Engagement and a question mark

January 9, 2023, by Helen Whitehead

What does learner “engagement” really mean?

I notice that there are a number of ways in which the word “engagement” is being used in the context of talking about learners and learner engagement. It is a word that is even in some people’s job descriptions. I sometimes wonder whether, when we use it or discuss it, we are talking about the same thing. Here are just some of the meanings that I have encountered:

Engagement (analytics and attendance)

This type of engagement is quantitative and involves using learning technology logs and reports to monitor the interaction of students with their digital learning materials. This measures the number of times students view an item, or click on it, contribute to it or interact with it. It includes noting the most recent date the student accessed Moodle. The data can be compiled into a report or sent to a Dashboard, and can be helpful in supporting monitoring of wellbeing or whether a student has completely disengaged in the sense of not even looking at their learning materials. You can sometimes also find out why a student has struggled to access digital learning materials or assignments. But these results are just numbers, and they can only go so far in telling us whether and how a student is learning. This is only a small part of the processes needed to measure engagement with learning.

Engagement (UDL)

In the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principle of Engagement – which relates to the “why” of learning – it is acknowledged that there are different ways in which learners can be engaged or motivated to learn. So this is more about motivation than about interaction, although of course meaningful interaction is one way in which students can be motivated. Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential. [Adapted from CAST.org’s UDL Guidelines, their definition of Engagement]

Engagement (Active Learning)

In a face to face classroom, an engaged student will be alert and listening, ask questions, respond to prompts and take part in activities. A lecturer or seminar tutor in a physical space with the students including labs, seminar rooms or lecture theatres will get a physical representation of whether their learners are engaged. As many lecturers discovered during the pandemic, getting some idea of whether online students are engaged with a synchronous session can seem impossible. Just measuring their attendance (as in Engagement analytics) does not mean that a student, muted and with their video camera turned off, is even listening to the session, let alone actively learning. And there is some evidence to suggest that engagement – in the sense of attention – in lectures and other live learning is decreased compared with students before the pandemic, for whatever reason.

I like to think of engagement of students in “engaging” collaborative activities as part of active learning, whether it’s an online discussion or a group project. One could also say that engaging content such as Xerte Toolkits or H5P activities with which students interact independently, is still active learning and engagement with the material.

Do we need better definitions – or extended definitions?

The problem isn’t new, as researchers have been grappling with the problem of definition for some time. Some consider there are four research perspectives on student engagement (the behavioural, psychological, socio-cultural and holistic perspectives) and others consider three (cognitive, emotional, and behavioural). Or there are three levels of engagement (not engaged, actively engaged or actively disengaged), or seven aspects of engagement (responsiveness, curiosity, discovery, anticipation, persistence, initiation and investigation), or any number of elements, or dimensions. All of these have value, so long as everyone knows what definitions they are dealing with.

The differences between people’s definitions of learner engagement, I would say are profound and could result in serious miscommunications. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that the word can be completely changed, but perhaps we could define it when we use it in a document, a meeting or at the start of a project, then qualify carefully what we mean when we use the word. We need to challenge the word whenever it’s used so that everyone is clear about what is meant, and can replace it with a more accurate word or phrase, such as active learning, or attendance.

Chris Headeland (2021) distinguished between “An engaged student demonstrates interest, motivation and attention. Whereas student engagement is about involving students in learning.”

Bryson (2014) also distinguished between engaging students (what staff and institutions do to engage students) and students engaging (what students do, such as the effort they spend studying, their motivation and involvement).

Measuring engagement

Going by the many definitions, it follows that learner engagement can also be measured in different ways, and only one of them is via attendance or clicks. What constitutes participation should be defined in advance. Setting participation targets needs to be done carefully to account for different students’ ways of learning and personalities (for example some will engage online but not face to face and vice versa). Formative assessment (and summative assessment) will measure the students’ understanding of the material which will reflect their engagement with it and reveal areas in which students are not engaged or not able to engage.

Student feedback (often anonymous) is a key tool to judge learner needs and engagement. Involving students in reflecting on their own learning takes the monitoring of engagement even further and puts some of it in their own hands.

Learning outcomes

Then again perhaps what we need to do is not to define engagement but to look at what the outcomes would be if a student is fully engaged. They would have numerous log entries showing they have accessed materials, and there would be evidence of posts and contributions to digital activities. They would appear interested and active in the live classroom, participate in assessments, and respond positively when asked about their feelings about their learning.

However you define it, though, make sure you’re on the same page as the person you’re talking to.

More information

Bryson, C. (2014) Clarifying the concept of student engagement, In C. Bryson (Ed) Understanding and developing student engagement. Abingdon: Routledge.

Headleand, C. (2021) What does ‘student engagement’ mean to you? And you? And you? (University of Lincoln), Times Higher Education, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/what-does-student-engagement-mean-you-and-you-and-you [accessed 03/01/23]

Young, Jeffrey, R. (2022) Student Disengagement Has Soared Since the Pandemic. Here’s What Lectures Look Like Now, Edsurge, https://www.edsurge.com/news/2022-12-13-student-disengagement-has-soared-since-the-pandemic-here-s-what-lectures-look-like-now [accessed 03/01/23]

Posted in Blended learningLearner experienceLearning designStudent engagement