The Learning and Cognitive Science of Student Engagement

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Learning DesignStudent Success
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Dr. Jeff D. Borden is a professor, learning design expert, Executive Director of the Institute for Inter-Connected Education and the Chief Academic Officer at Campus


If you haven’t watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, I highly recommend it. While it speaks to yet another “existential” crisis we face in 2021 (is anyone counting anymore?), one of the issues described is that of engagement. How do social media companies quantify engagement? Simple: users’ attention. Did you click, scroll, like, or simply keep the app open? If so, you’re engaged.

But what about other sectors? How does Target or Kroger or McDonald’s measure engagement? The answer is also obvious: money (spending).

It’s not hard to measure engagement in many other contexts. While it may be hard to get people engaged, the measurement itself is relatively straightforward. The NFL measures engagement with eyeballs on screens and merchandise purchased. Technology platforms measure engagement with meetings booked and adoptions made, etc.

Yes, all these organizations can—and do—utilize other, secondary measures too (sometimes called “lagging indicators”).  But store traffic, while helpful to an organization’s strategy is not usually as important as whether people bought something. Knowledge of the brand using an Internet survey is good to know, but again, not as important as whether people spend. The leading indicator, bottom-line measure(s) are usually seen as most important in the engagement story. And while “success” may see overlap with “engagement” to a degree, I hope you see the point. I also hope you see how this sets up a juxtaposition for most people reading this blog.

Enter Higher Education.

As a professor, academic administrator, consultant, and leader, I have worked with and toward student success throughout my entire career. From my first academic position as a Coordinator of a huge program filled with dozens of adjunct faculty, to my formal remit as the Chief Innovation Officer for a 16,000 FTE University, almost every problem and solution I have worked on hedges toward student success.

Defining Student Engagement

With that backdrop, I have had thousands of conversations, workshops, keynotes, trainings, and strategic planning sessions specific to student success. I’ve discussed initiatives and even philosophical underpinnings for student success in hundreds of one-on-one conversations. In those meetings, the term “engagement” is used abundantly. “We have to engage students from day one,” say First-Year Experience advocates. “Did the faculty member engage students?” asks a peer review form. “You don’t seem engaged with your major,” say advisors to their advisees. “We’re down 15% on next semester’s enrollments and money coming in. How can we engage our current students?” inquires a college CFO.

It all begs a question: What is student engagement?

Is student engagement an academic issue? A financial problem? A student-life consideration? Is student engagement measured by loyalty to their university’s brand? Is student involvement in clubs or non-academic organizations a sign of engagement?

Student Engagement Indicators

What are other possible signs of engagement?

  • Participation rate: The percent of representation of a certain group of the population among students.
  • Grade rate: The achieved grade relative to the desired and/or possible grade of an individual.
  • Retention rate: Student persistence as current and active as measured from term to term, year to year, or course to course.
  • Graduation rate: The percentage of students who successfully completed their qualification.
  • Employment outcomes: The percentage of students who successfully find a job within X months of graduation; or (better) a job within their desired field within X months.

We can go deeper and get even more “real” here. Does an engaged student have friends at the institution? Is an engaged student likely to recommend their college or university to others? How do engaged students prioritize success behaviors in relation to other life factors?

The Biology Behind Engagement

Let me make a recommendation of how we might better view engagement, including measures and strategic actions.

If you read Connection Culture (Stallard, 2015), you see that students (people) who do not feel “connected” to others (not supported, not befriended, not cared for, not respected) exhibit a “stress response” that (literally) does long-term, physical harm and negatively impacts psychological and academic success. But that stress response can also be measured in a few ways from a neuroscience perspective. First, the over-creation of glutamate and/or cortisol—both considered harmful to the human body—are directly impacted by a lack of “connection” to others. Neuroscientists Liberman (Social, 2013) and Medina (Brain Rules, 2008) discuss this problem at length. People with high levels of glutamate literally have neurons necessary to think, being “eaten” by the hormone.

