Student Engagement in Psychology

Engaging Students Inside and Outside of the Psychology Classroom

Stacey Cooper, Adjunct Faculty

Behavioral and Social Sciences Department

 Oftentimes students come to school carrying with them a deep understanding about the myriad existing assumptions that underestimate their ability to achieve—academically or otherwise, which are based primarily on their cultural backgrounds and communities. As is surmised by Jada below:

“It’s like America’s way of what they perceive. It’s not African-American women. It’s African-Americans in general. It doesn’t really matter if you came from Africa; you’re already African American to them. You’re just whatever! They perceive you are every type of stereotype, that you’re lazy, that you may not be educated, you come from the hood, you’re probably in a gang, your Mom was probably on drugs. They say a lot of foolishness!”

Incorporating these assumptions into their own self repertoires, students may perceive their educational futures to be closed off. In addition, should they happen to get low grades in a few courses these assumptions seem to become “validated.” In either case (with or without low grades) these cultural assumptions (as indicated in Jada’s speech) are potent factors in diminishing students’ confidence in their learning potential. One of the tasks of the Community College faculty is to find ways of overcoming these toxic and disabling perceptions.

In the fall of 2014, a group of students and I became engaged in a research project that explored how they viewed themselves—as learners.

Fostering student engagement by developing learning identities

Everyone has a learning identity or learning identities, because learning is itself an act of identity making (Wenger, 2008). These are ways in which we see ourselves as learners, and they are at the core of how we learn. When our learning identities are fostered we seek and engage in life experiences with a learning attitude (Stetsenko & Vianna, 2011). This means that we maintain an openness to learning: to “the new,” to “the things that we didn’t know,” and we perceive that we are capable of learning. Our learning identities are nurtured within learning spaces and activities that allow us to recognize, take ownership of and utilize the knowledge and skills found within our communities and households (generally immigrant and minority), which we bring with us into these spaces—or what is referred to as funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992).

Becoming agents in their own learning: the EMI Project

Over the course of a semester, I conducted research with a group of students at Hostos to examine the concepts of student learning identities and funds of knowledge, using Photovoice techniques, focus groups and interviews. In this study, students drew on their own cultural knowledges by creating photo-narratives of three important contexts: home, school and community and they examined what learning would look like in these places.

Assuredly, these are broad concepts. However, the group discussions proved to be very meaningful both to myself and to these students. These group discussions created a shared space for knowledge building, and allowed students to become documentarians of their everyday lives. They went out, gathered information, reflected on this information, filtered it, brought it to the classroom, shared and discussed it. They sometimes argued about it, and oftentimes left with no consensus, but they created new ways of seeing things.

Student learning identity as “being recognized as a knower”

A complexity of factors was identified as intersecting within students’ constructions of both positive and negative dispositions towards learning, a complete discussion of which goes beyond the scope of this paper. Here, I will focus on the concept of recognition, as it was highly salient in students’ depictions of the how they see themselves as learners.

Carlone and Johnson (2007) discuss recognition in terms of recognizing oneself and getting validated by others as a “learner,” in particular, as someone who is knowledgeable. In the group, student images often lead to more elaborate discussions of important issues. Below is an excerpt of a conversation about language competencies. During this exchange, Danielle’s language strengths are validated by Jada and Linda (even if in the form of a challenge).

PI: So you speak four languages?

DANIELLE: You can say that. Besides those there are different dialects, because we have a lot of dialects. You know Africans they have a lot of dialects. Besides my own dialect, Arabic and French, I can speak three different dialects. In my country only, you people don’t understand. So we have a lot of dialects

PI: They have names, these dialects? […]

LINDA: Don’t get her started! (Laughter)

DANIELLE: They do– but they do have different names? They say things and they have different words and stuff? Yes.

