Day 1: Why is engagement important?

Post written by guest authors Rebecca Ng from the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences and Frederick Chew from the Fenner School of Environment and Society

Cartoon by Ellie Zak (2013)

Engagement is certainly not a new topic. In fact, several coffee courses before have extensively covered this as well as strategies to foster engagement (e.g. Engaging Students Online and Enhancing you Lecture: Strategies for Student Engagement). This coffee course does not aim to reinvent to wheel; rather, it seeks to revisit some of the key aspects to student engagement and repackage good ol’ strategies to suit the current climate of teaching and learning. We also want to focus more on how to tackle low levels of engagement and disengagement, and discuss ways to reinvigorate your course even if you are knee-deep in the teaching period already. But first, some key concepts to anchor us for the week.


What is student engagement and why is it important?

These questions get repetitive, don’t they? And yet, after decades of exploring the subject, there is no one definition. In fact, I would take a guess that as educational technologies and our experiences expand, the notion of engagement and how it can be measured becomes even more multifaceted and complex. For the purpose of this coffee course, student engagement can be summarised into three points: 

  1. Student participation and communication (Goss, Sonnerman & Griffiths, 2017): To achieve engagement, students must participate in the course and through participation, communicate with their teachers and peers. The question here is how do we define participation? E.g. is active listening participation?  
  2. Self-motivation or involvement in own learning (Coates, 2007): Not only must they participate but they should feel motivated, whether intrinsically or extrinsically, to do so for their own learning. 
  3. Purposeful and measurable (Kuh, 2009): And finally, these engagements need to be educationally purposeful, and measurable against the learning outcomes that you have set for the course.

Other definitions have included aspects around interactivity (Kennedy, 2020) or building a sense of connectedness (Stevens et al., 2018) but overall, there is a general consensus that it requires both students and teachers (or even institutions) to be actively involved.  

According to Russell & Slater (2011), these are some factors that affect student engagement:

  1. Motivation and agency  –  engaged students are intrinsically motivated to exercise their agency
  2. Transactional engagement – learners and teachers engage with each other
  3. Institutional support – institutions provide an environment conducive to learning
  4. Active citizenship – students and institutions work together to enable challenges to social beliefs and practices

So why is student engagement so important? Kuh (2009, p. 683) states that it is “the time and effort students devote to activities that are empirically linked to desired outcomes of college and what institutions do to induce students to participate in these activities.” Put simply, engagement contributes to the success of one’s learning as designed by the teacher or the institution (see also Stevens et al., 2018; Trowler, 2010). 

The Australian National University’s teaching and learning vision published in 2018 mentioned that one of its pillars is to nurture “engaged students”. It provides a good summary of the University’s view on engagement. If you are from the ANU, what are your thoughts about some of the points made about engagement in the vision? If you are not from the ANU, does your institution have a similar vision or document discussing its views on student engagement?    


Types of engagement

We often focus on specific activities to induce engagement. But how do we know we are holistically engaging our students to meet the learning outcomes that we have set for them? In a previous point, I questioned the understanding of participation. This is because we can sometimes have false impressions of engagement. For example, we may think that a student who attends class is more engaged than a student who doesn’t. However, attendance is only part of one type of student engagement. Fredricks, Blumenfeld and Paris (2004) provide three dimensions for student engagement for your consideration:

  1. Behavioural engagement: This form of engagement is concerned with behavioural norms like attendance and involvement. Students who are behaviourally engaged would not only comply with norms as set by the teacher or institution but also avoid negative or disruptive behaviour. 
  2. Emotional engagement: Students who are emotionally engaged would display affective reactions such as interest, enjoyment or a sense of belonging.
  3. Cognitive engagement: Finally, students who are cognitively engaged would invest in their learning. This means that they would seek to exceed expectations and enjoy challenging work. 

These dimensions are important as they prompt us to think about whether we are relying on one form of engagement more than others. Are you?


What about disengagement?