But on the positive side, when people do believe that they are “connected” to others (supported, loved, cared for, respected, networked, etc.), they produce the neurotransmitter oxytocin (Zak, 2017). Just as serotonin is crucial for health—and learning—oxytocin can be considered “grease” for the learning brain’s engine based on factors that are not (typically) academic in nature. Because without oxytocin and especially if the student is producing glutamate, our “learners” will struggle to learn anything. But when oxytocin is present and cortisol is low, people are (literally) “primed” and ready to learn.

But beyond that, the findings around oxytocin are crucial in a student’s success journey. If all student success efforts are left to the classroom experience, then at least 70% (likely more) of students who are at-risk will not make it. Students will not only fail out academically, but they will transfer out, flunk out, or drop out because they are lonely, disconnected, or unsupported. Beyond financial and academic reasons, learners who do not feel they have friends, networks, peer advisors, staff support, and more, will leave institutions.

Now, please do not misconstrue this. Yes, learning communities should be heavily leveraged in the classroom. Yes, more financial support should be proactively generated for all students. But there should be an intentionality to community-building outside of the classroom. It is no wonder that Richard Light’s prolific, longitudinal, blueprint-for-higher-ed-success study found that the number one reason Harvard students were successful was the requirement of joining a cross-program study group on day one. Dr. Kieran O’Mahony, the Founder and Chairman of the Board of Neural Education and the Founding Principal for the Institute for Connecting Neuroscience with Teaching and Learning, makes a powerful statement when training educators on the usage (or non-usage) of brain science from a teaching perspective:

“Teachers don’t usually plan lessons with norepinephrine or oxytocin in mind, but if they did, learning would be immediate and forever. Planning in this manner is so easy to accomplish, and results are self-evident.”

Paul J. Zak and his lab were the first to discover that the neurochemical oxytocin is a key trust and cooperation signal in the brain. “Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others,” Zak explains. “It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions.” And when people have empathy, they can understand others’ reactions, including those of peers, instructors, or students. But very importantly, Zak’s team discovered that oxytocin also produces feelings of trust. That includes social trust, but it also includes trust for an expert—like a professor.

Redefining Student Engagement

So, beyond the classroom where the diminishing of glutamate and cortisol should give way to the increasing of activities that instead produce oxytocin, every instructor and institution need to consider this much, much more holistically. Students, like all people, are not compartmentalized as brains, hearts, stomachs, wallets, etc.

At the same time, I believe it is time to start defining “engagement” and potentially replacing it in certain contexts with the word, “connection.” There is a reason that the title of my Institute includes the term: “Inter-Connected.” Connectedness might be more obvious in some ways—actually being able to map a person’s network of both socialness and support. But the ultimate goal of helping the whole person suggests that this is what education is really after.


Because, as Mark Milliron (Co-founder of Civitas Learning and current SVP at Western Governors) says, “The connected student is the persisting student.” When a student perceives connections to other students, they are more likely to be academically successful. When a student finds connection to a club, an event, a sports team, a department, or other communities at the institution, they are more likely to be academically successful. And yes, when a student finds connection to their major, their professors, and/or their classes, they are also more likely to be academically successful.

A Final Take

I hope it is obvious to my fellow academic leaders that what I am suggesting here cannot happen (at scale) without the use of technology. Seven percent of students drop out of college because they are lonely (Glick, 2020). That survey work was done well before the pandemic. (Imagine the numbers today.) The point is: those lonely students were surrounded by people…they just did not connect to any of them. When I was a Chief Innovation Officer trying to solve this problem, I ensured we had a technology platform that gave virtual options for friendships and networking, but also digital versions of access to support, clubs, events, teams, and other institution organizations. Reach out to me if you’d like to hear more.

So, let’s reframe engagement. Let’s look again at how we measure and act on student connectedness. Let’s lean into the brain science and learning research and help our students with all aspects of student success.

Good luck and good learning.

To learn how to maximize student engagement and connection online, explore the recording from our Empowered Educator webinar.


Glick, D. (2020). Early warning systems and targeted interventions for student success in online courses.  IGI Publishing.
Lieberman, M. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Crown Publishing.
McDavid, J. (2020). The Social Dilemma. Journal of Religion and Film, 24(1), 0_1-3.
Medina, J. (2014). Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Second edition). Pear Press.
Zak, P. (2017). The neuroscience of trust. Harvard Business Review, February 2017.  Retrieved from