to ensure students feel safe to say/ write what they truly think or feel without fear of ridicule or criticism by either you or their peers.
  • Promote student autonomy (Barkley, 2009, p. 85)
    • Encourage students to define, monitor, and achieve self-determined goals individually
    • Help students to use self-assessment procedures that monitor progress as well as identify personal strengths and potential barriers
    • Provide students with meaningful rationales that enable them to understand the purpose and personal importance of course activities
    • Avoid making students right, wrong, good, or bad based on their choices but instead emphasize accountability
  • Incorporate competition appropriately (Barkley, 2009, p. 89)
    • Have students conduct drills and practice tasks designed to produce mastery of specific skills or where speed of performance or quantity of output is more important than creativity, artistry, or craftsmanship
      • Make conscious effort to ensure that the attention is focused on learning goals
      • Have team-based competition rather than individual verses individual competition

The subsequent discussion about “engagement and active learning” was informative as I appreciated how Barkley described the learning process as dynamic, wherein learners build and create their own mind by constantly creating and transforming the associated connections between what is new knowledge and what is pre-existing knowledge. This resonated with me as it reflects the ideas of deep learning, critical learning, creating and forming new cognitive schemas, learning goals, and meaningful learning. These are all concepts that I emphasize in my teaching philosophy for being both a tutor and an administrator.

I found that the following strategies and implementation techniques from Barkley’s (2009) handbook resonated with several of my stated outcomes and goals within my teaching philosophy as both a tutor and as an administrator.

  • Be clear on your learning goals (Barkley, 2009, p. 94)
    • Establish and make learning goals student focused rather than professor focused
    • Focus on the learning resulting from an activity rather than on the activity itself
    • Focus on aspects of learning that will develop and endure but that can be assessed in some form now
  • Help students develop learning strategies (Barkley, 2009, p. 98)
    • Incorporated learning strategy development into content-based learning activities
      • Ensure that there is alignment between the level of learning (i.e., basic definitions, structural knowledge, application, or analysis) and what the general strategy is based on (i.e., rehearsing, organizing, recognizing relationships among key concepts, or visually representing the problem)
  • Move away from an authoritarian role (Barkley, 2009, p. 110)
    • In a true learning community, teachers and students are partners in the learning process (co-constructors)
      • Try to minimalize harsh, directive language and shift to the shared power and learner-centered teaching which characterizes a community of learners
        • Thus, through a shift in language and tone, as well as including information that explicitly communicates your attitude about students should reflect your intent and follow through of increasing student engagement through a less authoritarian perceived role.

In the discussion about “promoting synergy between motivation and active learning,” I became invested in the idea of processing motivation and active learning as twin helices that work together synergistically with the incorporation of the three classroom conditions (i.e., sense of classroom community, optimal level of challenge, and holistic student learning) as rungs between the two sides of the double helix spiral to increase levels of student engagement. The authors use of a double helix spiral and the premise of what readers might equate to the idea of DNA was unique, in that, it took abstract concepts and translated into a common visual depiction that demonstrated the relationship and interaction between motivation, active learning, community, challenge, and holistic learning. This visual along with the conditions were significant, in that, it helped me connect the advice from this handbook to my teaching philosophy which forms the basis of my main takeaway from reviewing this handbook.

I found that the following strategies and implementation techniques from Barkley’s (2009) handbook resonated with several of my stated outcomes and goals within my teaching philosophy as both a tutor and as an administrator.

  • Differentiate learning elements to meet individual student needs (Barkley, 2009, p. 130)
    • Use differentiation to encourage and support individual students working at their optimal challenge zone
      • Organize a learning around differentiated principles (i.e., level, how students access material, process, product, classroom space, materials, and time)
  • Use scaffolding to provide assistance for complex learning (Barkley, 2009, p. 133)
    • Provide support students require to persist on a difficult task that might otherwise become overwhelming
    • Guide students to do their best work
      • The kind of assistance scaffolding provides should be just enough to keep students from getting lost, trusting them to chart the rest of their journey to learning on their own
  • Incorporate multiple domains when identifying learning goals (Barkley, 2009, p. 140)
    • Balance learning goals that address the affective, psychomotor, and cognitive domains

After reading this book, there was one main takeaway that I found was consistently present throughout my time reviewing this book. The main takeaway that I had was that the strategies and content that were discussed within the book and this this review was applicability to not just teachers, but to other individuals who engage in teaching and learning within other domains. This book made me reflect on my own teaching philosophy about recognizing the different forms that teaching can take and how simply teaching strategies can translate in any situation where teaching and learning takes place. Within certain aspects of an administrator’s job, there is a need for students to want to learn and get better which reflects the same double helices of motivation and active learning. Thus, I kept referring back to the fact that some if not all of the strategies could be applied to work in areas such as student conduct, substance abuse, mental health, counseling, and other administrative and student services/support offices within college campuses.

