Promoting student engagement in learning activities

Originally published in Forum Magazine, Issue 41, Autumn 2016.

The design of student work, both within and outside of contact hours, is central to the York Pedagogy. This focus is inspired by research which has shown that educational gain is maximised when learning activities are carefully-designed to increase student engagement in their learning. Here Dr Claire Hughes, Environment Department lecturer, discusses her approaches to maximising student engagement in the modules she teaches and how her observations of student attitudes to specific learning activities compare to findings from published educational research on academic engagement.

The link between academic engagement and educational gain

According to Bloom (1956) an engaged student is one who attends taught sessions and actively engages in learning tasks, finds the work interesting and enjoyable and, crucially, invests mental effort into their learning, going beyond what is expected and enjoying the challenge. The link between academic engagement and educational gain is clear (Trowler, 2010). Consistent with this, I am sure that we have all come across students who have displayed the behavioural, emotional and cognitive characteristics described in Bloom (1956) and have seen them go on to excel both in their studies and in life after graduation. There appears to be no doubt that engagement is essential for academic success and the development of deep and lifelong learners; key educational goals of higher education.

An important question, and one raised in a recent review published by the Higher Education Academy (Trowler, 2010), is who has responsibility for ensuring that students’ engage with their learning. Some place the onus on the student but others are clear that institutions and teachers must bear some of the responsibility and make deliberate efforts to promote engagement. Coates (2005), for example, suggests that engagement and learning relies on ‘institutions and staff providing students with the conditions, opportunities and expectations to become involved’. I agree and think that as teachers we should pay attention to promoting engagement when designing student work and that this should be an important consideration when we reflect on the success of taught sessions.

What promotes student engagement?

I have seen clearly the sorts of learning activities that promote behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement in my students. Overall the most successful activities are those that have a student-led component [1] but are strongly scaffolded by feedback and opportunities for practice [2]. These observations are consistent with research into the psychology of motivation which suggests that autonomy and perceived competence are effective ways to develop intrinsic motivation (reviewed by Ryan and Deci, 2000). These observations are also consistent with educational research which suggests that personalisation (Prain et al., 2013) and self-efficacy (Linnenbrink and Pintrich, 2003) are important drivers of academic engagement. I have also found that engagement is increased in activities that involve learning which will be useful in terms of future assessments or employability [3]. Such links clearly provide the necessary instrumentalities to drive extrinsic motivation. The use of instrumentalities to promote engagement is consistent with educational literature (e.g. Wigfield and Cambria, 2010) on the importance of students’ perception of task value in learning activities.

1: Student-led learning and personalisation

I have observed a high level of student engagement in a research methods module which asks students to decide themselves on the environmental management topic they will study in the field. This move away from the traditional ‘cook book lab’ has seen students setting up Facebook pages for their project group, independently organising group meetings outside of contact hours and contacting me to ask sensible and engaging questions. The words ‘freedom’, ‘independence’ and ‘choice’ have appeared on over 60 student feedback forms completed for this module in the last 2 years, highlighting that the opportunity to explore individual interests and ideas is a key motivator.

2: Scaffolding to promote self-efficacy

In general I have found that student-led tasks are more successful in terms of promoting engagement when they are scaffolded by opportunities for practice and provide space for getting it wrong and working out how to put it right. For example, in one of my laboratory-based learning activities I ask students to design the experiment they will use to collect data for a summative report on the environmental controls of bacterial growth. This is potentially a daunting task as students are likely to have previously had limited experience of both the methodologies involved in handling microbes and independent experimental design.  In order to build self-efficacy I run a practice session in advance of the main practical during which students can develop skills in the use of methodologies for handling the microbes and measuring their growth. Errors and mistakes that are inevitably made during this first session are almost never seen in the main practical during which groups almost always work well to obtain high quality experimental datasets.  Additionally, they appear to approach the measurements in the main practical with confidence and, rather than worrying about basic practicalities, spend time refining and embellishing their experiments.

3: Useful learning and task value

Students appear to be more engaged in learning tasks that have links to the dissertation (or other high value assessments) and future employability. In my research methods module we provide a framework that students use to design and report on a field project. My observations suggest that students are highly engaged in this module and feedback frequently suggests that they value this task as the framework can be used in the dissertation and investigating an environmental management issue provides the opportunity to undertake work similar to what is done by environmental consultants; a common career goal for our graduates.

Personalisation for effective engagement

‘teachers who are autonomy supportive catalyse their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge’ (Ryan and Deci., 2000)

Whilst it has been criticised for ‘conceptual fuzziness’, personalisation has been endorsed as a key strategy to improve engagement and promote the development of independent learner capabilities (Prain et al., 2013).  In general, personalised learning takes into account the diversity of learner needs by offering students choice in the way that they learn: giving them the opportunity to guide their own journey through learning and providing ownership and responsibility for the learning process. The modular system is in itself a form of personalised learning but promoting every-day engagement would seem to require personalisation at the learning activity-level. I achieve a degree of personalisation in my teaching [Box 1] by allowing students to choose the research question they will use as a basis for the learning activities in my research methods module. This works here as students can still achieve the module learning outcomes, which centre on the ability to design and report on an authentic research project, no matter what topic they choose. However, the extent to which it is possible to allow our students to decide what, when, where and how they learn will clearly vary between programmes, modules and learning activities.

