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). But what is engagement and how can it be measured? (Bulger, Mayer, Almeroth, & Blau, 2008) state that measuring engagement and its link to learning is challenging and this is especially true when the term engagement is often used in broad terms to describe a range of behaviours that learners exhibit. An investigation into what engagement is, and factors that influence engagement, is required before metrics for its measurement can be determined.
Most of the research into measuring student engagement prior to the widespread adoption of online, or web based classes, has concentrated on the simple measure of attendance (Douglas & Alemanne, 2007). While class attendance is a crude measure, in that it is only ever indicative of participation and does not necessarily consider the quality of the participation, it has nevertheless been found to be an important variable in determining student success (Douglas, 2008). However, it could be said that class attendance is used as a metric for engagement, simply because it is one of the few indicators of engagement that are visible, or external to the student. For example, student motivation is often linked closely with engagement and has been defined as an internal state or condition that activates behaviour and gives it direction (Huitt, 2001). Participation could be seen as an indicator of behaviour activated by a student’s motivation and is measurable in online education, albeit with the same limitations concerning the quality of the participation. While participation is evidently an important aspect of student engagement, engagement is a broad construct that encompasses more than just participation.
Stovall (2003) suggests that engagement is defined by a combination of students’ time on task and their willingness to participate in activities. Krause and Coates (2008) say that engagement is the quality of effort students themselves devote to educationally purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes. Additionally, Chen, Gonyea and Kuh (2008) say 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. Other studies define engagement in terms of interest, effort, motivation, 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 students’ activity, involvement and effort in their learning tasks is related to their academic achievement. While there does not appear to be a single definition for engagement, the following definition represents an aggregation of the literature.
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, p. 122).
This definition suggests that engagement is the amalgamation of a number of distinct elements including active learning, collaborative learning, participation, communication among teachers and students and students feeling legitimated and supported. While it is not possible to provide universally accepted interpretations for the elements that comprise the definition, it is possible to provide an overview of their meanings.
Active learning is generally defined in the literature as any instructional method that engages student in the learning process, and requires students to perform meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing (Prince, 2004). It has also been described as the process of talking, writing, relating to and reflecting on what is being learned, rather than passively receiving information (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). The core components of active learning are student activity and engagement in the learning process (Prince, 2004).
Collaborative learning, as the phrase implies, recognizes that learning is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. “Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one’s own ideas and responding to others’ reactions sharpens thinking and deepens understanding” (Chickering & Gamson, 1987, p. 2). Prince (2004) defines collaborative learning as any instructional method in which students work together in small groups toward a common goal. Some authors have suggested that collaborative learning encompasses cooperative learning, which has been described as a structured form of group work where students pursue common goals while being assessed individually. Prince (2004) refers to collaborative learning and cooperative learning as two distinct entities with different philosophical roots. In either case the core element is the emphasis on student interactions rather than learning as a solitary activity (Prince, 2004). Communication between students and between staff and students is a fundamental requirement for collaborative learning (Veerman & Else, 2001).
Linked with collaborative learning and communication is the remaining element of the Coates (2007) engagement definition, which suggests that students need to feel legitimated and supported by their university learning community. A broad interpretation defines community as the result of interaction and deliberation by people brought together by similar interests and common goals (Rovai, 2002). This is especially important in a distance-learning context as dropout rates tend to be higher in distance education programs than in face-to-face programs (Rovai, 2002). It has also been theorized that students will increase their levels of satisfaction and the likelihood of persisting in a college program in they feel involved and develop relationships with other members of the learning community (Tinto (1993) Cited in Rovai, 2002). Others have said that feelings of community are known to significantly affect online learning performance and that community is an essential part of successful online education (Black, Dawson, & Priem, 2008). It is clear from the literature that participating in a learning community is an important part of online education and subsequently, is an important part of the engagement definition.
Black, E. W., Dawson, K., & Priem, J. (2008, 17 March 2008). Data for free: Using LMS activity logs to measure community in online courses. Internet and Higher Education, 11, 65-70.
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
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education [Electronic Version]. AAHE Bulletin, from http://tls.vu.edu.au/learning_and_teaching/guidelines/VU4/Chickering%20and%20Gamson%201987%20VU%204.pdf
Coates, H. (2007). A model of online and general campus-based student engagement. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32(2), 121-141.
Douglas, I. (2008, 14 December 2008). Measuring Participation in Internet Supported Courses. Paper presented at the 2008 International Conference on Computer Science and Software Engineering, Wuhan, China.
Douglas, I., & Alemanne, N. D. (2007). Measuring Student Participation and Effort. Paper presented at the International Conference on Cognition and Exploratory Learning in Digital Age, Algarve, Portugal.
Hewitt, J., & Brett, C. (2005). The relationship between class size and online activity patterns in asynchronous computer conferencing environments. Computers in Education, 49(2007), 13.
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
Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 8.
Rovai, A. (2002). Building Sense of Community at a Distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1).
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
Veerman, A., & Else, V.-D. (2001). Collaborative learning through computer-mediated communication in academic education. Paper presented at the European Perspectives on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning : Euro-CSCL, Maastricht McLuhan Institute.