The antonym to engagement is similarly difficult to define. However, I would like to point you to Trowler’s (2010) definition of disengagement because he describes it as “non-engagement” which sits on the neutral part of the engagement continuum that is neither negative nor positive. This means that students may not be attending classes, are experiencing boredom or are submitting assignments late while only meeting the minimum requirements. But what is important about his definition is that is helps us to view disengagement as only part of the spectrum of engagement. What we are dealing with here is not just disengagement but lower levels of engagement and even negative engagement; all of which will be discussed further tomorrow.

Additionally, there are also different types of disengagement such as:

  1. value disengagement where students do not see the value of their education;
  2. interactional disengagement where students do not interact with their peers and teachers;
  3. and motivational disengagement where students are not motivated to participate or engage in their own learning (Chipchase et al., 2017)

According to a literature review by Chipchase et al. (2017), the factors for disengagement include:

  1. Psychological factors such as stress
  2. Low motivation
  3. Inadequate preparation for study and academic capacity
  4. Unrealistic expectations
  5. Competing demands and financial stress
  6. Institutional structures and processes
  7. Academic staff factor
  8. Online teaching and learning (due to reduced interaction between peers and teachers)

These will be discussed further in tomorrow’s post but it is a great reminder that as teachers, you can be “mediators of engagement” (State Government of Victoria, 2019) and put in place strategies to counter disengagement or low levels of engagement. However, there are also aspects to disengagement that are beyond your control. What we can do is to address as many of these factors as possible by carefully designing and creating a multitude of opportunities for different types of engagement. 

In tomorrow’s post, we will specifically be discussing how to detect and intervene when you encounter low levels of engagement or disengagement. 


question mark Discussion

Reflect on your teaching: What type(s) of engagement are you having with your students? Share examples of how you have engaged students behaviourally, cognitively and emotionally.



Chipchase, L., Davidson, M., Blackstock, F., Bye, R., Colthier, P., Krupp, N., … Williams, M. (2017). “Conceptualising and Measuring Student Disengagement in Higher Education: A Synthesis of the Literature”, International Journal of Higher Education, 6(2), 31. https://doi.org/10.5430/ijhe.v6n2p31

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

Fredricks, J.A., Blumenfeld, P.C. & Paris, A.H. (2004). “School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence”, Review of Educational Research, 74 (1), 59–109.

Goss, P., Sonnemann, J., & Griffiths, K. (2017). Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning. Melbourne, VIC: Grattan Institute.

Kennedy, G. (2020). “What is student engagement in online learning … and how do I know when it is there?”, Melbourne CSHE Discussion Paper, May 2020. https://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/3362125/student-engagement-online-learning_final.pdf

Kuh G. D. (2009). “What student affairs professionals need to know about student engagement”, Journal of College Student Development, 50(6), 683-706. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0099

Russell, B. & Slater, G. R. L. (2011). “Factors that Encourage Student Engagement: Insights from a Case Study of ‘First Time’ Students in a New Zealand University”, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 8(1). https://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol8/iss1/7

Stevens, R., Cronley, T., Eckert, A., Kidd, M., Liondos, N., Newall, G., Pilkington, M., Rekic, B., & Ructtinger, L. (2018). Cultivating student engagement – Part 2. Scan 37(10). https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/professional-learning/scan/past-issues/vol-37-2018/cultivating-student-engagement-part-2

State Government of Victoria (2019). “Identify students at risk of disengaging”, State Government of Victoria: Education and Training. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/behaviour/engagement/Pages/identify-students.aspx

Trowler, V. (2010). “Student engagement literature review”, The Higher Education Academy. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6d0c/5f9444fc4e92cca76fe9f426bd107e837a9f.pdf


16 thoughts on “Day 1: Why is engagement important?

  1. At my previous University, our performance indicators were similar to many other higher education providers; showing low levels of student engagement (measured bluntly as low satisfaction) along with high levels non-completion (measured as poor retention). At the time (2014) there was considerable evidence suggesting lack of early performance feedback was delaying engagement at a critical time of study – the first three weeks of semester. And so began a University-wide push to ensure every course included an early piece of assessment that had as its primary purpose ‘feedback’. Our ‘Centre for Learning & Teaching’ provided ‘early assessment’ advice; making sure the education and assessment designs were constructively aligned. While the immediate results were inconclusive, the Assessment, Retention and Engagement (ARE) Project was credited with highlighting the importance of early assessment as a fundamental building block of learning and teaching partnerships. Importantly, at the same time we introduced a formative form of student experience surveys that allowed us to ask the students one question: Are you feeling prepared for your studies this semester? Between 2015 and 2019, the early engagement data (still measured as satisfaction) increased markedly over time.

