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In 2012 the UK’s QAA commissioned a team of experts, including Gwen van der Velden, Director, Learning and Teaching Enhancement at the University of Bath, to undertake research into an issue that has been gaining importance over recent years; that of student engagement (view the report here). If it isn’t something on the radar of learning providers across the globe, then it should be. After all, if your students don’t feel engaged, how will they realise their potential?

So what is student engagement? At what point between nodding off at the back of a lecture and being head of the student union and passing exams with flying colours does a student start to make a psychological investment in their learning and become truly engaged, and how can it best be introduced, encouraged and promoted?

Van der Velden points out that the definition of student engagement differs in different situations. ‘It could be that they don’t drop out, or simply that the institution provides an engaged type of learning,’ she says.

What is not as open to interpretation is the importance of student engagement. The benefit to the engaged student is several-fold. They are more likely to stay on the course if they are engaged, they are more likely to achieve more on the course, get more out of it and ultimately be more successful because of it.

In terms of the benefit to the learning institution, potential students will look at things like retention, progression and employability, all of which are performance indicators that will determine whether they choose one college over another.

Van der Velden identifies a driver that puts even more pressure on colleges to make sure that their students are engaged. ‘In any type of education institution where students pay, whether full fees, high fees or a small amount, for the institution, something changes,’ she says. ‘The minute they pay there is a consumer expectation; you’re now looking at a market.

‘At that point student engagement makes a difference not just in terms of getting money from students but in terms of how they fare on league tables. If they want to be seen as a high quality provider they are more likely to do so if 96% of the students on a particular course make it to the end versus, say, 60%. You can see the provider students will choose.’

So what measures can be taken to increase levels of engagement? It is essential to make sure that students both feel and are involved. To really be motivated they need to feel as though you are having a say in how things are done, not in term of course content, which is down to the academic board, but in terms of how you are taught.

‘[Learning providers] should take a marketing approach,’ says van der Velden, ‘Marketing tools like “you said, we did” and surveys all make students feel as though they have an input. As well as that, though, they have to make sure that students actually have a voice and that can come from getting them involved in the governance structure so that they are a key art of all policy development, down to things like return times for assessed work. At that point they’re empowering the students at co-owning the course.’

Each of these measures is about enhancement and improvement, with staff and students taking a collaborative approach, which aligns teaching and learning.

Last updated: 18 Mar 2014