Why We Should All Be Obsessed with Student Engagement

Why We Should All Be Obsessed with Student Engagement

This post has been written by Chris Newson, Founder and CEO of Enlitened and CEO of The Student Room.


Why do we think it’s so important to be obsessed with student engagement? And what does student engagement actually mean to us?

I often find myself reflecting on these questions when talking about Enlitened and find it easiest to explain by referencing the path to our own obsession. Maybe laying out my thinking might help others clarify their own perspectives on this undoubtedly important subject.

The Role of The Student Room

As you may know, The Student Room has been supporting students, on their journey from GCSE to postgraduate study, for just shy of 20 years now. Helping students get the best from their student experience has been our raison d’etre for all this time.

20 years later, and now with 10 million users a month, we’ve been exposed to a lot of students – some well engaged, but often not. Over time, we’ve become very aware of the huge array of different drivers that help or hinder individual students becoming more engaged with their own student experience.

Sadly, student wellbeing has become an increasingly essential part of that mix. We see the current wellbeing crisis from the front line – with The Student Room forum’s suicide and extreme self-harm processes being triggered a shocking 850 times a year.

However, all this explains just one half of the genesis of our obsession with student engagement, as Enlitened was also developed from our experiences of employee engagement.

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Starting with an Employee Engagement Tool

By the time the idea for Enlitened was born, in summer 2018, The Student Room had been using a great new employee engagement tool for a year or two. It enabled our employees to feedback daily on their engagement at work.

We’d been really impressed with the tool’s ability to plug us into the matrix of our employee’s minds. Suddenly, in real time, we knew where to focus to improve, and could easily separate big deals, from political noise.

We could see whether certain issues were being experienced by one or two teams, or by wider groups of employees, or even by the whole company. We could also identify where things were working, and where we needed to get better.

And as well as monitoring how individual engagement scales moved in different teams over time, we could see the corresponding suggestions of colleagues too. Hard data combined with human voices.

Most importantly, this information wasn’t just in the hands of the senior leaders. It was in the hands of all managers across the business, who started making changes off their own back.

There was no trauma of annual engagement surveys. Managers and employees felt empowered, and we could instantly see how employees responded to changes that were made from week to week.

Our organisation was beginning to better itself as information quality improved, and due to the real-time element, the number of annual learning cycles was almost infinite. Continuous improvement had arrived.

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What Could this Mean for Students?

As an organisation whose DNA is wired to support students, we began to wonder if we could learn from the tools that have had a transformative impact on employee engagement.

We started to imagine a world where we could have a similar impact on student engagement and wellbeing.

We began to think…

  • Could we help universities improve the student experience and student engagement, particularly for those groups of students from non traditional backgrounds?

  • Could we drive NSS improvements by getting live actionable data on what needs fixing, long before it becomes an issue? Could we help lift those stubborn NSS student voice scores?

  • Could we help universities understand and better tackle the current wellbeing crisis?

  • By driving engagement and wellbeing, could we improve continuation? Either across the board, or within those pockets of mature students, disabled students, first-in-family, or particular courses with highest drop-out rates.

And hey, if we were going to be capturing all this insight on how students were feeling and engaging, why stop at giving that data to institutions? Could we also find ways of using it to provide unparalleled proactive support to students before they even know they need it?

After all, we were very aware of the challenges of getting students to take the agency to go and seek help, and of universities in communicating their support services to the right people at the right time.

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What is Student Engagement?

As we began to think about how to build Enlitened, along with other considerations, we had to go back and ask ourselves the basic question: What even is student engagement? We knew that this was important in order to drive the most improvement for both students and institutions.

Of course, as we started our academic literature review on the journey of building Enlitened, it quickly became apparent that student engagement can be understood in a whole host of different ways. And like all good academic debates, they all appear to be extremely valid, incredibly long, and of course, often completely contradictory!

Here are some of the definitions, nuances and approaches to student engagement that resonate most with me.

Student Satisfaction, Student Experience and Student Engagement

To me, the concepts of student satisfaction, student experience and student engagement are all intertwined, inseparable, and benefit from being considered and improved alongside each other.

We can get hung up on trying to choose a favourite (cue NSS vs NSSE debate!) or we can accept that improving all three will have the best outcome for students, and crack on.

It Takes Two to Tango

I like approaches that reflect the importance of both the institution and the student ‘doing their bit’ for that magical engaged state to come alive.

Student engagement cannot be created by the student or by the institution on their own. So, we better try to measure and support both parties in driving change.

The Link Between Student Engagement and Student Wellbeing

As a non-academic, as CEO of The Student Room, and as a parent, the issues of student engagement and wellbeing have always felt completely intertwined to me. How could you be an engaged student without being a contented or ‘well’ student?

This chimed with what we measured daily through our employee engagement tool, where wellbeing was one of the 11 measures of employee engagement that we focused on improving.

Again, looking at the literature, and discussing with our Head Psychologist, Sharon de Mascia, helped clarify my thinking on this.

Behavioural and Psychosocial Approaches are a Great Combination

Of course, it matters that students are going to lectures, engaging with university systems, and getting the grades. But in 2020, I believe that focusing on behavioural dimensions is necessary, but not enough.

I feel a strong affinity with definitions and practical approaches to student engagement that include the psychosocial, alongside the behavioural.

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To have the most fulfilling student experience, to be the most engaged, students don’t just need to turn up and get grades. They need to believe in their own abilities, have strong connections with their fellow students and faculty, and feel that they are doing and being a part of something worthwhile. That’s what we all work in this sector for. And that is what drives the success of individuals, institutions and nations.

Psychosocial definitions also help me conceptualise how wellbeing fits in. Wellbeing is at the heart of individual thought (psycho), and connectedness (social) is a key driver of wellbeing. And of course, we don’t want our students just turning up, we want our students and our institutions, to be truly thriving. To me, that is the fullest realisation of student engagement.

For another view on student engagement and how it is interconnected with student wellbeing and satisfaction, read this guest blog post by Jon Scott.

*Definition of psychosocial taken from here.