SAGE Musings: Why Student Engagement is Not Enough

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
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published Jan 24, 2019 9:08am

Despite several decades of effort to broaden participation in the STEM disciplines, the STEM workforce remains unrepresentative of the diversity of our broader population (e.g., NSF, 2017; Sidder, 2017). In the fall of 2004, Eric Jolly, Patricia Campbell, and Lesley Perlman published a paper entitled, "Engagement, Capacity and Continuity: A Trilogy for Student Success." In this paper, the authors outline a new lens for examining student success. Their lens -- the trilogy of engagement, capacity, and continuity -- provides insights into why some students fail, or fail to thrive, where others succeed. More importantly, it shines a light on what we can do to support the academic success of all students. Building on the existing research, the authors assert that "a fairly simple but comprehensive assessment and approach is necessary to create the ecosystem for student success" (Jolly et al., 2004). The authors "posit that there appear to be three broad factors, which together are essential for students to advance in the sciences and quantitative disciplines" (Jolly et al., 2004; emphasis added).

Jolly et al. (2004) define engagement as "Having an orientation to the sciences and/or quantitative disciplines that includes such qualities as awareness, interest and motivation." Many STEM reform efforts focus on engaging students in STEM-related activities, hoping that students will be attracted to and then persist in studying STEM. This makes intuitive sense; students won't choose to study what they don't know about. But being aware of, interested in, and motivated to learn about, for example, geoscience, isn't always enough.

Jolly et al. (2004) define capacity as "Possessing the acquired knowledge and skills needed to advance to increasingly rigorous content in the sciences and quantitative disciplines." Imagine a student who wants to become a geoscientist but has not had a Chemistry class. This student will struggle to master concepts such as ocean geochemistry, atomic bonding in minerals, how pollution interacts with the atmosphere to produce acid rain, and so on. In the geosciences, as in any field of study, mastery of pre-requisite knowledge and concepts is essential to success. I think it's worth pointing out that in this case, capacity doesn't mean the ability to learn Chemistry. A student who is capable of mastering the concepts of Chemistry, but hasn't yet done so, doesn't have the capacity to succeed in the geosciences -- yet.

Finally, Jolly et al. (2004) define continuity as "Institutional and programmatic opportunities, material resources and guidance that support advancement to increasingly rigorous content in the sciences and quantitative disciplines." Imagine that our hypothetical student, above, who is interested in learning geoscience, attends a school with very limited resources. The Chemistry class doesn't have a laboratory component, because the school cannot afford the facilities and equipment. In a case like this, "despite interest and ability the student is not likely to advance into the sciences or quantitative disciplines" (Jolly et al., 2004).

The real power of this trilogy, in my opinion, lies in considering the interactions among the three factors. Each factor -- engagement, capacity, and continuity -- is necessary for persistence and success in STEM. But the factors are not completely independent, either. Without continuity, student cannot develop their capacity. Without engagement, they are unlikely to do so. "For efforts to be successful, it is necessary to assess the degree to which each student has needs in each of these factors and to provide opportunities to meet those needs. Program efforts can target groups, but needs assessments must be at the individual student level and must include all three factors" (Jolly et al., 2004).

Reading this paper helped me to understand why engaging our students in learning about geoscience -- fostering their interest in and motivation to learn about it -- isn't always enough. It's a necessary first step to attract students into our field. But for students to persist through a degree program and into a career in the geosciences, they need capacity and continuity as well.


Jolly, Eric J., Patricia B. Campbell, and Lesley Perlman, 2004. Engagement, Capacity and Continuity: A Trilogy for Student Success. Available at

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at

Sidder, Aaron, 2017. Geosciences make modest gains but still struggle with diversity, Eos, 98, Published on 06 April 2017. Available at

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