“The disengagement compact” – Kuh

Photo: colourbox.com

Photo: colourbox.com

A while back I read a book that really left an impression, and I find myself quoting it to teachers and other librarians all the time. It was Arum and Roksa`s “Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses”. I keep coming back to it and to the very real and very challenging part about student engagement. This time I also looked up a source used to explain something called “The disengagement compact”; a term coined by Higher Education researcher, George D. Kuh. In his paper: “What we`re learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for Effective Educational Practices”(2003) he talkes about how we (teachers and students) collectively have struck a bargain: “I`ll leave you alone if you leave me alone” (p.28), meaning that the teacher will not have too many demands as far as writing and reading is concerned and in that way save himself/herself from having to grade as many papers.

I don`t think that many teachers or students will admit that they are in on this bargain, but I think it is a problem for higher education. The proof of this lies in the amount of time students spend on their studies. Arum and Roksa (2011) stated that the amount of time that students spend on their studies has fallen from 40 hrs/week in the 60`s to approx 27hrs/week in the 00`s. The grades, however, has not become significantly poorer.

Becko (2011) commented on this issue and wrote “Who among us would admit to striking such a bargain? Not I. But as Arum and Roksa point out, the bargain is not struck among individuals, nor is it struck in a vacuum. As teachers, we enter an educational system in which this bargain has already been struck collectively”(2011, 2nd paragraph)

I have experienced this “disengagement compact” several times, both as a student and as a teaching librarian. As a student I was very concerned by grades. Of course, I wanted to learn new things, but it was often even more important  to me to get good grades, and I would use the strategies I knew to make that happen. As a teacher, or a teaching librarian, I have experienced some episodes where I may have struck this bargain or been tempted to, mostly because of lack of time. When using the tutor approach to teaching (as described in our pedagogical platform, currently being finalised here at GUC) it is easy to let students “get away” with papers that I know they really should have revised and handed in again; simply because having them hand things in a second, third and maybe even fourth time means that I have to correct them over again. From pedagogical and learning theory we know a lot about how students learn. Theorists like Vygotsky, Piaget and Dewey (and many, many more) have contributed various ideas and learning theories. Neither of them, as far as I know, have adressed the “disengagement compact”. They all expect teachers to never compromise on academic standards, and they expect students to want to learn and improve their skills.

How can we break out of the “disengagement compact”? Is it possible to reset the entire system?



Arum, R. og J. Roksa (2011) Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Becko (2011) Academically Adrift Part I: The Disengagement Compact.  [online]. In Socrates` Wake: a blog about teaching philosophy. URL: http://insocrateswake.blogspot.com.tr/2011/02/academically-adrift-part-i.html (14.10.14).

Kuh, G. D. (2003) What we’re learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for effective educational practices. I: Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 35(2), p. 24-32.

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