Student Engagement in Higher Education
Student engagement in higher education is one of those educational buzzwords that seems to have been around forever. The term, student engagement, can actually be traced back to educational reformer and philosopher John Dewey in the late 1800’s. So, let’s take a deeper dive into student engagement: what it is, student engagement research, its role in the learning process, and how to ensure you create truly engaged students.
According to The Glossary of Education Reform, student engagement “refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.”
Yet, it’s not just about students. The glossary adds that, “student engagement may also refer to the ways in which school leaders, educators, and other adults might “engage” students more fully in the governance and decision-making processes.” The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) adds more elements to the list, citing that “student engagement is best understood as a relationship between the student and the following elements of the learning environment: The school community, The adults at school, The student’s peers, The instruction, and The curriculum.”
According to the NAIS, student engagement involves three dimensions:
- Behavioral engagement: focusing on participation in academic, social, and co-curricular activities
- Emotional engagement: focusing on the extent and nature of positive and negative reactions to teachers, classmates, academics, and school
- Cognitive engagement: focusing on students’ level of investment in learning.
Student engagement theory in higher education takes into the environment and social learning. Social learning theories help us to understand how people learn in social contexts learn from each other and inform us on how we, as educators, construct active learning communities. Lev Vygotsky (1962), a Russian teacher and psychologist, first stated that we learn through our interactions and communications with others. Student engagement theory (Vygotsky) examined how our social environments influence the learning process.
Student Engagement Theory
In a review of scholarly articles on student engagement by Vygotsky, he suggested that learning takes place through the interactions students have with their peers, teachers, and other experts. Consequently, teachers can create a learning environment that maximizes the learner’s ability to interact with each other through discussion, collaboration, and feedback. In his student engagement theory, we learn through this cultural lens by interacting with others and following the rules, skills, and abilities shaped by our culture.
Students engage when the following is created:
- Developing Learning Communities
- Community of Learners Classroom
- Collaborative Learning and Group Work
- Discussion-based Learning (Socratic Questioning Methods)
In framing student engagement in higher education, instruction that supports social learning should center around:
- Students working together on a task
- Students developing across the curriculum
- Instructors choosing meaningful and challenging tasks for the students to work
- Instructors manage socratic dialogue that promote deeper learning.
In his study about student engagement, Vygotsky argued, “that language is the main tool that promotes thinking, develops reasoning, and supports cultural activities like reading and writing” (Vygotsky 1978). As a result, instructional strategies that promote literacy across the curriculum play a significant role in knowledge construction as well as the combination of whole class leadership, individual and group coaching, and independent learning.
Moreover, instructors need to provide the opportunity to students for a managed discussion about their learning. Discussion that has a purpose with substantive comments that build off each other and there is a meaningful exchange between students that results in questions that promote deeper understanding. Discussion-based classrooms using socratic dialogue where the instructor manages the discourse can lead each student to feel like their contributions are valued resulting in increased student motivation. The same student engagement theories hold true for online learning.
However, there are wide-ranging definitions of online student engagement that involve multiple components and that’s part of the reason why the topic has been discussed and written about so extensively. However, it’s the benefits of student engagement — namely the idea of student success — that keep it top of mind for educators.The question becomes, in either delivery of education — online or in person — why is student engagement important and what are the tools for assessing student engagement.
Why is Student Engagement Important in Higher Education
Even more so than in face-to-face courses, students in online courses need to be able to interact with peers and instructors; they need to be able to discuss the things they are struggling with and share their ideas to help others in the class. Students who are disinterested in the material or learning activities will disengage, which leads to apathy and, ultimately, poor performance.
The need for online student engagement became especially apparent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the transition to online learning happened so abruptly, instructors had little to no time to prepare to teach the course in the digital landscape. The initial lack of student engagement in online learning left educators and students understandably frustrated. With the spotlight now on student engagement, institutions were tasked with finding ways to keep online students involved in course material. They quickly realized the value of peer-to-peer and peer-to-instructor interaction, even with remote learning.