How far we need to go to provide a personalised education that brings the benefits of increased engagement is a topic of discussion. Innovating Pedagogy 2015, the Open University’s fourth annual report on the technological trends revolutionising global education (Sharples et al., 2015), highlights computer-based adaptive teaching as a key form of personalised learning that is likely to emerge in coming years. Such systems can be designed to develop bespoke pathways of study for each learner, providing guidance on, for example, which material to revisit and hints on how to solve problems, and guide classroom teaching activities depending on online test results. Whilst bespoke pathways of study could be of benefit to student learning some are concerned about the loss of collaborative learning they bring and their incorporation into regular teaching activities would require major shifts. However some of the principles that lie behind them could be incorporated into existing teaching fairly easily. For example, modules could be structured around regular in class tests and quizzes that are used to gauge students understanding of taught concepts and the results used to help guide the content of subsequent sessions. Alternatively research suggests that simply ensuring that we have effective interactions with our students should promote engagement through personalisation. Waldeck (2007) suggests that instructor accessibility, level of interest and engagement with students, alongside flexibility in terms of course activities, are key characteristics that influence students’ perception of the degree of personalisation in their education. This could be achieved through, for example, incorporating drop-in sessions into our modules in which, individually or as a group, students receive guidance on aspects of the course they are finding difficult.

Self-efficacy beliefs and student engagement

Self-efficacy beliefs are ‘people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances’ (Bandura, 1986). Studies have revealed that individuals with a sense of competence have been found to dedicate greater effort and have greater persistence, deeper cognitive engagement, greater interest and an improved sense of value in specific learning tasks (reviewed by Linnenbrink and Pintrich, 2003). This is consistent with observations from my laboratory practical sessions [Box 2] where students appear to have greater engagement in learning tasks that are scaffolded by opportunities to practice and develop new skills.

Linnenbrink and Pintrich (2003) provide a useful list of recommendations for how to promote self-efficacy in day-to-day teaching practice. These include providing task-specific feedback that promotes the development of reasonable self-efficacy beliefs, setting challenging tasks that can be completed with some effort and fostering the belief that competence is changeable. Whilst whole programmes of study could be arranged around these recommendations there are clearly small changes that could be made at a modular level. Probably the most important suggestions would be to leave room in the timetable for students to practice new skills and deliberately embed opportunities to provide task-specific feedback. Where possible it would also seem appropriate to highlight students’ progression towards mastery of a specific skill so they can see how their efforts have led to improved abilities. In some my own modules I use simple flow diagrams to show students the steps needed to master a specific skill and return to this from time-to-time to show how far they have come and what is left to achieve.

The importance of task value for promoting engagement

Learning activities have a high task value when students value the material in terms of interest, importance, and utility (Wigfield and Cambria, 2010). The framework for research project design that I use as the basis for my research methods module [Box 3] is useful to students in the capstone dissertation and future employability so learning tasks associated with this are seen as high value and they are associated with high levels of engagement. As academic performance and employability are likely to promote motivation in a large proportion of students, learning activities which are linked to these instrumentalities are likely to be associated with higher levels of student engagement. This may seem obvious but efforts to use task value to promote engagement are unlikely to be successful if the links to such instrumentalities are not obvious and made clear to our students.

In my own modules I have been working towards strengthening the links between my teaching, and other modules and employability. This has been through designing resources such as handbooks and statistics decision trees that students can take away from my modules and use in others. Even explaining to students that the material they are learning in my modules will be of use to them in others appears to promote greater engagement. For the first time this year we will be linking the projects that students undertake in my research methods module with key issues of concern to the Campus Estates Manager. First class reports will be compiled into a report to Estates with contributing students as co-authors.  We are hoping that this will enhance the perception of task value in this module even further and promote even greater engagement.

Student engagement under the York Pedagogy

I think that there are key opportunities to promote student engagement under the York Pedagogy. Programme maps will allow us to identify how the teaching within our modules is linked to that in others and provide us with a framework to clearly highlight the value of learning activities to wider academic achievement. Programme learning outcomes provide us with educational goals that we can use to explain why students are being asked to engage in specific learning activities. Additionally, a programme-level approach to the design of teaching allows us space to embed the opportunities for developing self-efficacy through practicing skills and providing the feedback that encourages development across multiple modules.

Some may argue that it is difficult to incorporate the suggestions for improving engagement described here due to time constraints. However, the careful design of the work students undertake outside of contact hours should leave room for face-to-face activities that promote student engagement through personalisation, self-efficacy and task value without adding to our workloads.

Dr Claire Hughes


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Linnenbrink, E. A., and Pinntrich, P. R. 2003. The role of self-efficacy beliefs in student engagement and learning in the classroom. Reading and Writing Quarterly 19: 119-137

Waldeck, J. H. 2007. Answering the question: student perceptions of personalised education and the construct’s relationship to learning outcomes. Communication Education 56: 409-432

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Sharples, M., Adams, A., Alozie, N., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Means, B., Remold, J., Rienties, B., Roschelle, J., Vogt, K., Whitelock, D. & Yarnall, L. (2015). Innovating Pedagogy 2015: Open University Innovation Report 4. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Bloom, B.S. (ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: the Classification of Educational Goals. New York: D McKay & Co, Inc.

Coates, H. (2005) The value of student engagement for higher education quality assurance. Quality in Higher Education 11: 25–36

Trowler, V. 2010. Student Engagement Literature Review: Higher Education Academy.

Wigfield, A., and Cambria, J. 2010. Students’ achievement values, goal orientations, and interest: Definitions, development, and relations to achievement outcomes. Developmental Review 30: 1-35


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