23 November 2016

Universities need to pay more attention to student engagement

By Dr Ida Fatimawati Adi Badiozaman

The role of universities has changed over the last decade; students no longer go to universities for only information or knowledge; they have the internet and online courses for that. Universities have had to adapt by changing their curriculum to prepare students specifically for their career. Developing soft and leadership skills is very much part of the curriculum now.

Traditionally, universities have been evaluated on their performance via the statistics of students graduating. But that information-centric ranking does not reflect the quality of the university in preparing their students for a successful career later. This is where student engagement has become a vital construct in evaluating educational practices.

It’s a hard term to define as it encompasses the overall student experience of the college, both academic and non-academic. Factors like the level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences and supportive campus environment all factor into student engagement. These factors form the basis of the surveys carried out by the National Survey of Student Engagement which looks at universities across America and Canada, and the Australian Survey of Student Engagement.

Events and programmes which are student-focused and can contribute towards their learning outcomes also contribute towards student engagement. Swinburne’s initiative like Science 2 Society is a good example of how modern universities are trying to enrich the curriculum. It is a lunch time talk for the university’s students given by an external expert. While not part of a formal curriculum, it complements their programme and develops their soft skills. In literature, student engagement is defined as “the time and effort students devote to activities that are empirically linked to desired outcomes of college and what institutions do to induce students to participate in the activities”.

In my experience as an MA TESOL lecturer, engaged students are paying attention, asking questions and interacting with other students; in short, your ideal students. This is why national surveys on student engagement also affect the university’s ranking. As you can imagine, it is an important factor for improving student retention, and that’s why institutions take it seriously.

The highest level of student population drop occurs in the first year of higher education. The biggest reason being an unsuccessful transition to higher learning and feeling disconnected and isolated from the learning experience. Institutions need to work on both academic and social integration to improve retention; in a few words, facilitate student engagement.

To improve academic integration, institutions need to keep re-evaluating educational practices, and these points are tools which will help improve academic student engagement.

Invest in Goals
Students engage in the class not only for gaining academic literacy, but also to gain upward mobility later in life. As such, students who are engaged persist when faced with difficulties and learn with a clear purpose in mind. For this reason, there is a need to capitalize on and integrate learners’ goals into the curricula. Instructors also need to clarify the learning outcomes prior to enrolling so that students can have a clear sense of purpose and motivation.

Create Meaningful Tasks
To have engaged learning, tasks need to be challenging, authentic, and multidisciplinary – a reflection of tasks at home and the workplace. A compromise between traditional and fully online learning offers the student an enhanced learning experience, especially since it is well known that the most powerful models of instruction are interactive. This also allows for co-construction of knowledge, which promotes engaged learning.

Acknowledging Differences
Understanding individual differences in a classroom context is important as it leads to a better appreciation of students’ learning experiences, be it their successes or failures. There is a need to create a culture of recognition which embraces diversity and differences (learning style, individual differences). Teachers must recognize that their classrooms reflect the diverse sociocultural context of the community and allows for the presence of innumerable perspectives, possibilities and opportunities.

Engaged students are active students. If meaningful learning is to happen, the students have to be participants in the process, and not merely products. Acknowledging the changing needs of the 21st century, it is imperative that educational institutions create educational experiences for students that are challenging and enriching and extend their academic abilities.

The biggest shift in the academic world is that students choose to go to university as opposed to immediately joining the workforce. The main motivating factor for this choice is better career prospects, and that’s why institutions need to keep re-evaluating educational practices.

Dr Ida Fatimawati Adi Badiozaman is Associate Dean (diploma/degree and postgraduate program), Faculty of Language and Communication, at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at ifaBadiozaman@swinburne.edu.my