Complicating the “over-involvement” complaint

Last week I promised that my next column would be short and sweet.  And in the context of the time crunch that inevitably wells up during week ten of the term, I am all about short and sweet.  So consider this data nugget as you bounce from commitment to commitment this week.

I think many of us seem to accept the campus narrative that our students are too busy.  If we were portioning out blame for this phenomenon, I suspect that a large proportion of it would fall on co-curricular involvement.  This claim isn’t entirely without merit.  We have legitimate evidence from our National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data that our students spend more hours per week involved in co-curricular activities than students at comparable institutions.

But rather than debunk this narrative, I’d like to complicate it.  Because I am not sure the real question should be whether or not our students are over-involved or under-involved in co-curricular activities.  Instead, maybe the question should be whether each of our students is involved in the right amount and array of experiences that best fit their developmental needs – a very different question than whether we should be managing our student body to an “average” amount of co-curricular involvement.

In addition to NSSE, our participation in the Wabash National Study (WNS) also provides insight into our first-year students’ behaviors and allows us to compare our first-year students to those at a number of comparable small liberal arts colleges.  While the WNS utilized the identical NSSE question regarding co-curricular involvement, it also asked students to report the number of student organizations in which they participated during the first year.  I wanted to know whether or not our high rank in co-curricular involvement would be replicated in our students’ organizational memberships.  Essentially, I wanted to know more about the nature of our students’ involvement.

Interestingly, the average number of organizations in which our first-year students participated ended up in the middle of the pack and did not mirror our high rank in amount of co-curricular involvement.  This suggests to me that our students are not bouncing around from meeting to meeting (as the “myth” might imply) without having the time to meaningfully immerse themselves in these experiences.

That is not to say that this contradicts the claim outright.  Instead, I would suggest that this finding might provide some insight into the nature of purpose – or lack of purpose – that drives our students’ co-curricular involvement.  I’ll let you chew on the implications of this possibility for our own work in between meetings, grading, teaching, and every other little thing you have to do this week.

Make it a good day – and a good end of the fall term!


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