Westfield communal students on laptops

What is student engagement in lockdown?

A personal perspective from Dr Darren Mundy, FACE Faculty Academic Manager and Dr Chris Wilcox, FHS Associate Dean Student Experience

The old computer security adage that ‘on the Internet no-one knows you are a dog’ continues to seem apt in these current times where we are supporting our learning communities through a mixture of online applications. Online learning can certainly feel as if you are anonymous. If no-one knows you are a dog, and no-one cares, then it is quite easy to exist as a dog online, but it is pretty isolationist, and lonely. The reality is we want to know who our learners are, what they are doing, what they have accessed, and that they are there and coping well with their studies.

Krause and Coates (2008, p.493) defines student engagement as “the extent to which students are engaging in activities that higher education research has shown to be linked with high-quality learning outcomes”. This is relatively all encompassing covering the academic and non-academic elements of the student experience, understanding that each has an implicit value in supporting those learning outcomes. In addition, Fredricks, Blumenfeld and Paris (2004, pp.62-63) highlight three dimensions to student engagement: behavioural, emotional and cognitive. Each of these dimensions can relate to the various aspects of the student’s journey through our institution, and the various activities we put in place to support this.

As reported recently by High Fliers Research (High Fliers Research, 2020) more than 70% of their sample considered that Universities had responded well to the Coronavirus in terms of items such as moving their materials online and continuing the provision of their study. This leaves a population of students disaffected by the movement and perhaps points more broadly to challenges faced for the next academic year, regarding student perceptions of what may be a new ‘normal’. As with any circumstance where during a period of crisis emergency steps are taken to continue learning (e.g. staff illness, loss of facilities) the mechanisms put in place form short term fixes but are unlikely to lead to long term success. And whilst the structures put in place within the recent Covid-19 lockdown have led to a good range of positive student feedback, strategies for engagement across all Blumenfeld and Paris’s dimensions were not necessarily always well covered.

Therefore, what we need to consider is how in terms of student engagement we move beyond our initial March response and develop a new response to student engagement in this new ‘normal’. Such a response needs to have at its core the old values aligned with what Coates (2007) identifies as: taking the steps needed to engage our learners in their study; recognising each and every learner as an individual and providing mechanisms for personal support both academic and non-academic; and building in structures to engage our students with each other and the rest of the academic and non-academic communities. In addition, we need to think carefully and clearly regarding how we ensure that our solution is providing mechanisms through which we can strengthen and enrich those behavioural, cognitive and emotional dimensions. It is also useful at this point to reflect on whether the actions we take now can lead to stronger educational environments in the future, our longer response to the circumstances of Covid-19 can lead to strengthened University systems and strengthened mechanisms to support student learning.

Learning Engagement (academic challenge; active and collaborative learning; providing participatory structures)

Covid-19 could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform historical educational scenarios. Research has long suggested that the attention spans of learners in the context of traditional lectures may not stretch for much more than 20 minutes (Johnstone and Percival, 1976), yet in several circumstances these have continued to be used. Encouraging ourselves and colleagues to consider how to structure learning in online environments and how to run effective synchronous sessions with our student groups offers an excellent opportunity to strengthen those cognitive aspects of student learning. In addition, thinking carefully and critically about the use of a variety of online tools coupled with the development of clear and challenging exercises for students to complete flexibly can also provide strength.

If we focus on the behavioural aspects of learning engagement, in traditional form these ostensibly focus on items such as: what students are expected to do, how students are expected to contribute, and how students are expected to respond. Generally, these aspects are supported by our timetable, the structures we put in place, the ground rules we set, the guidance we give in session etc. In blended environments where there may be an increased emphasis on the online platform, clarity, consistency and general course hygiene factors are of great importance. It matters that we give students clear guidance on what we expect from them in terms of their learning journey on a module. It matters that our information on the learning platform is clear and provides them with enough information to engage flexibly in their learning. It matters that we try and provide them with some consistency in terms of structure that will help them to better understand what they need to do across all modules.

An additional behavioural response to help retention may be through use of nudging. Nudging is not new, but it is in every aspect of our lives. For example, like choosing a healthier diet and exercising more. But, is nudging something we can use more in higher education, specifically to engage students and increase retention? Previous works in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) suggests that engagement nudges (giving detail of progress in content, quizzes taken and time online) increases completion rates within the course (Martinez et al., 2017). The framing of any nudges is vitally important. It is known that negatively framed nudges (giving proportion of the students doing better) increases performance for low performing students whilst positively framed nudges (giving the proportion of students doing worse) increased the performance of the high achieving students (Martinez, 2014). van Oldenbeek, Winkler, Buhl-Wiggers, and Hardt (2019) suggested that in a blended course, similar to the beginning of our 2020 academic year, personalised progress reports had a positive impact on engagement and interaction within the materials.

From an emotional perspective we want our learners to continue to be interested in and to love their selected subject area, not to be disenchanted and disillusioned by our developed response. It is also evident that the greater interest and enthusiasm our students have in their subject material the more likely they are to engage, participate and effectively learn (Quinlan, 2019). Clearly our disciplinary responses in this area will have great importance, for example, how we enable the most loved elements of each discipline to be delivered effectively in a blended environment. An example of how our response to Covid-19 may lead to a strengthened response longer term is the facilitation for next academic year of remote access to specialised applications and facilities. Pre-Covid we would have had an emphasis on students accessing on campus and physically using our facilities. Post-Covid subject areas are investing in mechanisms for remote access, filming processes and procedures to give students good practice demonstrators of how to carry out particular tasks, and investing increasing amounts of effort in developing engaging lab materials, that students can complete either on their own off campus or in controlled environments without necessarily the same level of physical academic support. This all will create a bank of learning materials which can continue to strengthen our learning environments into the future.

