Thoughts on student engagement

One of my favourite education quotes is Robert Coe’s “Engagement is a poor proxy for learning”. It’s very easy to presume that just because students are busy doing stuff that they are actually learning something. This is not necessarily the case and it seems to me that an awful lot of innovation in education focuses on engagement without really asking if students are learning anything of substance.

But the corollary is also true. If students are not engaged, well, then, they have no chance of learning. By “engaged” I don’t necessarily mean having fun; I just mean being committed, being focused and showing a reasonable level of general interest in their chosen discipline.

I think many of us teaching in the higher education system find it difficult to empathise with the unmotivated student. Most of us were high-performing students with high levels of intrinsic motivation. We find it hard to get our heads around the idea that a student might be happy to do the minimum amount of study and employ a bit of rote learning to scrape through assessments.

One of our ‘solutions’ to the engagement problem is to assess students into a state of engagement. The Covid19 crisis has only exacerbated this trend and I have noticed an increasing tendency to put more and more hurdles in front of students as a means of ensuring that they study. We’re locked into a cycle that despite being well-intentioned is, I believe, simply adding to the problem and taking away any sense of enjoyment that education might bring.

So what do we do? First we have to recognise that we do have an engagement problem and that it is not a reflection of some sort of deficiency on the part of students but more a feature of the world we live in. Studying for a degree in 2021 is very different from studying for a degree in 1984. In 2021, the distractions are immense and the fact that so many of our students work part time means that we cannot just carry on as if our students are 100% committed to their studies, at least when looked at within the totality of all their commitments.

What this means is that we must try harder to engage students – to inspire them even. As someone who has a broadly traditional view of education, it has taken me a while to recognise this. A year of online teaching in which, for the first time in many years, I have been able to give teaching my best shot, has changed my outlook considerably. I keep thinking of the episode of the Simpsons when Marge develops a gambling addiction and she says to Homer that she needs to go to counselling, and Homer says, “just stop”. But it’s never that simple. Saying to students that they just have to suck it up, attend their lectures and study hard is like saying “stop” to the addict. It leads nowhere.

At the moment, I’m working on the development of a new programme in DCU and one of the challenges for me will be to tackle the engagement problem while also retaining a strong focus on knowledge and basic skill acquisition. It can’t be all fun and games, but it can’t be more of the same either.

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