We hear about student engagement constantly. Does it really qualify as a buzzword any more?

Educational types do go on about it, but with good reason. Learning improves, according to the Glossary of Educational Reform, ‘when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired’ and ‘tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.”’ Elements of engagement, like students’ sense of belonging and identity as learners, are a key factor in their academic success. But it’s one of those fundamental concepts that’s a little slippery when it comes to definition, which is probably why it still has buzzword status.

Doesn’t it just mean students are, you know, engaged? I know it when I see it.

Educator Ben Johnson has observed what students are usually doing when they are engaged, and – in a nutshell – it all boils down to being active. Not just talking, but thinking actively – trying to solve problems, coming up with alternatives or reflecting on feedback. There are also some obvious indicators that your students aren’t engaged, for instance if they’re skipping classes or not doing assignments or online activities. But there’s more going on beneath the surface. Most explanations of how to recognise engagement, like the one on the European Association for International Education’s blog, stress three key dimensions:

  • Behavioural – Are students behaviours’ positive ones, like turning up for class and doing the assignments? Are they awake?
  • Emotional – Do students seem interested and enthused about what they’re learning? Do they act like members of a learning community, chatting to classmates before and after class?  
  • Cognitive – Are they thinking deeply and exploring what they’re learning? Are they being proactive, seeking challenges?

So it’s just about what happens in the classroom then?

Rest assured, individual academics definitely aren’t the sole factor in whether students are engaged or not. In fact, engagement happens just as much at the institutional level as well as the subject level. More holistic and layered interpretations of engagement stress the importance of context; a whole host of factors inside and outside the classroom can influence engagement. For instance students’ personal well-being, their participation in extra-curricula activities, and their physical learning environment, all play a part. Some also take the view that true engagement is about involving students as partners in the design of their own learning experiences and even in shaping the way their institution is run. And don’t forget engagement also happens in the online space.

What are some ways to promote better engagement?

In general, engagement happens more easily when learning is designed to be student-centred, students are actively doing things (applying ideas to practice, working on projects), and they’re learning collaboratively. Also, it’s important to be inclusive – to design and promote opportunities for all students to be actively involved and to learn. For more specific tips, Faculty Focus has a helpful list of 10 ways to promote student engagement. And don’t miss UTS’ own Georgina Barratt-See’s post My students don’t talk!.

Is there any special secret to engaging millennial students?

Today’s students are very digitally connected with the world and with each other.  This can be a double-edged sword: information is everywhere, but deeper engagement can still be elusive. But millennial-aged students have a lot of common ground with those who have come before them, and you probably don’t need to rush into using internet memes. University of Waterloo academics provide some good ideas from their own experiences of engaging millennial students here.

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