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Promoting and supporting student engagement

The Responding to Student Needs Theme dealt with the issue of promoting and supporting student engagement with the wider academic community in some detail.  It outlined different areas of engagement: engagement with technical and information services; engagement with governance; discipline-based engagement and student engagement in specialised support roles. It suggested that there are three levels of engagement with students' institutions outside of their formal programmes of study.

The first level involves providing general support through employment or volunteering within, for example, university retail outlets, the university library, office administrative support, as well as establishing informal study support groups (possibly in liaison with the students' association or student support services).

At the second level, students undertake a consultant or technical support role, working or volunteering as a student mentor, peer or ambassador; as a representative on institutional consultative bodies (such as committees and working groups); or in a technical support role within the university's computing service (including website maintenance, loading software etc).

At the third level, students become involved in development roles or specialised support roles such as working alongside academic and support staff, contributing to student support activities such as help desks (for example IT and/or library), study skills support and tutoring, academic advising and counselling.

The level of training and development required increases at each level, with a corresponding increase in investment made by the institution. By the third level it is desirable to ensure that an institution gains a return on its investment by providing training and development early in a student's learning programme so that they can contribute to the institution before graduation.

As part of the G21C Enhancement Theme, Margaret Harris reviewed the lessons from the Responding to Student Needs Theme in two documents:

Harris suggests that the lessons from the Responding to Students Needs have been adopted by most HEIs in some ways, but makes the point that the original Theme did not explicitly state what student needs actually are. She therefore provides a list, partly constructed out of workshops held as part of the G21C Theme:

  • Systems that work and are accessible when needed.
  • Lecturers who listen when students want them to.
  • Lecturers who know what they are doing and turn up.
  •  Lecturers and systems that are fair.
  • Lecturers who are engaging and are well prepared.
  • Lecturers using language that is appropriate to the student body or with the ability to explain what they mean.
  • Lecturers who are interested in their subject and the students.
  • Lecturers who can guide and who are willing to talk/debate.
  • Being able to get questions answered when students need them answered.
  • A learning environment that is engaging, challenging and appropriate.
  • Courses that do what they say they will.
  •  Choice and flexibility - study mode, assessment, attendance.
  • Recognition of students' talents, intelligence, knowledge and skills.
  • Understanding of personal circumstances.

What appears to be required are responsive lecturers who can keep students interested and will be there when and if students need them; though in the workshops Harris records that contributors felt little attention was being paid to staff needs and their enthusiasm to accept new challenges.

Another question Harris posed is whose responsibility is it to respond to student needs? This issue is not often discussed, though much of the emphasis for responding to student needs is placed on institutions (and she questions whether, given the range of different types of HE institutions, each with quite different histories, cultures and student intakes, whether different attributes are inevitable). Nevertheless, Harris says, we should be mindful of the responsibility that students have for addressing their own needs. Indeed, many contributors to the workshops suggested that students were often ill equipped to enter HE at all. These are areas where personal development planning (PDP) could prove useful if it was integrated appropriately.

Using information from a variety of sources, including the workshop sessions, Harris constructed a list of classroom-based activities for responding to student needs. They are:

  • Create a good environment - the environment must be fit for purpose, inviting, welcoming, comfortable but challenging.
  • Ignite curiosity and learning - provide tasks that are authentic and of interest. Offer encouragement and guidance. Connect with the students by linking the taught material with what the learner needs to do in the real world. Be careful not to enrage. Be prepared, involve learners in learning plan. Make objectives clear, create safe, comfortable environment, build relationships and gain trust, acknowledge experience, show relevance.
  • Develop relationships with the learners - a working relationship where trust and mutual respect is included allows learners to develop their full potential so that students respond to learning effectively.
  • Discover what's already known - students know more than they think. Tutors need to help them discover it so they can build on it and find relevance to what students are learning. It will give them confidence and allow them to transform their existing knowledge and fit the new learning into their existing structures. It gives them ownership of their learning.
  • Vary presentation modes - balance of visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinaesthetic, keeping actual lecturing to a minimum. Consider short tasks.
  • Broaden perspectives - encourage wider views, bring in wider perspectives. This allows students to see the context. Use group/collaborative approaches to learning. Remember that being in a group has psychological consequences which need to be acknowledged, so consider the task, the group dynamics and personality types. Must remember that approaches with one group may not work with another so material cannot be the same.
  • Note relevance - tasks given should be relevant and or the relevance/purpose should be explained/discussed. Need practical, challenging, authentic tasks that are multidisciplinary.
  • Allow students to set own learning goals. Use peer observation to assist, relates to constructivist and social learning theories. Interactive and cooperative techniques should be used.
  • Invite dialogue - allow students to have a say in class. Opinions can be used as opportunity for discussion, debate, wider perspectives. Allows ownership and provides student with knowledge that what he/she knows is important.
  • Engage emotions - allow people to express emotions freely. Engage them in the classroom - allow freedom of expression.

Use nonlinear presentations - use technology to best advantage - find out what's new - relate it to student base - digital natives? It's not about the technology though it's about how you use it to promote interaction, to make materials relevant, to maintain human interaction. Add some humour and shock value.

