Following the publishing of Times Higher Education article, I found myself in discussion with a colleague at another institution. They were (to put it mildly) rather vexed at my assertation that Student Engagement should go beyond simply trying to get students to attend and pay attention.
There was one thing that really upset them, specifically the cooking analogy I used.
“If we make a dish, an ‘engaged diner’ would be someone who is focused on the meal and the dining experience. As chefs, we have prepared something they enjoy, and they are motivated to eat it. By comparison, ‘diner engagement’ would be inviting the diner to join you in the kitchen. Asking them to help you plan the meal, maybe get their tasting notes as you prepare the dish, perhaps even giving them access to the spatula!”
One of their comments in response resonated with me.
“I don’t need someone to give me tasting notes, and how can I give someone a spatula if they are still mastering the fork”.
I won’t detail the entire discussion, but their argument focused on two things. 1) That they are the expert in the room, and student engagement is undermining. 2) They are an overworked academic who doesn’t feel that they have the time to explore these activities.
To address the first concern, while we may be experts in our subject, students are often experts in their own learning. By the time students arrive at university, most will have had a minimum of 13 years of schooling. By any measure, this is long enough to become an expert in a topic, even if that expertise is focused on personal, educational preferences. In any other HE activity, we capitalise on the experience available – student engagement should be no different. It is also folly to assume that we are always the experts in the room. At one extreme, I have taught mature students who have worked in the industry, actively practising the theory I am teaching for n~years. I wouldn’t suggest that there isn’t a lot I can still teach these students, but there is also often something that they can teach me. But students will also usually sign-up to for courses based on personal interest in the topic. This interest can also manifest itself through a student’s hobbies or personal projects. It isn’t unusual for me to teach a subject (Game Design for example) and for a student to highlight their own expertise. For example, showing me a design project they worked on for months or even years ahead of the module. While their expertise may be self-directed, un-refined or niche, it is still something that I can help them polish as an educator.
Indeed, during the pandemic, I have organised two student-led seminar series called “enhancement weeks”, which were enjoyed by staff and fellow students alike. And at Lincoln, we have recently developed a festival of learning with a solid student-led agenda.
The second point of the argument about time and workload is a genuine concern, and I sympathise. Student Engagement can feel like an additional workload pressure that people simply don’t have the time for right now. Furthermore, learning how to do this effectively (the pedagogy of the matter) takes time to learn. This can feel like trying to run before you can walk. However, there are lots of strategies that are simple to embed, which can also help enhance the students learning without adding an additional workload burden, peer feedback and critique sessions for example.
Peer-based feedback has been broadly discussed in the literature as a valuable way to support student learning. The peer feedback approach is often viewed as best practice, and there are a range of models out there to suit most subject areas. Indeed, typing “peer-based feedback for [enter subject]” into your favourite search engine will bring up a host of frameworks, case studies, and evaluations.
I will usually schedule a timetabled slot in my modules where students (in groups) will comment on each other’s work. I spend my time during this session walking between groups helping to facilitate their conversations.
For people who have concerns about students’ expertise – evaluations have shown that peer feedback is often equivalent to that provided by the academic. Students base their evaluations on the information they have been provided through the module. Having an academic in the room can also help through facilitation and clarifying points of confusion. Furthermore, evaluating another’s work can help a student reflect on their own.
By engaging in activities like these, we also optimise how we are using our time. For example, providing individualised formative feedback to students can be challenging to turn around in a short amount of time. By splitting students into groups, they can probably explore something in greater detail than a module team may. In my experience, this also helps strengthen a learning community, which becomes its own support structure raising a group’s standards and aspirations.
Module and Programme Planning
One burden of my workload is the crunch time around assessments, or whenever I hit a specifically complicated theory or concept, adding additional workload to my office hours. To try and tackle this, I involve the student’s in my module, programme, and school teaching and learning planning. This activity helps me identify potential bottlenecks by looking at the programme through a student’s eyes. two of the student engagement strategies I employ to help with this are:
Involving students in school assignment deadline planning. This can help to avoid deadline clustering, which can often result in an increased support demand from students.
Getting feedback on module plans from students. It helps to get feedback on which topics may require more time to explain (a student who has just studied the module can help).
Student-Led Skills Sharing and Peer Support
I advocate involving students in the process of education (giving them the spatula to use my previous analogy). I have even mentored students to achieve their HEA Associate Fellowship through peer-led activities. I have seen so many tangible benefits for the students, but this has also helped reduce some pressures on my workload.
One area I have promoted is student-led skills sharing. As mentioned previously, students often come to university with their areas of expertise. They are often willing to share these if given the platform to do so. By getting students to transfer skills across the cohort, you can help your students diversify their CV and enhance their learning community.
In our school, we have established student-led academic sociaties. Beyond running trips and events, these groups also organise drop-in peer-led support sessions. These can help students find the course extra challenging (for whatever reason), especially those who struggle to ask for help. This also means that the students often manage many simple support requests themselves without needing academic intervention.
These activities are just a sample of the options that exist in the published literature. But, again, I must stress that saving time isn’t the critical benefit to engaging students. However, I do believe that proactively engaging students can positively enhance the learning environment. These enhancements can range from giving them a clear pathway into research to giving them the tools to support each other’s self-directed learning.
Of course, these arguments won’t convince everyone! And the conversation, debates and disagreements themselves are valuable.