While this book should prove valuable to a wide range of scholars (i.e., graduate students, faculty, and student affairs professionals and administrators), there are five contributions that could have been incorporated into this book. First, Barkley could have included more explicit definitions of concepts and distinctions of these concepts that are not easily understandable to the audience outside of the field (i.e., performance goals versus learning goals, mastery goals vs performance goals, course objectives vs learning outcomes) since this book is applicable to many disciplines. Throughout the book, Barkley presumes that the reader is from the same academic background and field, which is problematic as teaching can take on different forms and meanings within different disciplines. While the teaching strategies offered are applicable to many disciplines, they do not differentiate between the philosophies and understandings of educators in specific fields of teaching within these different disciplines. The strategies, techniques, and ideas are heavily based on the philosophies and understanding taught within the specific field of education (i.e., teacher prep programs, higher education, educational psychology) and targeted for this audience, but does not consider the differences between those educators teaching within the field of education and educators teaching in specific fields such as psychology. Second, Barkley could have provided a descriptive depiction of a college faculty member demonstrating a learner-centered approach. This lack of depiction goes back to the previous point that the author presumes that the audience has extensive knowledge of and experience with such concepts. Another addition to the book could have been a visual depiction of transformative learning as this would have strengthened the importance of having this type of learning within a critical learning environment that is based on co-constructed knowledge, participation, engagement, motivation, and meaningful learning. A fourth improvement could have been acknowledging and addressing student engagement within classroom learning environments and experiences that have students with learning disabilities or low academic self-esteem. Last, an acknowledgement of the student’s role in investing energy in the co-creation of the learning environment and con-construction ok knowledge within this environment is necessary and would be beneficial for the reader while progressing through the handbook.

3 thoughts on “A Review of Barkley’s Student Engagement Handbook”

  1. Hi, Akeisha,

    Your mind is a wealth of higher education knowledge! I like your blog entries because they are filled with practical information for this class. Thank you!

    I don’t know for certain that this is the case, but the third paragraph reads like you are trying to justify a decision to become an administrator rather than faculty in the classroom. I suggest that you weigh the costs and benefits (pros and cons) of becoming faculty and the costs and benefits (pros and cons) of becoming administration and make your decision. Where ever you go, there you are. You are going to be fantastic regardless!

    Best regards,
    Tony

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  2. Akeisha,

    One of the techniques you highlighted, “Incorporate competition appropriately” (Barkley, 2009, p. 89) always makes me feel uneasy because I am not a very competitive person, so I’m challenged by creating healthy competitive exercises in the classroom. However after reading this book, I realized that I did incorporate competition but within teams, rarely with individuals.

    Also, based off of your post about your teaching philosophy, I would say that the techniques you picked that matched your outcomes are spot on, and I appreciated that you connected those two together, as that will be beneficial in the classroom, if you decide to teach and/or continue tutoring.

    Awesome review!

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  3. Akeisha,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book. In reading your posts I am always impressed by how purposeful your words are. You have the ability to write in such a manner that expresses your point of view in a concrete and well controlled manner. I am slightly jealous of this, as half the time when I try to explain something I feel like I am rambling because I know if I just keep talking eventually my point will be made…

    Anyway… I found it interesting that you picked up on the fact that Barkley is just “suggest[ing] a new focus on the effective implementation of previously established techniques”. Very little in this book is new or mind boggling fascinating, but she does a great job in re-presenting the information. As I was reading through the first section and scanning through the other two, I found myself re-evaluating my use of some of the SET’s and thinking how could I apply that with a different focus. I think that is what Barkley was going for; a renewed look at motivation and student engagement without halving to reinvent the wheel.

    This is a very well rounded review in which you discuss the background, application and personal feelings about many topics in the book. If I had to choose one element that I would have expanded on more, it would be the paragraph about the differing focus between administrators and faculty. I completely agree with your thought process and it could be interesting to explore that relationship more in context to specifically student engagement in the classroom.

    -Charlie

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