16 April 2014

Student engagement in higher learning institutions

By Dr Ida Fatimawati bt Adi Badiozaman

The study of student engagement has been intensely examined since the 1990s and research on engagement has grown exponentially within three decades. The interest in this construct originated from inquiries by educationists who wished to better understand what constitutes good learning practice, as engagement was firmly believed to have properties that would lead to academic success.

In the academic context, student engagement is defined as involvement, time and quality of effort students put into their learning. Accordingly, student engagement is often synonymous with motivation, commitment and persistence. Student engagement has become the focus of much research due to its role in promoting student learning and demonstrating institutional effectiveness. In many higher learning institutions, student engagement is perceived to be an indicator of collegiate quality and the institution’s measure for educational quality.

Student engagement is a process that develops over time, and patterns of student engagement may change and evolve. As engagement is amenable to internal and external influences, it is important to understand what factors are significant in shaping student engagement.

Goals, academic value and relevance

Most students come to a higher learning institution with goals that may range from short (i.e. getting good results) to long term goals (i.e. graduating and gaining better career prospects). In higher learning institutions, students’ academic engagement can be increased when the subject or skill(s), is recognized as being transferrable to other contexts and relevant to their future endeavours. To illustrate, in academic literacy classes, an emphasis of how skills learnt in the class can be transferred to other core papers could significantly enhance student engagement. The relevance and value of this academic experience allows student’s access not only to their own disciplinary communities of practice, but also to the overall university community. This context affords an enriching educational experience for students in which the links between the value of academic literacy and its relevance to other aspects of academic studies are made explicit.

The link between future goals and high level of engagement is consistent with earlier studies which state that current behaviour is motivated by a sense of purpose for valued future outcomes. Therefore, it is likely that the degree to which the academic experience is able to meet students’ needs and expectations could further influence student engagement. With this is mind, there is a need to capitalize on and integrate learners’ goals into the curricula since the congruency of their future selves with the current academic context can enhance, and sustain their engagement. This also emphasizes the need to effectively communicate the value of the subjects or skills to the students since people tend to invest in goals that they value more.

Relationships matter-Quality of interaction

The relationship with instructors (or lack of this) is another important issue for student engagement. Studies in both Western and non-Western settings have indicated that a student-faculty relationship is necessary for student engagement, especially in higher learning. More specifically, the quality of interaction with the instructor and by extension, the knowledge and skills gained in the learning experience shapes student engagement. To illustrate, empathetic attitudes and behaviours on the part of academics who take a personal interest in their students have a profound influence on student satisfaction and sense of belonging in the learning community. Furthermore, students are more likely to interact with academics and instructors who offer greater academic challenges. Therefore it is possible that student engagement can be enhanced by activities that are perceived as challenging, yet manageable.

Institutional support

These days, institutions are perceived to be accountable for engagement, especially in higher education. In particular, support provided by the university, in terms of facilities, resources and curricula, are crucial in helping students engage academically. In fact, studies have shown students who receive institutional support in their learning tend to have greater success in their academic performance. The types of support may range from student services, accommodation, international student support, postgraduate student support, disability support, and health and wellbeing. The support provided by the institution is crucial to ensure students’ commitment to learning, and to the university as a whole.
Successful student engagement is contingent on internal and external factors. It is imperative that educators continue to seek to understand and apply specific strategies that support engagement in learning both in and beyond the classroom. This means that students have to be held to high expectations; and by the same token, the institution has to provide a quality, rigorous, and meaningful curriculum.

Dr Ida Fatimawati bt Adi Badiozaman is a lecturer with the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at ifaBadiozaman@swinburne.edu.my