March 2023
Left to right: David R. Johnson (former Director of ICI), Sandra Christenson (holding her Outstanding Achievement Award), and Robert H. Bruininks (former Director of ICI and former President of the University of Minnesota).

Sandra Christenson (pictured at center), a University of Minnesota professor emeritus who helped develop and lead ICI’s Check & Connect student engagement program, recently published a second edition of her handbook on student engagement research. Christenson also recently received the University’s prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award.

The new edition , edited with Amy L. Reschly, provides insight on how educational psychology promotes positive youth development that carries into students’ adult lives, beyond high school.

“We could see that all these engagement concepts were still critically important for students in college,” she said. “When you have solid academic, behavioral, social, and cognitive skills, you can go on in life, set goals, and achieve. All those things you dream about might actually be very possible.”

Moving at-risk students from motivation to true engagement in their academic lives has been Christenson’s life’s work.

“Motivation is the ‘I want to.’ It is building the desire for something to happen,” said Christenson, who retired in 2016 after a distinguished career in educational psychology. “Engagement is when you have the cognitive piece, when the student says, ‘I can do it. I’m willing to put forth the effort, even in a challenging situation, to figure it out.”

Getting students to that point takes listening to them and finding out what is meaningful to them, and developing a relationship, she said.

“There is something about a relationship being built over time that makes a student want to avoid disappointing their mentor,” she said. “I’ll never forget one student I worked with in the mid-1990s. He said, ‘I thought you’d go away, but here we are two years later and I realize you care about me.’ You know what? He started doing better in school.”

A chapter in the new handbook, written by Christenson’s daughter Elyse Farnsworth, an assistant professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, explores the critical link between hope and student engagement.

“Elyse was interested in contributing a chapter on hope because she’s been conducting research on relationships and the four student engagement types (academic, behavioral, affective, and cognitive). I deferred to my colleagues to decide whether to include the chapter and to edit it, but when I finally read it after publication, I loved it and thought we need to explore this more. I speculate now that we were building hope in our students through the Check & Connect model, but we never measured it, so I’m exceedingly interested in learning more about that concept.”

The handbook also has a chapter on hope as an aspect of psychological capital, another area that Christenson would like the field to explore more, she said.

“Hope is a strategy, and a critically important one,” she said. “It may be the necessary bridge between motivation and engagement. Through Check & Connect, we saw some kids who were not even willing to try. They had learned hopelessness. Hope can be that bridge between ‘I want to’ and ‘I’m willing to make the effort.’ And we know that once there is action, it’s a new ballgame for kids.”

Eileen Klemm, the ICI program manager who has led Check & Connect since 2017, said Christenson remains a champion of the program, often connecting the ICI team with researchers and school representatives who want to learn about the program.

“Sandy was one of the original developers of Check & Connect, and she always stressed how important it was that they were able to spend the first full year of the five-year grant just working with Minneapolis Public Schools to really explore how to address the disproportionate number of students with disabilities who were dropping out,” Klemm said. “Whenever I talked to her, she would say it all comes down to relationships, and they were able to build those relationships with the schools and then build this program, which is all based on the relationship between the mentor and mentee.”

In addition to her post-retirement writing – she’s currently working on another book for parents and mentors that will focus more exclusively on hope – Christenson volunteers for a number of community causes, including responding to climate change and creating affordable housing. She and her husband, Jim, both 76, also enjoy traveling and occasional hikes.

“Legislators hear from me,” she said. “We’re very lucky in that we are healthy and can travel a lot. Retirement is the world’s best thing if you do have the gift of time. It’s just like the concepts in the student engagement model – what choices are we going to make?”