What is student engagement and how is it changing? Summary of Enlitened Insight Event discussion panel

We held our first insight event on 14th January 2020, presenting new research on student engagement, connectedness, and how students access information and support at university. The event was an opportunity for senior leaders and colleagues from higher education institutions across the UK to come together and have open conversations.

The first panel discussion of the day was titled: ‘What is student engagement and how is it changing?’. The topic was discussed by three speakers, Dr Kelly Coate from the University of Sussex, Professor Pete Francis from Northumbria University, and Dr Camille Howson from Imperial College London. Key focuses included what is meant by student engagement, how it’s changing and what universities can and are doing in response. Here’s a summary of the session.

What is Meant by ‘Student Engagement’?

The discussion began with a conversation about what student engagement actually is. It was acknowledged that, in previous times, the term ‘student engagement’ was more about how students were spending their time in and out of the physical classroom. Along with whether they expressed their thoughts and feelings about their university experience.

Today, however, it’s a different landscape entirely – student engagement ought to be a two-way, instantaneous conversation between students and institutions; a transformational state of connectivity and co-creation. A key difference is that higher education used to be more transactional, whereas now, largely due to the rise in fees, students expect it to be transformational.

Though a dynamic, two-way relationship is the ideal, there can be challenges for universities in providing this. It was mentioned that the logic around improving student engagement has previously involved seeking out the most engaged of students, asking them how they feel and what the university can do to improve, then working backwards to provide a more holistic student experience to all.

While this can be effective to an extent, a key consideration is that there are different ways for students to be engaged. For example, a student that actively asks questions in class is not necessarily more engaged than a student who is thinking deeply within themselves. A student can be engaged without it being visible to others.

enlitened insight event

Amplifying the Voice of All Students

The democratisation of education and increase in student diversity has meant that individuals engage with their universities in very different ways, but it can be difficult for institutions to try and respond to every single voice. The problem is that the loudest voices aren’t always the most representative.

Yet, it was widely agreed by the panel that a key aspect to student engagement is the university knowing its students. For example, do your students find it highly convenient or highly disruptive to have a big gap in teaching sessions in the middle of the day? Do they like to hang around on campus or would they rather their teaching is grouped? To improve the student experience, it’s important that universities try to understand the answers to these questions, but also that they have a plan of action based on the answers.

The Role of Data in Student Engagement

So, how can universities engage with some of the quieter student voices? Of course, there isn’t a simple solution. Something that can help is the analysis of data, including segmentation and personalisation to drill down to particular groups of students.

However, while data can play a strong role in bringing greater numbers of students into the conversation, the university still needs to think about how to respond. It was mentioned that this is where digital tools, such as interactive apps, can be effective. Not only can they provide a feasible way to offer every student a chance to contribute their opinion, but they can also facilitate two-way dialogue.

A commitment to developing a strong relationship between an institution and its students is the key to engagement, and data is just a way of gathering information to support this. Another suggestion was that perhaps all the data used by an institution should be made available to students to facilitate conversation. This will also demonstrate an interactive approach to students and allow them to become agents, co-creators and partners – they will trust that the data represents what they actually think and feel.


Student Engagement and Student Mental Health

Student engagement is even more crucial today, with the increased number of student mental health issues – and that’s without counting undiagnosed or hidden conditions. The complexity of getting to the root cause of wellbeing issues was discussed, including separating out mental health illnesses and learning-based anxieties, as there can at times be a blurring of the two when students are experiencing high stress levels. With this comes the question of whose responsibility it is at the university to deal with the different entities of mental health. For example, is it the role of the academic tutor to address learning-based anxiety?

It was agreed by the panel that increased student engagement helps these issues, especially when creating personalised environments with tailored delivery models. Sometimes just providing content that shows students that what they are experiencing is normal can help; it can make a big difference to know that other students are feeling the same way.

Shared Values and Beliefs

Another suggestion was that university leaders ought to ask themselves: ‘Does my institution reflect the beliefs and values of the students that come through the door, not just through learning, but through its products and services?’

After all, students do not experience university as a top-down structure, their day-to-day engagement is solely with the staff who teach them and the services they interact with. If they feel a disconnect with their beliefs and values, then they’re not going to be engaged.


Continuing the Student Engagement Discussion

Also shared at the event, were the findings from our new primary research conducted in December. This involved undergraduates from 128 UK institutions responding to an online survey into how connected, engaged and supported they feel. These results will be made public very soon.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in another point of view on this topic, Jon Scott, Higher Education Consultant and the previous Pro-Vice Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Leicester, has written a guest blog post titled: How Student Engagement is Changing and Interconnected with Student Wellbeing and Satisfaction.

You can also read the thoughts of our CEO, Chris Newson, about why we think student engagement is so important and what we mean by it in his blog: Why We Should All Be Obsessed with Student Engagement.