Exploring student engagement

12 September 2017

Manchester Met University played host to this three-day event, where academics, university representatives and students discussed the many initiatives and difficulties in engaging large cohorts of students in higher education. Many RAISE delegates referenced the emerging 'student as consumer' mindset, acknowledging the idea that students are buying into a ‘product’ of university in response to increasing fees. Therefore, it may appear that ‘consumer satisfaction’ is becoming synonymous with ‘student engagement’. However, looking to a more psychological perspective, student engagement refers to the promotion of student voice, agency and the creation of collaborative relationships between students and the institution.

Mantz Yorke (Lancaster University) discussed the link between student’s sense of belonging, engagement, and self-confidence as predictors for academic success at university. The interplay between psychological, socio-cultural and behavioural mechanisms of student engagement was surveyed in 13 UK universities as part of the ‘What Works?’ programme. Ultimately, says Yorke, universities must ensure the multifaceted nature of engagement is recognised, in order to achieve student’s ‘commitment’ to higher education, rather than ‘compliance’. Indeed, it soon became clear as the conference progressed that student engagement is a rather contested and controversial term. The RAISE Looking Forward panel, led by RAISE chair Colin Bryson, prompted some important questions. Who defines what an engaged student is? Is it really fair to label certain students as ‘unengaged?’ Where does the responsibility of student engagement lie?

The conference explored these questions, and each university tackled the issue of student engagement in relatively novel and equally creative ways. Partnerships, relationships and student voice were quickly established as recurrent themes throughout the many talks, echoing much of the student engagement literature (e.g. Bryson, 2016).

Despite universalities throughout student experience, the differences in degree type (and academic school) may also contribute to varying levels of engagement. Dr Kirsty Miller and Dr Garry Wilson (University of Lincoln) discussed this in the context of psychology students. Their study aimed to unpick any correlations between expectations of engagement and academic attainment throughout first, second and third year. Spoiler alert: there were no significant correlations. However, the researchers noted consistent high levels of student engagement throughout psychology. Therefore, it is worth asking: is there something intrinsic about those who chose to study psychology that makes these students naturally more engaged? The British Psychological Society's Research Digest reported last year on Anna Vendel’s study of personality differences between academic subjects. Generally speaking, psychology students scored highly on neuroticism and openness to experience compared to other disciplines. This points to one of two conclusions in relation to student engagement: either psychology courses succeed in engaging students more than others, or psychology students are more open and receptive to engagement initiatives. In keeping with RAISE’s 'looking forward, thinking back' theme, the emergence of discipline-specific personality traits in the context of engagement emerges as an interesting discussion point for future narratives.

Madeleine Pownall is an undergraduate at the University of Lincoln. She blogs at http://thoughtbubblesblog.co.uk


Bryson, C. (2016). Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education.