Reengaging Students Through Vocational Discernment and Significant Learning

A series of posts about a collaborative project at the University of Dayton to develop courses, programs, and opportunities for undergraduate vocational discernment in the health professions, including a first-year course, “Discover Health and Medicine.”

At some point in the past couple of years, I think all of us in higher education have asked ourselves why our students seem to be so disengaged. More students seem to lack the ability to pay attention for an entire class period. They miss deadlines or do not seem to care about their academic success or progress. Worse yet, some students just disappear altogether with no explanation and refuse to respond when we reach out to offer assistance.

Experts offer many explanations for students’ disengagement. Obviously, the impact of Covid-19 on the learning environment is significant. Our students missed important, in-person learning experiences and developmental milestones. Yet even prior to the pandemic, questions were already surfacing about students’ motivation to seek a college education. Students’ use of technology—particularly social media—is frequently blamed for their distraction. Some say that faculty members’ teaching styles may not be appropriate for this generation of students, which has vast amounts of knowledge at their fingertips. Technology and social media have changed the landscape of education, yet available pedagogical tools have developed at a similar pace. Whereas some faculty may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the technology, we cannot blame it or social media alone for student disengagement.

Register now for The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s virtual forum exploring the underlying causes of disengagement and how instructors are designing courses to fight it.
March 14, 2023 2 PM ET

Others suggest that students’ lack of motivation is related to their inability to see the relevance of their courses. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last May linked student disengagement to a lack of understanding of the purpose of college. The authors suggested that students “are more concerned about the pursuit of earning than the process of learning.” They presented multiple reasons why students may not understand the purpose of college, but ultimately put the onus on those of us at colleges and universities to communicate and reinforce the focus on learning and intellectual growth more effectively.

If more intentional conversations with students about the purpose of college may improve student engagement, then how and where does vocational discernment fit into these discussions? My university has adopted the following definition of vocational discernment: Answering a call to discover one’s unique gifts and employ them in service for the common good in ways that are personally satisfying and bring meaning to one’s life. While this definition does not specifically mention learning, it is congruent with our overall mission of educating the whole person and linking learning and scholarship with leadership and service. Linking learning to leadership and service is vital to students’ understanding of the purpose of their college education—to grow intellectually so that knowledge can be used in a vocation that provides personal fulfillment.

L. Dee Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning proposes that meaningful and lasting learning occurs when an educational experience encompasses the following relational and interactive elements:

  • Foundational Knowledge (basic understanding);
  • Application (learning that is useful);
  • Integration (making new connections);
  • Human Dimension (human significance of the learning);
  • Caring (creates energy for learning more); and
  • Learning How to Learn (learning with greater effectiveness).

From this perspective, linking learning and scholarship (Foundational Knowledge, Application, Integration) with leadership and service (Integration, Human Dimension, Caring) is critical for ensuring that students understand the purpose of their college education as “meaningful and lasting” learning. Additionally, it introduces a framework through which students can recognize how their learning motivates and connects them to a vocation that provides personal meaning.

As we develop our Discover Health & Medicine initiative and our first-year, two-semester course sequence, we are mindful of the need to reinforce the intellectual purpose of college (Foundational Knowledge, Application, Integration) while introducing the other elements that make it a significant learning experience. Our vocational discernment component will add the Human Dimension, Caring, and Learning How to Learn elements and strengthen the links. Our goal is that by the end of their first year, students in this track will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an awareness of their metacognition and how it impacts their learning (Learning How to Learn);
  • Discern vocational interests and goals in the health professions (Foundational Knowledge, Integration);
  • Explain the cultures, expectations, and training requirements of different health profession options of interest (Foundational Knowledge);
  • Reflect upon how their personal core values and purpose align with a career path (Human Dimension, Caring); and
  • Develop an action plan for achieving their chosen vocation path (Application).

Offering vocational discernment activities simultaneously with knowledge generation activities may provide an integrative and applicative means by which to engage students. Additionally, reinforcing how vocation provides a window into the caring and human dimensions of significant learning not only clarifies the purpose of a college education but also motivates students to engage in their own pursuit of intellectual growth—and perhaps reduces student disengagement at the same time.

Sabrina M. Neeley is the associate dean for clinical, global, and experiential learning in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton. She is also an associate professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science, for which she developed and now oversees the community health concentration. Her work focuses on curriculum and program development in the health professions. For more posts by Sabrina, click here.

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