    1. Hi Tim, it would certainly be great if we have something at an institution level to help people gather feedback during the semester (and not just end of semester). I certainly think planning for engagement or any form of course delivery should go back to some very fundamental principles such as constructive alignment or ZPD. Additionally, getting students to complete assessments for feedback as well as direct feedback forms (e.g. the survey you mentioned) can provide us with multiple data points that help shape our understanding of not just how engaged are students are but in which areas or ways are they more/less engaged. Would certainly love to hear more of what we can do as a University. Thanks Tim!

  2. Hi everyone,

    This semester has been quite marked for me in terms of student disengagement, especially as I’m teaching a course which normally tends to get high engagement through various means (it’s really practical and students have to attend to do the practical elements, also it’s more obviously job-related than other courses I teach). I think that two aspects of the lists above may be most salient – interactional disengagement and financial stress. Verbal interaction via zoom is more onerous than in-person interaction. There is a bigger commitment required in un-muting and interrupting with no chance of being protected in the physical space, for example of sitting to the left at the back, where your question or comment comes from the protection of physically being amongst students. While it’s certainly not true, videoconferencing tech makes it ‘feel’ like everyone is silently listening and you are in the spotlight. I know from student feedback that some also feel inhibited in breakout rooms, though students have quite different views on breakout rooms. Written forum (or similar) interaction is fine, but the connections forged that way between students are more interpersonally distant, I think.

    One thing I really miss is the ‘fringe’ interactions with individual students – brief irrelevant conversations or even just passing comments. Even though this kind of interaction is really minimal, I feel like I don’t know my students this semester and I think this might be one of the reasons.


    1. Hi Susy, thank you for your comment. I’ve heard from quite a few people echoing your concerns about student disengagement this semester. It is indeed a different environment on Zoom (and online) with some students having their video cameras on while others just muting everything throughout the class. I appreciate your comment on feeling like you are constantly in the spotlight and how physical “bodies” can perhaps provide students with more confidence to speak. In my own experience, I think it is important to readjust our (but not lower) expectations, focusing on things the online medium is good at. I’ll cover some discussion on that tomorrow. I’ve also spoken to a few colleagues who developed different kinds of interaction through chatrooms, “Ask me anything” Padlet walls, and online coffee meetup sessions with students. We’ll be sharing these in Day 4. Thank you!

  3. I had difficulty understanding what was meant by “engagement” in this context. Unfortunately the ANU’s 2018 teaching vision contains a circular definition: engaged students are ones who engage.

    The OED defines engagement as “a formal agreement to get married” and there have been plenty of university romances, but I expect that is not what we are talking about here. 😉

    The second definition is “an arrangement to do something or go somewhere at a fixed time”. That sounds more like teaching, where we want students to demonstrate they can do something when needed, to show they have met the course objectives.

    In teaching professionals, it is about cognition and behavior: I give them problem solving approaches and then see if they can show they can solve a problem, going though the set steps, several times with increasingly complex challenges. However, I would prefer the students engaged with each other, rather than me and encourage or force that with course and assessment design. I am not so sure about emotion: I don’t want to be manipulating their emotions.

    As a former part-time online international student, I worry about the level of engagement demanded of students and the support provided for it. Many full-time career academics have a very different experience of university to that of a typical student. For most students it is not about sitting around on campus thinking great thoughts, it is squeezing an expensive, time consuming, frustrating chore, between family and work commitments. So anything I want a student to do has to be linked to assessment for their courses: no extra-curricular activities.

