06/17/2013 01:04 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

Student Engagement Makes Education Meaningful

Those seeking to reform education often strongly advocate for standards to assess what students know and what they can do. While measurable academic standards are important, to some extent they miss the point. Education is also about cultivating much less tangible qualities -- especially developing the habits of mind that allow students to keep on learning long after they graduate.

The debate over academic standards that began on the K-12 level has now entered the realm of higher education. What makes for the most effective -- and meaningful -- undergraduate education? Studies by higher education authority Alexander Astin and more recently by Hardwick Day for the Annapolis Group, a consortium of leading liberal arts colleges, have shown that student engagement in learning, and especially sustained personal interaction with faculty and fellow students, is critical to positive outcomes. It's not just what students are taught, but how they are taught.

The best teaching has always been about much more than the transfer of knowledge. It's about providing a meaningful context for that knowledge, examining how great thinkers have shaped history and culture, and discovering why important ideas matter in our individual lives and in society as a whole. Valuing knowledge and showing its influence in human life is critical in making education meaningful and satisfying. Our aim should always be to provide an education that is deeply connected to our graduates' personal and professional lives, as well as to prepare them to become active contributors to bettering our world.

Research evidence underscores the importance of engagement. The Hardwick Day survey of recent college graduates found that "students who experienced such engagement reported greater benefit and satisfaction and generally better learning and life outcomes than those who did not experience high levels of engagement." Their research also demonstrates that it is "the private liberal arts college that far more frequently engages students" in this fashion.

Let's look at the nature of this interaction as it plays out at liberal arts colleges like Albion, where I serve as president.

Exploration: Great teachers not only share past knowledge with their students but develop in them a drive to discover new possibilities. Together teachers and students examine closely held values and beliefs and ponder how those values and beliefs will guide students' lives in the future. Albion graduate Erik Love recently noted that his faculty mentor, sociologist Len Berkey, "gave me profound lessons, not only about sociology and race, but also about our ability and obligation to make changes in the world." Students learn that it's what you do with your education that counts.

Encouragement: Great teachers are role models and mentors. They foster curiosity, critical thinking, and imagination. They assist students in understanding where they want to go in life and how they want to make a difference. And they support students in achieving these goals--often mentoring students long after graduation. Albion alumna Emily McLaughlin relates that she admires the economics and management faculty with whom she studied "for their passion, intelligence, and willingness to help students during their four years and even as they continue the journey in their professional careers." Students learn that they too can become standard-bearers for lifelong learning and growth.

Inspiration: Great teachers inspire students to reach beyond self-imposed limits. Albion graduate Bill Ritter recently captured the impact of these influential professors, observing:

They pushed your buttons... scratched your itches... widened your horizons... nudged you... prodded you... teased and tempted you... enchanted you... stretched you. And then showed you the door, and maybe even shoved you through it. I am talking about people who, while teaching your classes, let you borrow their glasses. So that you could see for yourself what they saw in you... for you... along with what might somehow, someway, someday, be done by you.

Students learn that they should use their talents in ways they never dreamed possible.

In my time as Albion College's president, I have met with alumni across the generations, and I am always struck by the consistency of what they have to say. They tell me that, through the influence and involvement of their professors, their liberal arts experience changed their lives. Liberal arts education is personal -- it's face-to-face in small classes with teachers and fellow students who are committed to and excited about learning. And that makes all the difference.