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Student engagement: What is it and why does it matter?

Group of students studying, some using laptops and some writing in notepads.

Teaching Insights shares staff and student voices, asking and answering questions, and showcasing examples of effective teaching and learning practices. How do our conversations and authors’ contributions align with the scholarly debate on improving student engagement?

On a warm afternoon, all working from home and with still little prospect of returning to the campus for our work, educational developers from Oxford Brookes University came together on Zoom to ‘think aloud’ about the ways they, and the teaching staff they work with, could improve student engagement. Everyone had read the contributions that form the October 2021 issue of Teaching Insights. There was a buzz as we joined the meeting and we started by discussing just how important conversation is in supporting the development of teaching practice. We noted how meaningful teaching conversations between peers are (Roxå & Mårtenssen, 2009) as an informal yet vital component of the professional development of higher education teachers. We were in agreement too with Chris Headleand (2021) whose recent blog post for The Campus discussed the need for colleagues to share their interpretations of student engagement with each other, considering how much variability there is between individual conceptions of engagement. Dismore, Turner and Huang (2018) also noted that academic staff new to teaching perceive student engagement differently from more experienced colleagues and explored new lecturers’ practices to enable engagement—more on that later.

Student engagement as contested and multi-dimensional 

Chris Headleand wasn’t the first author to point to the confusion around the meaning and use of the term student engagement. Buckley (2018) describes other writers’ and educational researchers’ concerns and concludes that student engagement is ‘enigmatic’ (p. 721). Commonly, across the higher education and compulsory education sectors, student engagement is described as multidimensional or as a meta-construct. Authors that discuss student engagement in this way write about student engagement in terms of a student’s active participation in learning activities. This, in turn, is linked to a number of things: teaching practices, well-designed curricula and learning environments, and the wider ambitions of either students or their universities for personally transformative or socially-impactful education experiences. These are the meanings that this issue’s various conversationalists and authors held of student engagement. The group recall the Alumni Reunion conversation, in which Professor Helen Walkington held a firm conception of student engagement as comprising three elements: the cognitive, emotional and professional development of a student. More commonly in the literature, the element of behavioural engagement is referenced in place of professional development engagement. Another dimension to student engagement in higher education that merits noting, even though it is not the focus of this Teaching Insights issue, relates to student participation in university decision-making, including governance, representation and co-production. Ashwin and McVitty’s (2015) article highlights how important it is to define the object in focus for any discussion of student engagement and that certainly has been the starting point—and sometimes the sticking point—across the conversations in this issue.

Student engagement is a ‘good thing’

The Recipes for Success, which are examples of practical activities that have proven effective in specific learning and teaching contexts, have all been focused not simply on defining student engagement but on improving it. Engagement is assumed to be a ‘good thing’—something to cultivate and support. Zepke, Leach and Butler (2014) noted that lecturers in their study tended to see engagement as the responsibility primarily of the student. What is clear from the wider literature and experiences from our Teaching Insights contributors is that there are many ways teaching staff influence engagement. If, as we posit, student engagement is a ‘good thing’, then teaching staff and educational developers should rightfully play an active role to enable student engagement. In the context of student engagement as the formation of understanding and the development and transformation of knowledge [to broadly follow Ashwin and McVitty’s (2015) distinctive interpretation], our conversation turned to the ways teaching staff can improve student engagement.

From knowing students to watching for student engagement

The group saw improving student engagement as ideally starting from a point of knowing our students individually. From here, educators can then align their teaching approaches, learning activities and curriculum to best support students. Our conversationalists clearly saw the personalised support that educators give students as among the most valuable of ways to improve student engagement. However, in a mass higher education system with staff-student ratios closely managed, knowing all our students individually is tricky. We talked about the increasing potential of course learning analytics for informing and strengthening individual staff-student relationships, for instance as behavioural engagement might be knowable from patterns that emerge across monitored student actions such as downloading readings and attendance. We also recognised that promoting active learning approaches during course contact hours was critical. Educators can watch students’ cognitive and emotional engagement, and use that as real-time feedback on student learning. 

A salient outcome of teaching during the pandemic has been the consideration of the ways we can measure (or watch) more dimensions of student engagement in online spaces with the intention of taking proactive actions to improve it [see, for example, Brown et al.’s (2020) conceptual framework to enhance online learning and engagement]. ‘Teaching into the void’—that is, teaching students who have their cameras off during online classes—has been repeatedly described as problematic for teaching staff because it severs an important feedback loop where proxies or approximations of some dimensions of student engagement are knowable (or watchable). We note the suggestions on how to encourage students to turn their cameras on shared by the staff and student panellists in this issue’s Peer Review.

Once student engagement in learning can be known and seen, teaching staff can react and align their teaching practice and learning resources to best support engagement and play their part to enable student engagement. However, some teaching staff, particularly those new in role, might struggle to enable student engagement. Dismore, Turner and Huang (2018) noted that incorporating (inter)active learning approaches into classes to promote student engagement required risk-taking and confidence on the part of the educator—even more so with perceived barriers such as group size and content.

Structuring engaging learning

It is clear that to encourage student engagement, there is an important role for teaching staff to create learning environments that are purposeful, active and interactive. Aspects of behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement can be observed, and actions taken to improve these facets of engagement. It would be useful to consider student engagement in terms of the relationships at the core of higher education learning. These include the relationships between:

  • staff and students;
  • students and their peers;
  • students and the discipline or subject; and
  • students and their own ontological development.