    The ANU Vision refers to engaging in the “University community”, but as a student, I had to devote my limited study time to completing my courses. If engaging with the “University community” did not help with a course, then it was a waste of time. So I now design assessment to allow such co-curricular activities to count in courses. As an example for the ANU TechLauncher work portfolio activity I am running, the students are asked to describe in their portfolio what they learned outside their formal coursework and receive marks for this.

    Simply finding the “University community” is not easy when, as I was, you are 13,000 km from the campus. So I point out to my students activities which have an online option.

    The OED definition included “at a fixed time”, but that can also be a problem for students, especially ones in different time zones. As an international student I got frustrated to be invited to seminars every week, which were between midnight and dawn for me. So I provide either a choice of times, or an asynchronous option, or both for activities.

    Many are now thinking about options for engagement of students online, but I worry about talk of “until things get back to normal after COVID-19”. Having students has been normal for me for ten years and I suggest is the new normal. The geopolitical situation may result in international students being unable to get to campus in Australia any time, suddenly and without warning, in the next few years. Also technology has made possible online learning and we either have to engage students that way, or they will enroll elsewhere, where they can.

    1. Hi Tom, always great hearing from you! Absolutely agree that engagement is a very tricky term to define. One of the things I struggled with (and I hope it was somewhat reflected in the post above) is how we view engagement in changing contexts (e.g. pre covid vs post covid). While I think the basic principles do not necessarily shift around too much, how they are imagined and what constitutes engagement I think can be very different in different contexts. I quite like both definitions from the OED (even the one on getting married) because they reflect some kind of commitment we make, as both teachers and students. Your point on making every form of coursework count towards a grade is a type of extrinsic motivation that is sometimes necessary to incentivise students to engage (which I’ll talk about briefly in Day 2). Final comment from me is slightly out of scope but just wanted to point to your last paragraph about “until things get back to normal”. I think online teaching is certainly different from in-person teaching and they are not the same beast. Our expectations and design need to shift (not lowered or made easier) because the medium is different. Nonetheless, it is still teaching and as someone pointed out to me: “while the platform is virtual, our students are not”. So I hope that we don’t just ditch online teaching because I think it has a lot to offer! Thanks again for your comment, Tom 🙂

  4. I consider my students being engaged when they have fun with their learning. I don’t mean rolling in laughter in the classroom, but to be interested and curious. In the physical class room it was easy to identify students who were ‘hiding’ from me. I spent most of my time in trying to pull those students back into the conversations, Almost every time, the disengagement of these students came from their uncertainty of their own knowledge, and with little probing and encouragement, most of the time, I succeeded in engaging them.
    COVID and turning to full time online teaching posed a challenge, as students would successfully hide, and I found it hard to identify them. Similarly to Suse, I feel I don’t know my students this year, and therefore I can’t identify or watch at-risk students.
    I was using breakout rooms in our online practical/tutorial sessions to make sure that everyone has a voice in the class. I created fun quizzes for icebreakers and students seem to enjoy those. But I’m still worried that we might have left some students behind, in the online environment.

    1. “I consider my students being engaged when they have fun with their learning. I don’t mean rolling in laughter in the classroom, but to be interested and curious.”

      This is the best definition I’ve seen for “engagement” in an educational sense!

  5. Thank you Jill. I noted, that typically students become interested when they see the enthusiasm from the academic and fellow students. In addition, to deliver concepts in a digestible and interactive way also helps. I do come up with interesting problems and tasks for students to work on with their peers, some of my activities you might describe as gamification, and that excites students. While I was able to continue and even improve on the problem solving activities when we moved online, I do struggle with the gamification side. I will need to come up with some activities that can be moved online, and deliver an effective and useful gaming environment for my students. I’m open to suggestions, and would love to hear the experiences, do’s and dont’s on online interactive and fun tasks from my colleagues .

    1. Thanks Tom and Krisztina. It’s interesting to see how everyone has different views on and value different aspects of engagement! Krisztina, do you have in mind what you want to do for Gamification? Fred and I (and some others) have designed some online game-based activities for our courses that were adapted from in-class activities. We could have a chat with you or anyone who may be interested just to toss around some ideas?

      1. Gamification – I hadn’t thought to apply this word to what I do, but it is quite appropriate. I find its of opportunity to “gamify” with Moodle/Wattle – For years I’ve been doing a quiz with 5-6 questions which each have 3-6 attempts. After each wrong attempt, a hint is given and a small deduction is made. Students are urged to discuss, after they made their first attempt, but are warned that, often, questions are slightly different (random numbers, etc.)

        This year I found Moodle’s “Workshop”, where students upload an answer to a question, see my solution and a (simple) grading rubric. They then are randomly assigned a few other students answers and are to mark them according to that rubric. The rubric involves a series of simple questions like “Did the student mention or apply the Equipartition Theorem to get their solution?” A student gets 80% for just submitting their solution (as this is the average mark when we grade these types of problems manually), and 20% for assessing others. (There is a little more to this).

        This Model “workshop” solves a few problems for me: (1) Students often don’t look at the solutions until exam time, so this pushes them to do that so that they can mark others (2) Some students would benefit knowing how other students are doing in the course, and (3) This supports (in a limited way) student engagement/ownership of the running of the course.

        This “gamification” frees up my time to develop more hand-on (non-gamification) activities around the topic, including MakerSpace activities, or applying Arduino microprocessors for data collection on their laptop. (This is where the students have an opportunity to cognitively engage – and provide some surprising work!)

  6. Krisztina, I have a different view of learning: I find being a student to be rarely, if ever fun. It is almost always frustrating, hard work, frequently frightening, and occasionally an agonizingly painful experience. I try to ease the pain of my students through the process, but make sure they understand it is meant to be difficult.

    In the online classroom I find it easy to identify the students who need help: they are the ones who don’t do well in the weekly assigned work. It is easy to identify the at risk students: I click a button to sort the gradebook in ascending order and see who is at the top of the list.

    I might have an overly rosy view of online education, as I was a hopeless face to face student and not that good at teaching in a classroom either (giving lectures did and still does terrify me, while tutorials bore me). I have only felt comfortable studying and teaching online (well less uncomfortable than face to face).

  7. I think it’s more important that students engage with the subject than engage with me (a teacher) or anyone else. Nonetheless, engaging with others helps many, but not all, students engage with the subject.

    I try to engage with students as individuals rather than as a group. I try hard to remember their names, something about each one of them, and their working style.

    When running tutorials online (up to 20 students, split into break-out rooms of 3-5 students) it’s hard to let the students know that you are aware of them as individuals, so I try to address students by name, and try to make sure I get to address each one of them by name at some time during the tutorial. I address them whether their video is on or off and whether their microphone is on or off. It’s challenging because of the short time allowed for each tutorial.

  8. Tom, I always found learning, or rather to know new things and being able to apply them exciting and reassuring. Of course, it is not meant to be easy, but if I see the relevance of the material, it makes the task a bit easier. I found both from personal experience and with my students that one of the biggest stress is caused by students not seeing the relevance of the material, or they assume that they not need to know it. Another source of stress is caused by students not knowing what they need to learn, what and where to find the relevant resources. I try to address these in my teaching to reduce stress: 1) I use real-life examples and case studies where students can apply their knowledge. 2) I provide the resources as a ‘package’ to students so that it is clear what and when they need to use those resources.
    Tom, I get the point on having tests to follow student progress, but I have limits on how many (graded) tests I can use in an integrated course. I do use formative quizzes, and the whole idea with those is that students can reflect on their own learning and by keeping them anonym, students are more likely to relax and try. In addition, we use these icebreaker quizzes to identify the focus of the tutorial/practical sessions, and encourage discussions of tricky concepts.

  9. I like the framework of breaking down engagement into the three types: cognitive, emotional and behavioural. I have certainly experienced classes (both as a student and a teacher) where while students may be behaviourally engaged, they are not emotionally engaged or invested in the class. One issue that I think is quite interesting is how we can measure or assess these different forms of engagement. Behavioural engagement seems the easiest to gauge, but may not always provide an accurate picture of overall engagement. For example, I have had students that are very quiet in class and rarely actively speak up in class discussions or even smaller group work, whose written work demonstrates a very high level of understanding and academic curiosity.

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