What does ‘student engagement’ mean to you? And you? And you?

The move online compounded matters, but even before that, nobody could agree on what student engagement was – and that needs to change, says Chris Headleand

Chris Headleand's avatar
University of Lincoln
27 May 2021
Head in the clouds. Student engagement is used almost universally in HE, but no one seems to agree on what it actually means.
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About two years ago, I attended a teaching conference where one of the headline sessions was a debate: two people arguing for and against the concept of student engagement. After 20 years of teaching, I had not heard a convincing argument against student engagement, so I was keen to listen to a new perspective.

It soon became clear that the speakers had defined student engagement very differently, which was at the core of their differing viewpoints. This confusion was compounded during the question-and-answer session. Almost everyone raising a question seemed to have come to the debate with their own unique and contradictory definition. As such, the discussion didn’t go anywhere, as each new speaker just added more confounding variables that didn’t advance the narrative. It was undoubtedly one of the more confusing academic exchanges I have ever participated in.

We probably should have expected this confusion. Student engagement is a term used regularly but often in a way devoid of context. There is a significant body of teaching advice arguing that we should strive for student engagement, often without explaining why. The UK’s Office for Students even included “student engagement” as one of the key assessment themes in its teaching excellence framework. But again, the context around what that meant was (at best) nebulous and inconsistent. You may be thinking: “I know what student engagement is.” But I would encourage you to ask a colleague or student what they think and see how their answer differs from yours.

With the lack of a clear definition, most educators have created their own meanings, but these vary wildly. I recently launched a survey that asked: how do you define student engagement? About 200 current and former staff and students responded.

Students often focused on areas of representation, such as “asking our opinions” or “involving us in how the university is run”. Staff responses were significantly more varied. Everything from “ensuring students attend lectures” to more radical or even Marxist approaches to education were included as answers. Every response in the survey covered a unique definition – which shouldn’t be the case for a core activity to which all institutions commit. 

Some have tried to address this. There are examples where universities have focused on a particular subset of student-engagement activities. “Student partners” and similar variations on the term have promised something distinct, but in many cases these initiatives often drift over time and soon represent the same problem: an endeavour becomes branding that gets applied to anything and thus loses specific meaning.

As a sector, we need to decide where we will set the bar. At what point does an activity become an example of student engagement? Most people would probably agree that attendance and engagement are two separate concepts. But based on my survey, this is not true for all. There is also confusion between “student engagement” as a concept and “engaged students” as an outcome.

To use a cooking analogy, if we make a dish, an “engaged diner” would be focused on the meal and the dining experience. As chefs, we have prepared something they enjoy, and they are motivated to eat it. By comparison, “diner engagement” would be inviting the diner to join you in the kitchen, asking them to help you plan the meal, maybe getting their tasting notes as you prepare the dish and perhaps even giving them access to the spatula.

An engaged student demonstrates interest, motivation and attention. Whereas student engagement is about involving students in learning.

I’ve always considered student engagement to be encouraging and facilitating participation from students in activities beyond the baseline expectations of their course – specifically, anything that encourages students to participate in activities outside the threshold standard that we would expect of any learner. This engagement could include governance, feedback, quality assurance, peer support, mentoring or any other activities beyond the immediate scope of a student’s studies.

But this clearly isn’t how everyone understands the term. One definition that emerged from my survey was “anything that gets students to attend their lectures”. I’m not trying to suggest that one definition is correct and the other is wrong – but the disconnect between the two makes meaningful conversations on the topic challenging.

Plus, confusion about what we mean by engagement seems to have grown among staff and students as the sector has pivoted online. For many, this new environment presented new challenges in motivating participation, and this has been the focus of the engagement conversation for the past year. Searching for “student engagement” on Twitter highlights significant discussion around synchronous attendance and comparatively little about engaging students meaningfully in learning. It isn’t uncommon to see engagement conflated with attendance, and the pivot online seems to have further highlighted this issue.

Blended learning will probably become more significant in universities moving forward, and engaging students in the design, delivery and governance of their learning will be increasingly important as we navigate this next phase of HE. It’s also entirely possible that there will be increased interest in measuring and reporting student engagement at the national level.

However, to have meaningful discussions about student engagement, we need to start with a shared lexicon. Co-developing this nomenclature with staff and students is the best way to advance our shared understanding and ensure we speak the same language. It’s hard for people to know how to achieve a goal if everyone interprets that goal differently.

Chris Headleand is director of teaching and learning for the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln.

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