Teaching staff and the ways they structure learning (whether online or in-person) play a critical role in orchestrating these relationships, for instance in defining how peers collaborate and support one another to learn, in setting how the curriculum delivery reveals disciplinary and professional skills and insights, and in allowing time and space for students to reflect on how their personal and professional development has grown during their studies.

So far, our conversation has explored the ways in which educators can enable student engagement. We talked about the importance of getting to know students individually and being able to observe student engagement behaviours. In an era of mass (and online) higher education, course learning analytics and active learning activities during class contact hours can be used strategically to obtain feedback on how students are engaging and learning. When structuring engaging learning experiences, educators can usefully consider the key relationships in higher education learning as outlined above (e.g. between students and their peers, students and their own ontological development, etc.). Of course, our conversation has been predicated on the assumption that student engagement is a ‘good thing’ and that educators have a part to play in enabling engaging learning. This would be particularly so if we assume, as seems often to be the case, that student engagement is linked to students fulfilling their potential and achieving their goals. But is there evidence of that? Is there published evidence where quantified measures of student engagement have been related to student outcomes and achievements? 

The relationship between student engagement, student outcomes and well-being

Despite the amount of research and practice-led speculation on the relationship between student engagement and teaching practices, we were not aware of much data that could demonstrate causality between student engagement and individual student outcomes in higher education. The book Engaging University Students by Coates and McCormick (2014) showcases global endeavour in different countries to measure student engagement, largely through large-scale surveys. Beyond higher education, there is evidence of links between aspects of behavioural and emotional student engagement, and academic achievement [see for example, Finn and Zimmer (2012)]. In higher education settings, a few papers exist that do demonstrate the impacts of (mostly) small-scale, micro-changes to teaching practices on closely related achievement measures. There is also plenty of discussion about what outcomes or success measures might be used. One large-scale study by Pascarella, Seifert and Blaich (2010) across 13 higher education colleges in the USA concluded that there was a correlation between students’ effective learning practices (e.g. preparing for classes, reading and writing, working with peers, interacting with teaching staff) and a number of important educational outcomes linked to liberal educational intentions, including moral character and well-being. We think the link between engagement and well-being is particularly interesting. More recent work by Boulton et al. (2019) has also indicated that student engagement and well-being may be related and they have suggested a ‘possible feedback loop where increasing engagement increases academic performance, which in turn increases well-being’ (p. 14). Macfarlane and Tomlinson (2017) have criticised the overt focus on student engagement and performance, and the search for causal relationships. 

We conclude by noting the virtue of teaching staff, educational developers and university managers looking for ways to develop student engagement. We also suggest that there is much merit in clearly defining and sharing their definitions of student engagement, for example, as students’ active commitment and effort spent on learning activities. With clear definitions in use, we can take action (and monitor the impacts of these actions) to build learning experiences that improve student engagement and support student well-being. Such approaches would seek to link student engagement to a compassionate, principled pedagogy that can support higher education students to flourish, irrespective of their motivations, aspirations, desired outcomes or definitions of success.

References

Ashwin, P., & McVitty, D. (2015). The meanings of student engagement: Implications for policies and practices. In A. Curaj, L. Matei, R. Pricopie, J. Salmi, & P. Scott (Eds.), The European higher education area: Between critical reflections and future policies. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20877-0_23

Boulton, C. A., Hughes, E., Kent, C., Smith, J. R., & Williams, H. T. P. (2019). Student engagement and wellbeing over time at a higher education institution. PLoS ONE, 14(11), e0225770. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225770 

Brown, A., Lawrence, J., Basson M., & Redmond, P. (2020). A conceptual framework to enhance student online learning and engagement in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2020.1860912

Buckley, A. (2018). The ideology of student engagement research. Teaching in Higher Education, 23(6), 718–732. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2017.1414789 

Coates, H., & McCormick, A.C. (2014). Engaging university students: International insights from system-wide studies. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-4585-63-7 

Dismore, H., Turner, R., & Huang, R. (2018). Let me edutain you! Practices of student engagement employed by new lecturers. Higher Education Research & Development, 38(2), 235–249. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2018.1532984   

Finn, J. D., & Zimmer, K. S. (2012). Student engagement: What is it? Why does it matter?. In S. Christenson, A. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 97–131). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_5

Headleand, C. (2021) What does student engagement mean to you? And you? And you?. The Campus. Retrieved 3 September 2021, from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/what-does-student-engagement-mean-you-and-you-and-you

Macfarlane, B., & Tomlinson, M. (2017). Critiques of student engagement. Higher Education Policy, 30, 5–21. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41307-016-0027-3

Pascarella, E. T., Seifert, T. A., & Blaich, C. (2010). How effective are the NSSE benchmarks in predicting important educational outcomes? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 42(1), 16–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091380903449060 

Roxå, T., & Mårtenssen, A. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547–559. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070802597200 

Zepke, N., Leach, L., & Butler, P. (2014). Student engagement: Students’ and teachers’ perceptions. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(2), 386–398. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.832160 

Acknowledgements

Written by Jackie Potter, Mary Kitchener, Kat Kwok, Elizabeth Lovegrove and Cathy Malone.

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Editorial Team. (2021). Student engagement: What is it and why does it matter?. Teaching Insights, October 2021. Retrieved 26 May 2022, from http://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/student-engagement-what-is-it-and-why-does-it-matter/