Fostering Student Engagement

Bkso1eZIQAAlnU3I have been working my way through the Certificate in Academic Practice (CAP) qualification this academic year, which has involved a portfolio of reflective exercises and pieces of coursework.  The main piece was a written critical review to summarise the main learning experiences, and I chose to structure mine around the multiplicity of roles a teacher has, and how these are managed (or not, as the case may be!). One of these roles is seemingly the most obvious – to be an educator – but also, for most keen lecturers, they aspire to be an effective and engaging educator; one that students can relate to, learn from, and enjoy being taught by. This brings in the important issue of student engagement: what this means, and how to ensure it occurs.

I recently attended a fantastic event facilitated by the Organisation and Educational Development department at Lancaster University, called the “Sharing Practice Event: Fostering Student Engagement” (see here for the abstracts  Departments from across the University came together to discuss these issues, and to offer suggestions as to how their department encourages students to take ownership of this engagement process, and make it more of a two-way experience.  Part of my problem this year – as a new lecturer – was that I felt this responsibility to be solely on my shoulders, and in rather superficial ways (are they writing in lectures, or is their body language suggesting interest? – as examples). These are valid points, but, as I am learning, student engagement is much more about “giving students the tools to self-regulate and have agency” rather than “telling them what to do” (LUMS, 2014) and thus being mainly responsible.  An engaged learner, as defined by Exeter et al (2010) is “one who is a ‘deep’ learner, seeking to develop his/her knowledge, reflecting on the facts and details presented in the lecture related to their own experiences and ‘the big picture’” (p. 3).  By contrast, the disengaged student typically takes notes during the lecture and memorises facts and key points in order to obtain a ‘pass’ for the course; they are therefore just “passive learners” (Hover et al, 2010). This is not to say that students who write furiously and pay attention in lectures/seminars cannot be effective learners; rather that student engagement is not just confined to the classroom. It must be when conducting independent study-related activities – such as critical thinking when reading journal articles, or collecting dissertation data and having to make key ethical on-the-spot decisions – and also in employment (Krause, 2007).  Thus, it has a temporal as well as spatial facet.

As such, one of my suggestions for my own teaching next year is to make use of some more formative methods of feedback – conducting short, (hopefully fun) quizzes for example, providing research ethics “scenarios” for students to provide their thoughts on, or finding appropriate formative methods of collecting student feedback rather than relying on end-of-module feedback forms.  These are obviously not exhaustive suggestions – any more are welcome!

Another suggestion by Gill Burgess and Sharon McCulloch from the Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) in their paper on the Student Engagement Day was given via their discussion of their Academic Writing Zone.  Postgraduate students are given the opportunity to have shared writing slots with Undergraduates in a specified zone, in order to improve writing skills, but also to make writing a social practice.  One of the issues that many of my Undergraduate students have been facing is that they have a lack of confidence when it comes to writing; making this a social practice therefore hopefully allows them to see that they are not alone in this, and allows open discussion and shared practice with peers.  What LUMS also find is that the PhD students benefit greatly from this; not only in relation to career-related experience for their CV, but also because their own writing confidence and aptitude improves. There is no better way for improving one’s own subject expertise or writing style than by communicating it effectively to someone else. They also become more effective at being a fair but assertive self-critic.

One of LUMS’ other main messages was to “involve students as co-creators of learning development” – consult them and find out what will support their learning experience and make them partners in ensuring this “depth” to the learner identity.  After it was expressed by several students that the mathematics skills support was limited, LUMS began consulting with students to discover what additional mathematics provision can be provided by the department – again, with the hope that both postgraduate and undergraduate students (of all backgrounds) can come together to make learning a social practice (learning with and from each other).

Finally, one of the most uplifting sessions of the day, I felt, was the presentation by Dr. Saskia Vermeylen about teaching a second-year Geography field trip to Tunisia (exploring colonial legacies, inequality and injustice).  This trip unfortunately could not run because of political unrest and therefore an in-house residential had to be run at Lancaster with obvious changes to the assessment methods for the course.  Upon recruiting someone from the Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts (LICA) one of the assessment methods selected were propositional objects. It was decided that these were the “more appropriate tools to allow a deeper understanding of multiple narratives related to post-colonial theory, but also use critical reason as a mechanism to explore and experience agency in the hope to transform or change a world characterised by injustice and equality”. Giving students the ownership to decide what “object”, how it was to be performed or presented, and what this represented for the community in question – as opposed to a traditional essay for example – allowed them to step into the colonial legacy and communicate it to an audience, and thus generating this “deeper” experience.  Although the method of assessment was initially met with some concerns from students – due to its more open, less prescriptive format in relation to assessment criteria – the fantastic coursework produced was incredibly moving; it was, as she described in the presentation “magical”, and it was felt that this was a far more appropriate method of assessment.  Students produced work ranging from works of art, to a board game, to creative (dramatic) presentations.  See her abstract also for some interesting references to border pedagogy.

What I have taken from my teaching experiences in using non-traditional assessment methods, the CAP course, and from the student engagement day, is to understand the term “student engagement” and the practice in relation to its temporal complexity, the importance of encouraging this “deep learning” experience, and the importance of students in this process. They have fantastic ideas – involving them in designing and facilitating support to provide this depth is mutually beneficial, and experimenting a little with the collection of student feedback, and in designing assessment methods (where available/appropriate), is welcome practice. Going out of both teacher and student comfort zone in this latter regard is evidence of the importance in prioritising the “deep” learning identity and learning outcomes of the course (and their longevity) over course or teacher popularity sometimes!   


Exeter, D., Ameratunga, S., Ratima, M., Morton, S., Dickson, M., Hsu, D. and Jackson, R. (2010).  “Student engagement in very large classes: the teacher’s perspective”. Studies in Higher Education 35 (7), pp. 761-775

Hover, J. and Hartle, M. (2010) “Read/Write Lectures: Fostering Active Participation and Increasing Student Engagement in the Lecture Hall”. 10th IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies. [09/07/14]

Krause, K. 2007. New Perspectives on Engaging First Year Students in Learning. Brisbane: GriffithInstitute for Higher Education.