Engaging Students in Higher Education
28 August 2012, by Prof Denise Kirkpatrick
Professor Denise Kirkpatrick is Pro Vice-Chancellor, Student Experience at the University of Adelaide, where she is leading the development of an integrated student experience across on and off campus environments with an emphasis on quality learning. She has worked as an academic and senior leader and manager in open and distance, dual-mode and on-campus universities in Australia and the United Kingdom. She has worked as Pro Vice-Chancellor at the Open University (UK) and La Trobe University, Australia and led the strategic development of open, distance and e-learning in Australian universities including Monash, University of New England and Charles Sturt University.
Learner engagement has long been the focus for those of us who seek to enhance learning and teaching in Higher Education. Indeed, over the past decade or so it has become almost ubiquitous. More recently we have expanded our focus to consider student engagement and I think that this indicates more than a linguistic shift. We are now considering something broader than the act of engaging the individual learner with his or her own learning process. The attention to student engagement is an acknowledgement of the complexity of student life and their relationships with and across the university. It is recognition that being a student is about more than attending classes (physical or virtual) and completing assignments and assessments. Taking student engagement seriously requires us to consider all parts of a student’s life that are affected by being a student and responding to these. When we view it this way we think of learning and education as a partnership, and employ student engagement as a means to inform and enhance the collective student learning experience, so that it extends beyond the individual.
It’s also about placing a genuine value on the contribution that students make to university and valuing their input. Engaging our students does mean getting them to actively interact, make sense and participate in the learning experiences that comprise formal study, and it also relates to the extent to which students are involved in the life and business of the institution. At a fairly simple level it means students’ meaningful participation in surveys of learning and teaching, providing feedback through a range of media that is actively used by the university and its staff, and influences and informs future actions and decisions. It also includes the creation of opportunities for student contribution to the future strategy and directions and operations of the university and the academic business of the university along with planning and reflecting on performance. We need to move beyond the rhetoric about the contribution of students to providing sufficient and appropriate support and securing effective engagement.
Universities have been attempting to make genuine progress in ‘closing the feedback loop’ and disseminating actions and decisions in response to student feedback, but we need to refine the mechanisms that we use to do this and make them more open and inclusive so that students can become participants in the educational processes. We will need to create mechanisms by which students can initiate the investigation of specific issues that affect the collective student learning experience. Such an approach requires a greater involvement from students with regard to representation on committees and working groups. If we wish to truly engage our students more deeply and meaningfully we will need to provide and support the publication and dissemination of decisions and actions, supporting students to collect and gather views and to contribute to debate and discussion as well as initiating and leading investigations.
Although greater student engagement may be a reflection of a growing acceptance of the student as consumer it should be about more; about creating genuine partnerships and collaboration with our students. The world is changing and there is greater expectation that participants in all types of social ventures will play more active roles in shaping the nature and content of those activities. These responses indicate a commitment to a new style of politics and citizen engagement with a strengthened student voice. Successfully engineering student involvement will assist universities to more fully meet learners’ needs and deliver the excellent educational provision to which we aspire. An outcome of positive student engagement should be the optimisation of the student experience – the extent to which learning outcomes are achieved, the sense of affiliation that a student develops for his/her institution, and the extent to which a student feels that he or she is truly part of the community of the university.
Denise is a keynote speaker in the upcoming National Student Engagement Conference, 29-31 October 2012 in Melbourne.