Is ‘student engagement’ a dangerous concept?

Do some of the common conceptualizations of student engagement overshadow what is really important? This post will somewhat (intentionally) overstate an argument, but I want to summarise some of the discussions from the SRHE Conference with the respect of ‘student engagement’. It has been argued that in the UK context, ‘student engagement’ has been under-theorised (Gourlay, 2016). This is not to say there is no theory. Trowler (2010) has demonstrated some diversity in how ’student engagement’ is understood and while this isn’t surprising for any ideal in academia, it is suprising how rarely it is defined in use. To consider one such definition, Trowler (2010) introduces ‘student engagement’ as:

concerned with the interaction between the time, effort and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and the performance, and reputation of the institution

Still doesn’t really say much…

At the SRHE conference, many speakers suggested that outside the UK context, ’student engagement’ is better theorised and this is reflected in Trowler’s (2010) introduction, arguing the term is more established in the North America and Australian literature. Perhaps the problem with the term in the UK is that it is associated too heavily with league tables, metrics and university advertising.

So why is ’student engagement’ a dangerous concept? In her session, Gourlay exemplified ’student engagement’ with the use of Coats (2007) definition. This is because it is a widely used definition, which constructs student engagement as “a broad construct intended to encompass salient academic as well as certain non-academic aspects of the student experience” (Coates, 2007:122). This is :

  • active and collaborative learning;
  • participation in challenging academic activities;
  • formative communication with academic staff;
  • involvement in enriching educational experiences;
  • feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities.

All of these words focus on participation with others. This is problematic for many reasons but I want to focus on two:

1 | Where is learning?

Okay, so this isn’t just learning. It’s to do with everything related to education. Most definitions of student engagement focus too much on process and do not necessarily make learning, knowledge application and knowledge creation clear. Surely the most important aspects of student engagement is engagement with learning? There are often too many references in the ‘student engagement’ literature to wider and extra curricular activities/experiences. Yes – all of this may be an important part of higher education, but it isn’t the sum of higher education.

2| It’s all interaction

‘Student engagement’ focuses too much on interaction between students, staff and others. To engage students (or for them to be engaged) there must be some physical or measurable interaction. They must actively participate. This could be group work with others, discussions with the lecturer or participation in a debate. Perhaps attending lectures alone is enough to class as engaged in some situations! In the world of metrics and learning analytics, interaction can also include usage of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). These are all quantifiable, observable and measurable interactions. The interactions of the engaged!

But not all people want to engage like (nor do they need to all the time).

What does ‘student engagement’ hide?

The essence of ‘student engagement’ focuses on active forms of engagement (collaborative, participate and communicative learning). However, not all students learn like this – or at least not all the time. Gourlay (2016) argues learning can be placed on a spectrum:

The ‘intense’ and ‘collaborative’ forms of working very much align with the active forms of working expected within the ‘engaged student’. The problem is that this overshadows the ‘independent’ and ‘passive’ forms of working. These forms of working can be seen as ‘unengaged’ as they are counter to the active, collaborative, participative and communicative learning. Somehow along the way this has become seen as problematic for it is not representative of the ‘engaged’ student. Yet, independent, solitary work is a major part of learning in higher education. Such independent work is a vital part of assessment in higher education and, as a learning process, it enables students to grapple with their own understanding of key concepts. As suggested in Gourlay’s (2016) paper, this is problematic as an important part of the learning process has become labeled as ‘unengaged’. This a damaging perspective for something that is core to the student learning journey. Even more problematic when considered in the terms of league tables, the TEF and university marketing…


Okay. So ‘student engagement’ may not be dangerous – but it can be problematic. The focus on active and measurable engagement overshadows legitimate working practices. This is an important for consideration for anyone researching student engagement as it is far too easy to sideline learning. This is perhaps further problematic for prospective students as universities sell their courses based on the whole range engagement opportunities. While these are valuable for building student experiences and employability skills, they often neglect learning and learning support.


Coates, H. (2007) A Model of Online and General Campus-Based Student Engagement. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 32 (2), 121–141.

Gourlay, L. (2016) ‘Student engagement’ and the tyranny of participation, Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Research Conference, 9-11 December 2016, Celtic Manor, Newport, South Wales, UK.

Trowler, V (2010) Student Engagement Literature Review. York: Higher Education Academy. Available online:

SRHE Newer Researchers Conference

Today I attended the SRHE Newer Researchers Conference at the Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales. Titled Exploring freedom and control in global higher education, the conference has been a fantastic networking opportunity to meet other researchers and look at some of the latest developments in diverse fields. The day started with an icebreaker where we got to meet everyone on our tables:

Which leads well onto the keynote:

Knowledge creation – a dialogic approach: the power of networks and networking, mentors and mentoring

Helen Walkington opened the conference with a very throught provoking keynote. She demonstrated the importance of dialogue in the creation of knowledge, but also stressed the importance of involving undergraduates in this. A core part of this process was the use of students as researchers, engaging undergraduates in real research-based courses that enable them to make their own discoveries.

From the library perspective, this was particularly interesting as their institutional repository was used to disseminate the student outputs (or at least those that have passed the assessment criteria). This emphasis on real and meaninful research was very interesting and it is easy to see how this can be very engaging for students. Arguably, the role of student as researcher highlights a new liminal space providing students a real taste of academia, particualrly when research outputs are later disseminated via papers and conferences.

While this summary does the session no justice, it was very useful for my work and research.

[NOTE: Take a look at Universities, the Citizen Scholar and the Future of Higher Education, this was recommended by Helen and it is something on my list now!]

Parallel sessions

The parallel sessions (which included my own contribution on rhythmanalysis) were really interesting. The first strand, research methods and methodologies contained presentations looking at diverse tools in interviews, models for research-based learning and research risks. From a work perspective I was quite interested in the card sorting, network maps and documentary analysis of the first presentation. In particular I would like to thing about how this could be analysed with software like NVivo 🙂

The next set of parallels looked at supporting student success with presentations on student leader development, perceptions of failure and mature student experiences. Choosing one again the paper on student leader develop was particualry interesting as it looked at the advantages of a monastic retreat in helping leaders develop, reconceptualise time and realise the benefit of their volunteering on others. While the context for my own work is very different, I think there is a lot of benefit to be gained from remote retreat in helping students cope with pressure.

The final session looked at educational futures including my own peresentation. This strand was interesting and featured other presentaitons considering the REF and gender conceptualisaiton in Turkey. The feedback for my own contribution was very productive and I look forward to taking some of the ideas sparked from this in my own work.

Fireside chats

Sadly – no fire, but lots of chat. These sessions were an excellent opportunity to network with experienced researchers and get general advice. The group I was in focused heavily on work-life balance, time management and general career advice. It was good to know my concerns are not mine alone and to realise there are a whole range of pressures researchers face. It seems emails continue to be a major problem for a lot of people and it was interesting to see a number of people choose to only check their emails once a day. I’m not sure I could manage that but I am interested in the different management techniques people choose. I was also facinated by the different spaces people chose to work in and it continues to highlight the beauty of ‘finding a space to work’.

Conference close

I have already made some connections from the conference and look forward to making more at the main SRHE Conference tomorrow through to Friday. So fortunate the SRHE Newer Researchers Conference provides us with business cards.