From a cognitive perspective, it has long been the case that individuals across Faculties have been reporting increased disengagement with attending lecture sessions. Flipped classrooms and an increased emphasis on learner engagement with pre-delivered and pre-directed content, offers us an opportunity to increase the level of emphasis on critical cognitive interaction with their discipline. This may help resist the YouTube culture of learn when you need it, increasing learner focus on the core questions that matter in their discipline areas and giving us as facilitators of their learning a better understanding of how they are progressing.

Personal Support (formative communication)

A key aspect of our new ‘normal’ is going to be the way we track, trace and respond. No, not to the virus and not with an app, but to our learners and their journeys’ through our learning environments. Our tools have often provided a range of information about our learners, what they access, how many times, when they are accessing etc. but often there is not a clear response to this data, and often for our academic teams this data may be accessible, but it can be difficult to interpret, use and respond to. More strategic forms of response can be found in warehousing this material together and presenting the data in a form which can be quickly analysed and responded to at an individual level. Where our support teams, both academic and non-academic can recognise where learner engagement is reduced, and flexible policy can guide our response. These tools will help us to understand our learner behaviour in ways we have not been able to before, and to engage directly with individuals who are displaying signs of non-engagement to help them overcome some of the challenges presented to them.

Our personal support function during lock-down extended beyond the academic, keeping students spirits positive and focused on task, and ensuring that they were adapting to the way that their learning environments had changed. Many of those aspects will remain in place but our post emergency response now has structures in place that our support tutors can signpost students to. Whether this be to the MyHull portal for direct engagement with central and Faculty student hub services including careers, student support etc. or to ICT for issues with respect to equipment access and loan. We can build on the issues faced in March and ensure that our students are well supported to be able to engage with our academic content.

From a personal support side, academic cognitive development will remain important. Focusing learners on understanding their positions within the context of their studies and exciting learners with items which interest them during the development of their relationship with their personal tutors.

Whilst monitoring engagement, particularly meaningful engagement will be tricky and potentially problematic it is imperative that we get this right especially with calls for an extended ‘cooling off’ period available to students to withdraw from university with no financial penalty if the experience is not up to their expectations (Dickinson, 2020).

Community Development (enrichment and legitimisation)

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenge during the lockdown period and period beyond lockdown, has been the development and continuation of communities. However, community finds ways to develop and thrive even in times of crisis. On a personal level, this has been shown in the community based responses we have seen to the lockdown period with so many doing so much for others on a voluntary basis, and the growth in use of video platforms to support community based activities from pub quizzes to music concerts. What we should also remember is that many community structures were already in place pre-Covid from WhatsApp student groups to Facebook student communities – many of these will now thrive.

However, we need to recognise the importance that the time before, the time within and the time beyond our classes brings to the student community. Without multiple physical occasions to engage with each other physically we need to consider how we facilitate group interaction. Do we need to establish regular community building events online for our students at module and/or programme level? Do we need to structure time within our modules for the community learning to take place? How do we ensure that the peer-to-peer learning process which is so important to the understanding of many of our students in preparing for assessment and other, and engaging with the cognitive challenges of our modules takes place? Each one of us needs to consider the community aspect of our modules and do everything we can to strengthen and support this. This may lead to structures which survive and thrive beyond this Covid period and offer our students a strengthened learning community in the future. In addition to this, co-ordinated subject level and/or programme level virtual or socially distanced physical social events could also make a significant difference to supporting that wider sense of student community.

Outside of the above our student union team and club and societies teams are developing support for virtual and some physical engagement with our non-academic clubs and societies. This will help support student engagement with the wider student journey in the context of the institution.

Whilst the last year has been substantially disruptive to the educational journeys of so many individuals, there is much we can do to develop and emphasise the positives of the new ‘normal’. Moving back to how things were pre-Covid doesn’t have to happen. The historical sense of we did it like X - pre-Covid, can be challenged. Our pre-Covid ways of thinking don’t have to continue in the future. If nothing else our developed institutional response can help to establish a stronger University, and stronger Universities plural into the future.

Coates, H., 2007. A model of online and general campusbased student engagement. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32(2), pp.121-141.

Davis, D., Jivet, I., Kizilcec, R. F., Chen, G., Hauff, C., & Houben, G. J. (2017, March). Follow the successful crowd: raising MOOC completion rates through social comparison at scale. In Proceedings of the seventh international learning analytics & knowledge conference (pp. 454-463).

Dickinson, J. (2020, June 24) This September, students should be able to try before they buy. Wonkhe. https://wonkhe.com/blogs/this-september-students-should-be-able-to-try-before-they-buy/

Fredricks, J.A., Blumenfeld, P.C. and Paris, A.H., 2004. School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of educational research, 74(1), pp.59-109.

High Fliers Research. (2020), University students and the Coronavirus crisis, Research Briefing, 18th June 2020, https://www.highfliers.co.uk/download/2020/graduate_market/HF20-Coronavirus-Briefing.pdf

Johnstone AH, Percival F. Attention breaks in lectures. Educ Chem 13: 49–50, 1976.

Krause, K.L. and Coates, H., 2008. Students’ engagement in firstyear university. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(5), pp.493-505.

Quinlan K. M. (2019) What triggers students’ interest during higher education lectures? personal and situational variables associated with situational interest, Studies in Higher Education, 44:10, 1781-1792, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1665325

Martinez, I. (2014). The effects of nudges on students’ effort and performance: Lessons from a MOOC. Working Paper, EdPolicyWorks.

van Oldenbeek, M., Winkler, T. J., Buhl-Wiggers, J., & Hardt, D. (2019). Nudging in Blended Learning: Evaluation of Email-based progress feedback in a Flipped-Classroom Information Systems Course. https://aisel.aisnet.org/ecis2019_rp/186/

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