What happens when you invite staff and students, from different disciplines and learning traditions, to a conversation on the topic of improving student engagement? Would their experiences and views be similar or shaped by their diverse backgrounds? Would the conversation generate new insights that they could take into their practice as teachers and learners? In this article, we report from a conversation held between three people: one a student, one a member of teaching staff and the third a member of staff currently studying as a student. Together, they had experience of healthcare, the humanities, business education and the built environment.
What does engagement look and feel like?
“The first few weeks of lectures, it was very horrible… I was trying to understand my computer, the internet, Moodle and everything. It was quite a challenging period for me.” Chuks reports that starting his first year of study at Oxford Brookes University online in a pandemic made it difficult to engage with his studies, although social activities organised by the University and his love of sport and personal training helped. Esra notes she’s not really thought of student engagement in such a broad, holistic way beyond student learning. It’s clear for Chuks that being engaged and ready to learn is about getting the balance right between study time (whether in class or out) and other activities that are part of his student and wider life. He sees other students getting that balance wrong—students with jobs that are focused on work during times they need to study.
Claire comments that student engagement requires students to be “ready to learn” and we segue into a conversation about attendance (this year on Zoom) and wryly note that it is not the same thing as being engaged and ready to learn. The group talks about teaching “into the void” and the difficulties—for staff and students—of the student that comes to a synchronous teaching session but turns their microphone and camera off. With a grin, Chuks admits that sometimes he has fun being a ‘student in the void’, but concludes, “it doesn’t make learning effective, I can say for sure.”
The group discusses how engagement, online or on-campus, can be supported by active learning techniques and enthusiastic teachers. We consider what engagement looks like and note that it can often be invisible to staff: engagement is about students reflecting on their learning ambitions (more on that later) and on what the learning materials mean to them. It’s about students reviewing and internalising new knowledge, either individually or in groups. On the other hand, when engagement is visible to teaching staff, it can be seen as:
- students asking questions in class and seeking support outside class;
- students “following the links”, that is, engaging with the learning materials provided;
- students challenging the status quo of professional knowledge and practice in their discipline and being prepared to develop new ways of knowing.
The conversation explores the role of student expectation. Esra notes that when these expectations are met, students are much more likely to be engaged. It is proposed that students might need more support to “learn how to learn” at university. Teaching staff can support students by explicitly sharing the intentions of their curricula design, assessments, and teaching and learning activities by repeatedly signposting the deliberate design and constructive alignment between these elements. This would enable students to navigate the journey of their course and make connections for themselves. When students then seek help, for instance from module leaders, personal tutors or academic development services—these can be interpreted as agentic actions and evidence of engagement.
The group discusses how engagement can develop from both internal and external motivators, and the ways in which staff can encourage students to consider: “what do I want to get out of this?”. An anecdote is shared of a student who came to university with the primary intention of finding a husband. We reflect that what students want may not be entirely clear to them, nor are students always willing to share their plans or motivations. Having motivations that are too narrow may also be limiting; being open to new experiences and unexpected detours in one’s learning journey also lead to spaces for learning and growing. For Claire, the sporting metaphor of achieving a ‘PB’, or personal best, captures the sense of how teaching staff can support students to know both where they are starting and what they’d like to achieve. Staff can then help students relate these personal goals to the opportunities on their course and more widely at university. We note that students are often highly engaged with their dissertations because they are able to choose their own topic, particularly if the topic relates to a student’s future ambitions.
The group spends the last few minutes of the session reflecting on insights gained from our conversation. We realise the value of coming together to talk about, and share teaching practices related to, improving student engagement. Student engagement is a complex construct which means different things to different people—meanings which can change and evolve through conversation and reflection. One important distinction for teachers is whether we construe student engagement only within the context of our academic subject and curricula, or whether we encourage a holistic, whole-student perspective. No matter how broadly we conceive of the concept, there are actions identified from our conversation that teaching staff can take to support our students’ engagement as they study with us.
|Seven staff actions that can improve student engagement|
1. Invite students to reflect on the connections between their modules, programme, and time at university on one hand, and their values and ambitions on the other.
2. Encourage students to achieve a healthy balance of study, work and social activities.
3. Show your enthusiasm for the subject, your teaching and your students.
4. Provide group learning opportunities that give students the chance to share and reflect on their different viewpoints or understanding of their subject or practice.
5. Provide learning opportunities that invite students to debate, question or critically evaluate subject knowledge or practice.
6. Regularly signpost the design intentions of your curriculum.
7. Set assessments that allow students a choice of ways to showcase their learning or achievement.
Would you like to participate as a conversationalist for our next issue? Please see our Contribute to Teaching Insights page for details on how to get involved.
With thanks to Chukwuma Iwuanyanwu, Claire Jones and Esra Kurul.
As reported by Jackie Potter and Kat Kwok.