Student Engagement in Learning and Teaching Print E-mail
By Daniel Boase-Jelinek   

What is student engagement?

Student engagement is a diffuse term that encompasses a diversity of measures of the interactions between students and their learning environment (Chapman, 2003). These measures may include:
  • time and effort spent performing learning tasks;
  • interest and motivation demonstrated in engaging with learning tasks;
  • compliance with teacher specifications of learning tasks; and
  • cognitive strategies employed in addressing learning tasks.
Student engagement may also be expressed in terms of the steps universities take to foster desired student learning experiences. A survey developed for the National Survey of Student Engagement in the USA (Kuh, 2004) is a good example of this. This survey measures the:
  • amount of contact between students and their teachers;
  • degree of cooperative behaviour amongst students;
  • availability of active learning opportunities presented to students;
  • provision of prompt feedback to students on their work;
  • time spent on learning activities;
  • the expectations of teachers relating to student work; and
  • respect for the different ways in which students learn, and the individual talents of each student.
Another approach to the challenge of defining student engagement involves focussing on student responses to their learning environment (Bangert-Drowns & Pyke, 2001). Such responses have been put into seven categories:
  1. disengaged;
  2. unsystematic engagement;
  3. frustrated engagement;
  4. structure-dependent engagement;
  5. self-regulated interest;
  6. critical engagement;
  7. literate thinking.
This set of categories has a hierarchy that suggests a theoretical construct underlying the idea of student engagement; that it is the involvement of the whole person in developing the behavioural, emotional and cognitive resources students require (Woodward & Munns, 2003). 

Current models of student engagement

Engagement Theory (Kearsley & Shneiderman, 1999) describes the external factors that need to be put in place to foster engagement. The authors of this theory argue that successful collaborative and meaningful teamwork motivates students to remain engaged with their learning. To achieve this outcome the activities must involve:
  • development of skills in communication, planning, management and social interaction;
  • opportunities to create something new;
  • production of a useful outcome.
The challenges in implementing this approach in class involve:
  • defining a project that is sufficiently specific for students to know what to do, but not so specific that there is no scope for creativity and individual contribution;
  • allocating students to collaborative groups that will allow each student to contribute to the group effort;
  • supporting students to enable them to work together despite various difficulties that might arise;
  • providing an authentic learning environment - eg a workplace. The complexity of the workplace provides many learning opportunities for students - the challenge is to ensure that the placement is structured in a way that students learn things that are relevant to their course.
Addressing these challenges involves consideration of the idea that student engagement involves cognitive, emotional and behavioural components (Munns, 2004). Behavioural components contribute to empowering students by giving them activities that they can successfully perform. Emotional components involve engaging students and teachers in conversations reflecting on the learning activity they have just performed. Cognitive components involve intellectual challenge and stimulation. The tasks should not be trivial, and should involve cognitive effort just beyond the student's current comfort zone and within the student's ability.
The three components of this model all interact with each other, and all are important components of engagement. A lack of emotional involvement means that the student is bored and disinterested in the activity. This will impact negatively on student motivation and subsequent learning outcomes. Lack of cognitive challenge means that students are denied an opportunity to learn and will not feel a sense of achievement. Lack of activity means that learning is passive and superficial.