To improve student engagement, institutions began investing in video tools and related technology so that students and educators could remain in close contact. Even with the pandemic abating, and students returning to in-person classes, institutions are continually looking for ways to improve online student engagement and student outcomes. There are a number of reasons why more and more students are opting for online and hybrid learning models, and institutions need to be flexible in order to keep up with the demands of today’s modern learner.
Supporting faculty professional development in this area is essential. Many educators participate in student engagement training and workshops in order to learn how to increase engagement in their online courses. Education today is heavily dependent on technology and is likely to become even more tech-based in the near future. It is incumbent on educators to keep up with the latest tools to facilitate an interactive digital classroom. By doing so, they can work to create better learning experiences for their students, which ultimately lead to better student retention and engagement in higher education.
Increasing Student Engagement in Higher Education
Increasing student engagement in higher education is vital to creating and sustaining an effective digital learning environment. By prioritizing college student engagement, instructors can create a more positive experience for everyone involved and help students sharpen their communication skills. It’s important to lay the groundwork for implementing effective engagement strategies in your online classroom.
Many factors affect student engagement online. Lack of access to internet-capable devices is among the top factors negatively impacting students’ success in online courses. Institutions should be mindful of the tech-related challenges faced by students. Poor learning habits and lack of self-motivation should also be taken into account. Many students struggle to keep up with self-paced courses, and so providing additional resources and course delivery methods is important.
When it comes to how to increase student engagement, first consider deploying a survey to students to better understand their circumstances, access, and to determine how to increase student engagement. Your survey might touch on topics related to tech accessibility, communication with instructors, and any learning difficulties they may be facing. The results of your survey can be extremely helpful when developing student engagement strategies and planning activities to engage students in online learning.
Other high-impact tactics, aligned to Vygotsky’s student engagement theory, to implement when focused on improving student engagement and success include:
- Using emotion-based, multimedia & student-facilitated online discussions for better student engagement in online learning
- Design online collaboration activities like peer reviews and small-group discussions
- Create multiple milestone due dates that guide students through a series of assignments, serving to keep them on track
Different institutions serve different types of students and can benefit from different student engagement techniques. For example, institutions with large class sizes can help get students involved in group projects. Those participating in smaller classes may be put into pairs or small groups for more personal engagement. Small class sizes allow for more one-on-one interaction between students and with instructors.
Regardless of class size, students can benefit from tools like chat and multimedia integration. Being able to converse with their peers and instructors can help keep them involved and engaged in course material. Additionally, by incorporating relevant media into their class discussion posts and assignments, they can more easily convey ideas and help their classmates understand complex topics. These strategies promote student engagement and are shown to be highly effective at keeping students motivated and engaged.
Online Tools for Student Engagement
When it comes to figuring out how to measure student engagement online, you have to have the right tools for assessing student engagement.
Harmonize offers a range of student engagement tools to improve retention, including rich multimedia discussion and Q&A boards, polling, chat, and more — all of which allow students to participate in the ways that work best for them. Using online tools for student engagement increases the quality and quantity of student-to-student, student-to-content, and student-to-instructor interactions.
✔ Online Discussion Boards
✔ An online annotation tool that includes video annotation and an image annotation tool
✔ Built-in Chat, Polling & Q&A
✔ Tagging, Notification & Reactions
✔ Streamlined Grading to Save Instructors Time & Focus on Feedback
✔ Engagement Insights to measure student engagement
A good student engagement platform also provides tools for instructors to monitor student engagement and interactions to see who needs extra help. For example, with the platform’s activity reports, instructors can view student participation and see who is the most or least engaged in course material. This is a great way to gauge the effectiveness of your engagement techniques and activities. Engagement tools like these can be used to create a more positive learning environment for students and instructors alike.
The bottom line is that having access to the right tools to power effective online learning is paramount. Making sure the student engagement software is inclusive of different learners’ styles, fosters social connection and community, and is designed to help instructors track student participation could spell the difference between student success or attrition. To do all of this, some institutions rely on a variety of disconnected tools that aren’t fully integrated with the LMS — creating additional barriers for instructors and making it more difficult to create a cohesive learning experience that engages students.
Harmonize is a single suite of digital discussion and collaboration tools that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to facilitate a more engaging online learning experience. It’s everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement online and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.