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Creating an engaged student experience

International experience shows that, by putting in place the right conditions, institutions can improve student engagement.

The fifth National Student Engagement Forum was held in both Melbourne and Sydney in late-October. Co-hosted by ACER and the LH Martin Institute, the forum featured a keynote presentation by the Director of the United States’ National Survey of Student Engagement, Professor Alexander McCormick, as well as workshops on effective institutional practices for engaging students.

Opening the forum, ACER Research Fellow Ali Radloff said that research has found links between student engagement and retention, completion and success after graduating.

‘One key assumption of student engagement is that student effort, in conjunction with a relevant level of support from teachers and their institution, leads to strong learning and development outcomes,’ Ms Radloff said.

‘The concept of student engagement is grounded in decades of research into identifying activities and conditions linked with effective learning. There are hundreds, if not thousands of different activities that could be considered part of student engagement,’ Ms Radloff said.

Surveys such as the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) and its parent study, the United States’ National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), are sources of quality assured information about the extent to which students engage in and participate in educationally effective practices.

In his keynote presentation, Professor McCormick said that the real value of surveys like AUSSE and NSSE is that of a conversation starter.

‘A lot of times that conversation starts with a sometimes uncomfortable confrontation of the gap between our understanding or assumption of student engagement and what we learn from students who do the survey,’ Professor McCormick said.

Professor McCormick also warned that it’s a lot easier to collect data than it is to use data.

‘Data are important, but you have to use them – you have to do something with them,’ he said.

Professor McCormick shared the preliminary findings of a study he is currently working on, titled, ‘Learning to Improve: A study of evidence-based improvement in higher education’. The study analysed NSSE results of around 500 institutions between 2001 and 2009 to find evidence of trends in levels of student engagement in the various measures that form the survey.

The study found evidence of institutions that had improved, as well as evidence of some institutions going backward, with positive trends outnumbering negative trends by a ratio of about seven to one.

‘Importantly, we found positive trends across the spectrum of institutional types,’ Professor McCormick said. ‘So it wasn’t just the really small institutions that are more nimble and able to achieve some change, and it wasn’t just private institutions that have, in some ways, more control over their destiny than public institutions. We found existence of positive change across the spectrum of institutional differentiation.’

The next aspect of Professor McCormick’s study was to administer a questionnaire to 100 institutions in which trends were found, to find out what was behind the change. Out of the 64 useable responses received, 60 reported that the change in their NSSE results was connected to some kind of intentional change action within the institution. In relation to what prompted the change action, the most frequently selected response was an institutional commitment to improving undergraduate education. The next-most popular response was that data, such as NSSE, revealed a concern, followed by a faculty interest in improvement.

According to Professor McCormick, what characterises the institutions in which positive trends were found is that, ‘these are not institutions that are comfortable where they are – that want to just keep doing what they are doing, and are so comfortable in their own skin that they don’t want to do anything. Instead, there’s this notion that “we can get better, and it’s everyone’s job”.’

Summarising the lessons learned from his study, Professor McCormick said, ‘Transformational change is possible. Use of data is important because it gives you a foundation for arguing for certain change. Improvement can start small, so get out there and do something! Evaluate your effectiveness. Celebrate your wins. And make adjustments.’ ■

Further information:
The Australian Council for Educational Research manages the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE). For further information about the survey, including research briefings that discuss results at the national level, visit <www.acer.edu.au/ausse>

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