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: