What is learner engagement?

The following is the start of a series of posts that I’m using as preparation for an assessment piece. Hopefully these posts will help organize my thoughts and positively contribute to the structure of the paper. Note that this post will change frequently as it gets fine tuned.

In higher education, engagement has become a catch-all term most commonly used to describe a compendium of behaviours characterizing students (Krause, 2005). It has even been suggested that student engagement could be used as an indicator of institutional teaching quality (Kuh, 2001). Furthermore it has been said that at a certain level of analysis, engagement is taken to provide a singularly sufficient means of determining whether students are engaging with their study and university learning community in ways likely to promote high-quality learning. (Krause & Coates, 2008). However, measuring engagement and its link to learning is challenging (Bulger, Mayer, Almeroth, & Blau, 2008). This is especially true when the term engagement is often used in a broad terms to describe a range of behaviours that learners exhibit. An investigation into what engagement is, and what factors influence engagement, is required before metrics for its measurement can be determined.

Stovall (2003) suggests that engagement is defined by a combination of a student’s time on task and their willingness to participate in activities. Others say that engagement is the quality of effort students themselves devote to educationally purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes (Krause & Coates, 2008). Additionally, Chen (2008) says that engagement is the degree to which learners are engaged with their educational activities and that engagement is positively linked to a host of desired outcomes, including high grades, student satisfaction, and perseverance (Chen et al., 2008). Other studies define engagement in terms of interest, effort, motivation and time-on-task and suggest that there is a causal relationship between engaged time, that is, the period of time in which students are completely focused on and participating in the learning task, and academic achievement (Bulger et al., 2008).

A basic tenet of the research into engagement is that student’s activity and involvement in their learning tasks is related to their academic achievement. While there doesn’t appear to be a single definition for engagement, a definition put forward in 2007 aggregates the literature to provide the following elucidation. “Engagement is seen to comprise active and collaborative learning, participation in challenging academic activities, formative communication with academic staff, involvement in enriching educational experiences, and feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities” (Coates, 2007)

A complicating factor that requires consideration when discussing student engagement is the method of course delivery. Some courses are delivered face-to-face, some via a blend of online and face-to-face and others fully online. There is some indication that distance-learning students outperform or perform on par with on-campus students on measures such as student-faculty interactions and higher-order, integrative and reflective learning (Stovall, 2003). However distance-learning students often demonstrate lower levels of engagement when it comes to active and collaborative learning (Stovall, 2003). Possibly due to the difficulty of such an indirect comparison, the degree to which distance learners are engaged in their educational activities relative to campus-based learners is unresolved (Chen et al., 2008).

Chen et al. (2008) states that most of the work demonstrating positive outcomes in distance learning has focused on older students who are more motivated and have the self discipline to manage effectively the unstructured nature of the distance learning environment. While this may be true, research has been largely based on assumptions about campus learning environments that ignore the implications of online learning (Coates, 2006).

Bulger, M. E., Mayer, R. E., Almeroth, K. C., & Blau, S. D. (2008). Measuring Learner Engagement in Computer-Equipped College Classrooms. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 17(2), 129-143.

Chen, P.-S. D., Gonyea, R., & Kuh, G. (2008). Learning at a distance [Electronic Version]. Journal of online education, 4. Retrieved October 2009, from http://innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=438&action=login

Coates, H. (2006). Student Engagement in Campus-based and Online Education. Retrieved 23rd October 2009, from http://www.cqu.eblib.com.ezproxy.cqu.edu.au/EBLWeb/patron/

Coates, H. (2007). A model of online and general campus-based student engagement. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32(2), 121-141.

Krause, K.-L. (2005, 21-22 September 2005.). Understanding and promoting student engagement in university learning communities. Paper presented at the Sharing Scholarship in Learning and Teaching: Engaging Students, James Cook University, Townsville.

Krause, K.-L., & Coates, H. (2008). Students’ engagement in first-year university. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(5), 493 – 505.

Kuh, G. D. (2001). Assessing What Really Matters to Student Learning. Inside the national survey of student engagement. [Electronic Version]. Retrieved 22nd October 2009, from http://cpr.iub.edu/uploads/Assessing_What_Really_Matters_To_Student_Learning_(Kuh,%202001).pdf

Stovall, I. (2003). Engagement and Online Learning [Electronic Version]. UIS Community of Practice for E-Learning. Retrieved October 2009, from http://otel.uis.edu/copel/EngagementandOnlineLearning.ppt

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