The Meanings of Student Engagement: Implications for Policies and Practices

Paul Ashwin and Debbie McVitty

The Problems of Defining Student Engagement

Student engagement has come to be seen as a 'good thing' in higher education for researchers and policy makers alike. For example, the 2011 UK Higher Education White Paper 'Students at the Heart of the System' (BIS 2011) emphasises student engagement as a key element of the development of learning communities in higher education. However, as Geven and Attard (2012) noted in relation to 'student-centred learning', the fact that it would be very difficult to be against student engagement is testament to its vagueness.

The vagueness around student engagement means that it is currently used to refer to student engagement in learning activities, in the development of curricula, in quality assurance processes, and in institutional governance (for example see Coates and McCormick 2014; Kuh 2009; Trowler 2010). These many different meanings of student engagement have led some researchers to be very critical of its use as a term, with some arguing that it is used uncritically (Zepke 2014) and others arguing that its use is 'chaotic', with its very vagueness doing important work to mask inequalities by those who use it (Trowler 2014). What is interesting about these criticisms is that 'student engagement' was initially a term used by researchers, which has later been adopted by policy makers as it appears to do useful work.

The question at the heart of this chapter is whether the vagueness and confusion around the use of student engagement can be addressed in a way that helps us to ask more critical questions about research and policies relating to student engagement. Our answer is 'to some extent'. This is because, whilst it is possible to be clearer about the focus and degree of student engagement as we outline below, even when these issues are addressed, the meaning of student engagement will be shaped by

(i) the particular context in which it operates, as Vuori (2014) shows in her study of student engagement in three US universities, and (ii) by the meaning of 'non-engagement'. Thus student engagement means something slightly different when it is contrasted with 'passivity', where it is the active nature of engagement that is highlighted or with 'alienation' (for example see Case 2008; Mann 2001), where it is the sense of having a stake in the institution that is fore grounded. This highlights the ways in which the meaning of student engagement in particular contexts will always involve a process of shifting and change even when there is a shared sense of the focus and degree of student engagement that is at stake. This suggests that engagement has similar properties to those that Klemenčič (2015) ascribes to student 'agency'. These are that it develops over time; that it can be stronger or weaker; that it is embedded in particular places and times; and that it is shaped by the conditions in which it operates and by students' social relationships in higher education. In this way the meaning of student engagement will always shift over time, but we argue that it is possible to be clearer about what is at stake by analysing the focus and degree of student engagement at a particular moment in time.

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