Give feedback and celebrate success - feedback and feed forward for learning. A pat on the back is motivating. Gives confidence.

Harris examines the use of technology in learning and collaborative learning, and some combination of the two using social software: such as wikis, forums, file sharing, social book marking, shared calendars, blogs and micro feeds. A further aspect of this point is the use of online mentoring, online tutoring and general study skills assistance. The caveat to all this, Harris says, is that though there is a need for both online and face- to-face learning, students do not always want to be independent learners, despite what we might want them to be.

Harris then places the onus on teachers to be open to new ideas, new technologies and new ways of working, though she recognises that in the early stages we may make learning better for some and worse for others. It may take a bespoke arrangement to cater for this effect, and certainly it is the institution that should adjust rather than the student.

She ends by suggesting that it takes a joined-up approach within institutions to really provide the best student experience, to respond to student needs and to develop graduates for the 21st century, but what we should not do is assume that by getting the support structures correct outside of the classroom that all will be well within it. The actual classroom experience (the formal learning) is vitally important and we should not, if we have already done so, assume that lecturers can do what they like in the classroom and it will satisfy students - it won't and nor will it satisfy stakeholders. There is a requirement to respond to students' needs in the classroom as well as in the wider university context.

For an interesting view on the 21st century student from the perspective of two current ones see the presentation of Joy Elliott of Aberdeen University's Student Association and Phillip Whyte of the University of Strathclyde Students' Association entitled 21st Century Graduate: The Student.

The Flexible Delivery Theme argued that in certain circumstances there was a fundamental misalignment between the student's expectation of the HE experience and what actually took place. One way of bridging this gap might be through improved student surveys. For instance, the Integrative Assessment Theme offered a number of ways in which surveys might be improved to find out more about the student experience of assessment.  These were:

  1. Plug gaps in monitoring students' experiences e.g. ask students about:

    • their experiences of exams and tests
    • the consistency of feedback and marking
    • the weighting of different kinds of assessment
    • how different types of assessment compare with one another
    • any other aspects of assessment normally overlooked.
  2. Tap into their wider assessment experiences e.g. ask questions about:

    • their experiences across modules/course units
    • their experiences across different years/levels of study
    • their experiences across different subject areas.

  3. Combine questionnaires with other methods e.g. explore students' experiences and perceptions via:

    • focus group interviews
    • an open forum to which students are invited
    • web-boards or virtual learning environments which invite students' comments and suggestions.

  4. Focus in on changes in assessment practices or procedures e.g. ask students to comment:

    • ! where procedures change (for instance, a new marking scheme is adopted)
    • ! when a new method of assessment is introduced (for example, when oral presentations or portfolios are introduced).

  5. Ask different kinds of questions e.g.:

    • ! what one thing would really improve how your work as a student is assessed?
    • ! which aspects of assessment seem to work really well/less well/could be improved?

  6. Rethink when to ask students for their views e.g.:

    • ! carry out a brief survey mid-term or mid-semester, while there is still time to address major
    • concerns raised by these students
    • ! once students have been given feedback on their coursework by their tutors, invite
    • comments on its helpfulness to them.

  7. Review what background information you ask of students e.g. to enable you to relate differences in students' perceptions to whether:

    • they have studied the subject before, and how well they did
    • they are likely to take further courses in the future
    • they live on/off campus
    • tthey have a job in term-time
    • they come from an English-speaking background.

  8. Focus in on areas of known student concern e.g. where past evaluations have indicated student discontent with the provision of guidance and feedback, make use of items from existing resources, such as the FAST inventory, Weaver's (2006) questionnaire, or a typology of potential trouble spots in guidance and feedback to probe the issue more searchingly.

  9. Survey staff as well as student experiences and perceptions of assessment particularly where teaching and assessment responsibilities are spread across a large and diverse course team (e.g. mainstream lecturers, postgraduate teaching assistants, part-time tutors or demonstrators).

Source: Integrative Assessment - Monitoring students' experiences of assessment

In the Personalisation strand of The First Year Enhancement Theme, Case Study 1 describes the way the Open University is using tutor support in different ways in order to tailor teaching and learning support to the needs of individual students. The personalisation of support is mediated through proactive tutor-to-student contact, by telephone, at key times when students are particularly likely to be vulnerable or at risk.

Personalised learning support is tailored around the needs of the individual student, thus enabling students to identify their own learning needs, manage their learning more effectively and to take responsibility for their own progress. The back-up to personalised contact is the provision of extensive electronic resources and the creation of dedicated online homes for different subjects.

At the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) and following discussions with staff and students at the institution, a new learning contract (Learning Manifesto) has been produced. The Learning Manifesto is a short 5 page document with a number of bullet-point statements which describe:

  1. The core values of the institution
  2. The pedagogical principles valued and used by UWS
  3. The learning environment for staff and students at UWS
  4. What UWS staff can expect from students
  5. What UWS students can expect from staff

The manifesto was also aimed at providing an initial framework to take forward discussions on defining the University's graduate attributes and employability skills for the 21st century. All this development work was further supported by a student conference, organised for and by students. The conference was designed to provide feedback on how the high level attributes of a 21st century graduate were being developed by students at UWS.