JADA: Wow, so that’s a huge vocabulary you have

DANIELLE: You can say that

 From this dialogue, it is clear that speaking multiple dialects is not seen as a deficit, but what is more important here is the major role that others (relationships) play in shaping these students’ learning identities. The relationships built within a group can cultivate a space for learning, and evaluations from others can influence one’s self-perceptions. Over the course of this group project, discussing their images as a group (of learning in the home, school and community) promoted students’ shared critical reflections of what they knew—making the group a space for bringing together both support and challenge, or in a Vygotskian sense, a zone of proximal development (1978). By building a sense of equality amongst themselves, the students felt comfortable in exploring their cultural knowledges, including language. In the group, expressing what they knew was met with a sense of respect, and in turn acted a springboard for them to engage in new learning activities. Thereby encouraging them to re-assess their past successes and failures, which was only possible through trusting what they had learned and by being validated by other group members. As for Danielle, during the project, she continued to display a developing ownership of her language skills, and even began to describe herself as a translator.

Being recognized as a knowledgeable person is important for student engagement, and is not simply about quantifying how much he or she knows, but is instead about competence, feeling like one fits in and self-esteem—of which validation plays a vital role. In this study, students were afforded the space to bring what they knew to the forefront and they were recognized as knowledgeable people, who could contribute to our activity of shared knowledge building. In the beginning of this project, these students reflected several “closed off” perceptions of themselves as learners but by the end of the study they began to open up to new experiences and had mastered new materials. Also, they would rely on each other for support and assistance both inside and outside the group setting. Additionally, the degree to which students felt recognized was related to them having a more positive outlook on the purpose of getting an education.

Funds of Knowledge

As important are the various types of knowledges that students utilized in creating their photo-narratives and within group discussions. An examination of the data generated through this study shows a broad range of everyday knowledges, which are regularly used by these students. Through the process of researching their own household, school and community contexts for evidence of learning practices, it was also possible for them to gain an understanding of the funds of knowledge held in these spaces. Some examples of funds of knowledge documented by these students include: college-going practices, language skills, business/sales practices, practical math, music, art, fabrics/tailoring, geography (navigating the city), farming/agriculture, household repairs, getting jobs and the immigration process. All of which, can be useful in creating lesson plans for several topics in Math, Science, Business, the Social Sciences and Law among others, and can generate a broader assessment context for these learners.

Concluding Thoughts

In this study, a sense of connection with each other was pivotal to these students’ ability to conceptualize what they knew as having value, this was the major benefit of this group work. This relational context allowed these students to investigate and reflect on the knowledge that they brought to school. Within this space to they were able validate both their own and others’ knowledges which made them feel capable of learning. They had done so through drawing on their cultural knowledge as resources within learning practices, through which they have made successful “bids for recognition” (Gee, 2000) despite being constrained by historical and cultural expectations that do operate within larger school practices. In this space, their prior knowledge and experiences have usefulness, regardless of exam performance or GPA. This feeling of belongingness is evidence of these students’ creating identities that are “appropriate” within this learning setting.

Because identity is not something that one does individually but socially, it requires that what one brings to that space be validated. It reality, if we were to examine all the places where we feel we belong, we would realize that these are places within which we feel that “who we are” and “what we know” are recognized as valuable by others. In this way, our learning identity is in part about membership in a community of learners and about being validated as such. As educators at Hostos, we can facilitate more activities that foster group validation and the discovery of knowledge at the same time. This requires shifting learning away from a “banking concept,” where teachers are the holders of knowledge and students are receptacles to be filled by deposits of information; towards creating a more democratic relationship through the practice of critical reflection and action (Friere, 2000). Finally, by encouraging more student group-work activities that are less teacher dependent, students have the potential to show each other and themselves how to shine.


Carlone, H. B., & Johnson, A. (2007). Understanding the science experiences of successful women of color: Science identity as an analytic lens. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(8), 1187-1218.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Gee, J. P. (2000-1). Identity as an analytic lens for research in education. Review of Research in Education, 25, 99–125.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.

Vianna, E., & Stetsenko, A. (2011). Connecting learning and identity development through a transformative activist stance: Application in adolescent development in a child welfare program. Human Development, 54(5), 313-338.

Wenger, E. (2008). Identity in practice. Pedagogy and practice: Culture and identities, 105-114.

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