Towards understanding the lack of student engagement
Student engagement carries power and despair for those involved in higher education (HE) teaching and training. Students should engage with their courses; how else do they learn? Also, students should definitely engage with employability support services; these services offer great advice on how to become employable, identify career pathways, and secure jobs, which is why students attend HE degrees, right?
From what I hear from other academics in UK HE and elsewhere, and experience through teaching technical modules as well as an employability-focused module in an engineering course, student engagement is low, especially when it comes to employability. Identifying the reasons for that is a very interesting conversation. In my opinion, student engagement is affected by several factors; the obvious ones (educators and students themselves), but also the abundance of distractions and the actual topic of employability, especially within the context of technical degrees.
The power of distractions
Have you ever been in a situation where you looked at your phone to check the time, saw a notification, clicked on it, and a few minutes later you put your phone down realising that you never checked the time or registered the reading? Whenever I enter a classroom, I see students being on their phones or other devices, some of them deeply engaged even in clusters, almost none of them looking at anything relevant to the ongoing lecture. What are they looking at? Based on an informed guesstimation having lapped around classrooms to check on progress for given tasks, I would say social media, other assignments, or other outlays of information.
In a world where there are constant streams of incoming information from everywhere with a flicker of a finger or a click of a button, how do we expect students (or anyone really) to miss out on all the “exciting” things going on and be solely engaged to our content for 45 minutes? The level of disruptions posed from external information streams during a lecture almost turn the lecture to a disruption for the information stream.
Students: now and then
As an undergraduate student myself, in a different country and a previous decade, I was not always engaged and eager to answer questions when asked; nobody is and nobody will ever be. However, I was not chatting openly with my mates during lectures, ignoring the lecturer. I attended all lectures despite not being compulsory, just in case the lecturer disclosed something very important and because believing they were there to teach me and I was there to learn, I tried to do my part. Maybe that was my version of FOMO (fear of missing out) given that TikTok did not exist to douche people with “viral videos you need to watch right now - pause everything else or miss out”.
Reflecting on employability provision when I was a student, I wish I had as easy access to information about career options, ways to improve, and how to pitch myself to employers as currently available. Looking at average student behaviour today, I note how things have changed. Does that have to do with the level of respect or commitment students seem to lack today? Or the promise that a good degree alone will get you a good job without putting more effort in?
Students today don’t seem to care about their education as much as educators would expect (or hoped!), and at the same time, students seem quite invested in fighting for a better future. Maybe the answer lies with the educators?
Being a good teacher - what does good mean?
Do educators have a part to play in the reduced student engagement? The short - and only - answer is “obviously”. During all the lectures or training sessions I attended (and still attend), not all educators were engaging. Yes, it was my job to attend the lecture and try to learn, but it was the educator’s job to make it easier for me. How would they (now, we) make it easier?
By designing content tailored to the receiver and not ourselves and adjusting content to include breaks, activities, nods to current affairs. By having a passion for teaching (or at least reheating the passion for the duration of the lecture), being empathetic, remembering what we wished our educators did better, and listening to what students tell us through feedback channels.
If the content and provider are not engaging or engaged themselves, how can we expect students to engage?
Finding space for employability in tightly packed curricula
There is another factor to consider, this being the actual topic of employability. In recent years employability (positive graduate outcomes) has become a key factor for university ranking, leading to HE institutions and organisations devoting increased resources to Career Services, and including employability components in curricula. What does that mean for students (and educators) who are already pressed with content and deadlines from technical modules that almost burst at the seams, while Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes (AHEP) is asking for less assessments and contact hours?
Something has to give, and inevitably this will be the last thing added, or the thing that seems disjointed from the technical degree; employability.
Increasing student engagement is like trying to solve an impossible riddle. I believe this requires collective effort, with reflection, empathy and open communication from all fronts. As educators, we need to reflect on our teaching content and methods and listen to the student voice.
Students need to reflect on their choices and communicate honest points for improvement to educators.
Curriculum developers need to edit or combine strategies, in order to put employability at the heart of the curriculum rather than sprinkling it on as an afterthought.
Everyone needs to be a bit more respectful to one another and not forget that human relationships and interactions are still at the centre of everything, especially recruitment.
After 10 years of chemical engineering studies including a PhD on the topic, Eleni found her passion away from technical research, in teaching, employability, researchers’ development, science communication and networking. Currently she is a Teaching Associate at the University of Sheffield, focusing on Employability and Engineering Education.
Look out for Advance HE’s 2023 case study compendium on employability due to be published in January 2023.
Employability Symposium 2023
In 2023, our focus is Going Forward Together. Join us at the Employability Symposium 2023 as we bring people together to support professional development. Learn more: Employability Symposium 2023: Lighting the Labyrinth: Enhancing Student Success through the 3Es