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Student engagement: What really matters and how can we get it right?

-Lynn Vos

The term ‘engagement’ has become a buzz word in higher education. What are the more recent origins of the term and how has it come to be used? What factors contribute to increasing student engagement in higher education?

In this article I will address the first question and begin to look at the second regarding the factors and conditions that research has demonstrated contribute to engagement. I think you will agree that on face value these factors/conditions make good sense and that we should ensure they are part of our programmes. However, we also need to be mindful of the challenges associated with getting them right and the consequences for student learning of getting them wrong.

What do we mean by ‘engagement’?

The term engagement as used today in higher education can claim its currency from the American survey of student learning -- the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Each year in their typically four year degree courses, American University students fill out the NSSE so that departments, educators, researchers and policy makers can assess the learning gains that students have achieved from one year to the next. Rather than measuring student satisfaction, like our NSS, the NSSE attempts to measure whether students are engaged in meaningful activities that contribute to deep learning and how much they have gained. In fact, learning gains are viewed as the key measure of the quality of higher education in the United States.

Since it was launched in 2000, hundreds of researchers have investigated claims that the NSSE is a good measure of quality and does actually measure learning gains – for the most part with positive research findings. For Graham Gibbs (2010) and others, this is also what we should be measuring in UK higher education. None of our current measures - student satisfaction, REF scores, employability statistics, or classroom hours, among others, can claim to actually measure student learning gains. Gibbs (2010) argues that our measures of quality and our league tables should tell prospective students whether a particular University programme will help a student to develop critical and higher level thinking skills, become a more empowered and engaged citizen, and prepared them for the complex, uncertain and knowledge-based economy, not only whether they got feedback quickly or were satisfied with the course.

The term ‘engagement’ as it is used today can be seen as a proxy for learning gains. Kuh (2008) and others have concluded that what contributes most to engagement and learning gains is ‘time on task’ – how much time students put into their learning, the depth of that learning, and the dedication and enthusiasm that goes into it. What contributes to this approach to learning? The literature reveals that certain key institutional, student and teaching related factors are very important but I argue that we need to be careful how we implement and interpret them. In this article, I start with the four factors/conditions shown in figure one.

Figure one: Factors affecting student engagement

Figure one highlights some of the most well researched conditions that are known to enhance engagement. Some represent things that we can do as faculty and others that students need to bring to the table.

1.Time on task and practice.

We know that the more time you put into something, the better you are likely to get – at least to a point (see next blog post). The more we study something, the more likely we are to become immersed in it, to become engaged and to see its complexity. With respect to students in the UK, there are a couple of issues that we need to consider. First, do we think that our students really put in enough time to get to this level of thought and appreciation? I am not convinced that they always do. In his 2011 article, Gibbs notes that we need to consider total LEARNING hours on a degree, not just class contact hours – a number that appears as a differentiating factor between one University programme and another on the Key Information Sets -- the online comparison website that students ostensibly consult when deciding on which institution to attend.. In the UK, total learning hours are typically set at 1500+ for an undergraduate degree. However, in the EU the Bologna agreement recommends 4500-5000. How do we reconcile this difference? And as programme designers, do we actually know the number of hours that any learning activity should take and what the 1500 learning hours actually means in practice?

Gibbs (2011) suggests that we don’t and that to claim that 1500 hours is sufficient for learning on an undergraduate degree, we really should be making this effort and spelling out more clearly what we expect students to do in the time they are not in class.

There are other factors that contribute to increasing student's time on task including those that follow.

2. Intellectual challenge

Again and again the research shows that students need to be intellectually challenged in order to engage. While intellectual challenge may be hard to measure and quite subjective, I certainly get a lot of feedback from students who claim that they want to stretch themselves, want to be challenged and enjoy it when they are.

Are we as marketing educators challenging them enough? And how would we define challenge? Perhaps it is a module workload made up of weekly readings, exercises with graded difficulty that they work on both inside and outside of class, activities that marketing students don’t necessarily like such as those requiring numeracy skills and exposing them to problems that are complex and without defined solutions so we can develop their critical thinking skills. Perhaps it is something else.

I think, however, that we have all been guilty to one degree or another of bowing topressure for our students to get better grades (a pressure that comes not only from out institutions but our so-called measures of quality of an institution) by reducing or limiting the more challenging aspects of the marketing curriculum. But maybe the answer lies in more creative approaches to delivering the more intellectually challenging curriculum rather than in removing or reducing the more difficult ideas, processes, theories and skills.

3. Collaboration

Collaboration includes students working with other students, as well as students working with and faculty, with students from other disciplines, with employers, and in University societies and clubs, among other forms.

From a constructivist point of view, much of our learning happens within social settings where our exposure to and conversations with others help us to construct meaning. Students should have many opportunities for collaborating but the quality and level of the collaboration is possibly the most important aspect to consider. For example, there is much evidence to demonstrate that students who work on projects directly with faculty members gain an enormous sense of self efficacy and confidence in addition to new skills. The movement ‘Students as Partners’ is in part designed to help students find these kind of collaborations and achieve these outcomes.

Collaboration allows us to learn about our own strengths and weaknesses and to develop our negotiation and conversational skills, in argument and in defending our own point of view, while at the same time coming to see that ‘others’ are a vast resource of information, ideas, perspectives and solutions. One of the ways in which we promote collaboration is through team work on assessments. And yet, we really need to be thoughtful about both the positive and negative impacts that team work can have on students. What about situations where students are working in teams where members do not have the same level of knowledge of a topic, have different skill and knowledge strengths and weaknesses, where some are struggling with the language and where members exhibit different levels of motivation? Both the stronger and the weaker students can become demotivated, leaving only those in the middle with potential gains.

As Freeth and Reeves (2004) note:

“to share effectively learners need some knowledge and skills to bring to the collaborative effort. This can inhibit the involvement of [some] students who may not yet feel much confidence in their grasp of [the] knowledge base" (p. 49).

And what about team projects that are broken down into components so that different members complete different sections? Can we really say that students has achieved all of the module learning outcomes when members of a team only concentrated on one aspect of the assignment? I don’t think that we can in many cases and I believe it’s time we reconsidered the amount of group and team work that we do. All members need to benefit equally and achieve the all the module learning outcomes -- not just the ones they have chosen to focus on.

If you ask students what gives them the greatest aggravation in learning, group work will come pretty close to the top of the list. We get these comments year after year and yet many of us are not really addressing the problem or finding solutions. The argument that we use teamwork because it better prepares students for the marketing profession is also quite spurious I think when we consider that those graduates will collaborate with at work are likely to have a similar level of training and set of interests as they do – and this is not necessarily what students are exposed to in the teams they work in within University settings -- at least not always.

4. High Impact Practices

Huber, Hutchings, Gale, Miller and Breen (2007) propose that the curriculum be redesigned to include specific opportunities and guidance for integration. They suggest adding in curricular “enriching activities” (p.48) or what Kuh (2008) calls ‘high impact practices’, such as internships, learning communities, service or community based learning, cross-disciplinary courses, working with faculty on a research project, writing-intensive courses, final year projects/dissertations, among other initiatives.

Kuh (2008) argues that every student should be exposed to at least two high impact practices during their undergraduate programme. These practices add value to the student’s learning in that more than regular assignments, these activities:

  • Require students to devote more time and considerable effort;

  • Require ongoing decisions that deepen students’ investment in their learning;

  • Generally involve interaction with faculty, other students and/or professionals “about substantive matters, typically over extended periods of time” (p. 27);

  • Increase the likelihood that students will experience diversity through wide contact with people from other backgrounds, careers, and programmes of study;

  • Tend to garner more feedback from tutors and others, given the time, amount and variety of work involved, and;

  • Require students to integrate and synthesise learning from across their programme of study and from both academic and work settings.

Given the time required, the depth and breadth of the learning involved and the significance of the activity to the student’s entire programme, high impact practices by their nature enhance engagement.

As Landy (2015) notes, however, the instructional design of these activities is quite complex and requires considerable time, effort and knowledge on the part of the tutor who is leading them or working with the student. Dissertations are a case in point. I have done a lot of research on the dissertation process and the typical problems that both students and tutors encounter. Some of these problems are down to instructional design, including the kind of training that we give students prior to the dissertation. There is much evidence that the typical research methods course is not an adequate preparation for the dissertation and that not all tutors are sufficiently knowledgeable about or experienced with research methods to be able to provide students the support they need. In addition, at least for Master’s students in the UK, the time frame for learning the necessary skills and then completing the dissertation is much shorter today than it was a decade ago. Previously, Master’s students had up to a year to learn about, undertake and complete their dissertation. Now, in most cases, the training and completion time is between 4 and 6 months – arguably not enough time for most students to become sufficiently competent with all of the skills required to do well in a research-based dissertation. The same could probably be said of the undergraduate dissertation.

Yes, high impact practices offer the opportunity for deep learning, engagement and real transformation in students perspectives and aptitudes. However, they need to be well designed and adequate support and training needs to be put in place to ensure that this learning is really happening.

Engagement: Getting it right.

Engagement is the time that students devote to deep learning and when considered as contributing to learning gains made from entry to exit, it makes sense as a measure of the quality of any degree programme. Research has shown that there are a number of things that we can do as tutors, programme leaders, department managers and school/university managers to enhance engagement. However, we also need to be aware of the challenges associated with practices and approaches that are known to enhance engagement – how we design these practices is critical to their having either a positive, negative or neutral effect on student learning.

In the next post, I will consider student-related factors – how these can impact engagement and what we can do to help mitigate factors that may limit the effort, time and enthusiasm that students put into their studies. As in this post, I will point out that for us to get engagement right, we need to be aware of the challenges associated with putting any processes or approaches in place before we really invest in them.

-Lynn Vos (2016)

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