On student engagement

By Fazal Rizvi, Professor, Graduate School of Education, Melbourne University, Australia

Originally posted 21 April 2017

In recent years, the idea of student engagement has become part of a slogan system in Australian higher education. It can be found in the strategic plans of most Australian universities, some of which have appointed specialized staff to develop policies and programs to enhance student engagement.

The concept of student engagement refers to the degree of curiosity, interest, commitment and passion that students display toward their learning tasks. In this way, it focuses on their level of motivation, which is regarded as an essential feature in ensuring successful learning outcomes.

University policies on student engagement are therefore predicated on the belief that learning improvement is achieved when students are inspired by the tasks they are allocated and feel that these tasks have meaning to them personally and are likely to be useful in their professional and personal lives. What I find puzzling about these sentiments is that they express something that at one level appears to be self-evident. Why would anyone imagine that the students at higher education level who have worked so very hard to get there, and who are investing large sums of money would not be engaged?

And if they are not engaged then surely the core issue is not student engagement but disengagement? If we assume that all human beings are naturally inquisitive, motivated and interested then should we not be asking the question of what it is that higher education institutions do that makes them bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise disengaged?

Yet the policy focus on student engagement appears to rest on deficit thinking. Troublingly, this thinking often assumes disengagement to be the default position, which needs to be rectified by a range of programs and practices aimed at fixing the problem of disaffection and alienation. This clearly involves a most pessimistic view of the students. A more optimistic view of student desires and interests in learning would in contrast suggest an alternative view of looking at the conditions under which student engagement in learning tasks flourishes. It would raise a different set of questions that policy makers and educators might need to ask.

The key question should no longer be whether students are interested or engaged – this much should be taken for granted – but how, and under what terms. How should we steer students towards more effective forms of engagement? How can we make it count, with ends in mind that they regard as worthwhile?

These questions suggest that the major issues that face us in relation to student engagement are not technical but normative. To which ends, and for what purposes should student engagement be driven, and in which of its many forms? Against which traditions of learning and normativity can engagement be more effective? If students are by their very nature ubiquitously engaged in learning of some kind then it is likely that some of this learning is pointless and ineffective, while some is useful and effective. The pedagogic challenge therefore is how make decisions about which forms of engagement are effective and which not.

To address this challenge we need to recognize the various dimensions of student engagement. These include cognitive, practical, affective, imaginative and ethical. Cognitive refers to knowledge, practical to skills, affective to desires, imaginative to futures, and ethical to good conduct. To acquire a better understanding of what makes student engagement productive, we clearly need to pay attention to each of these dimensions, often in relation to each other. So, for example, student engagement with knowledge cannot be effective unless that knowledge is linked to the desires the students have, and are in line with the futures they envisage. Also important to consider are forms of student engagement that are individualized and those that involve a sense of collective participation in learning tasks, where the rewards of learning come from the satisfaction that students get from working with others, through collaboration and cooperation. Linked to this consideration is the need to examine the spaces in which student engagement now takes place. In contemporary Australia, these learning spaces are increasingly transnational, in which student diversity and exchange have become permanent features.

With almost a quarter of the students in Australian universities enrolled as international students and many others who are Australians of non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, the space in which students now engage in their learning has become culturally diverse, as never before.

The question arises then as to whether Australian higher education realises sufficiently that the students in their classrooms are often highly motivated and engaged, but that they express this in a wide variety of culturally diverse ways; and that student engagement is never culturally neutral but expresses different ethical values and academic traditions.

In sum, while student desires for engagement needs to be assumed, the forms that that engagement takes vary greatly. Much depends on how the opportunities and the spaces of learning are constructed, and the ways in which advantage is taken of the natural inclination all humans have for curiosity and the new opportunities we now have for collaborative intercultural learning.