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Perceptions of student engagement in a research-driven university

Matthew Charlton (School of Geography), Gill Langmack (School of Nursing, Midwifery & Physiotherapy), Jonathan Peirce (School of Psychology), Tracey Sach (School of Community Health Sciences).

Student engagement is critical to learning in higher education. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain engagement with the increasing numbers of students in higher education, a wider gap between school and university education, and increasing external (e.g. financial) pressures on students. The objective of this project was to elicit staff and student definitions and perceptions on student engagement, within the learning environment, at The University of Nottingham.

Academic staff and students were surveyed using a web-based questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to take about 3 minutes to complete to maximise the number of respondents. Participants were asked (1) to define engagement, (2) to evaluate the effectiveness of different teaching methods in promoting engagement, (3) to rate their personal experience of links between research and teaching, and (4) demographic questions. Feedback boxes were included on the questionnaire to facilitate more detailed input from respondents.

In total 1629 responses were received, comprising 1155 undergraduate and diploma students, 301 postgraduate students, and 173 academic staff. Twice as many female students as male students responded to the survey. An equal number of female and male academic staff responded. Responses were received from students in 33 Schools, and from staff in 24 Schools. The largest number of academic and student responses were received from the School of Nursing, followed by the Schools of Law and Pharmacy. Whilst the web-based survey efficiently gathered a very large sample, it should be noted that the sample may be biased in terms of the type of people willing to complete the questionnaire.

The most popular three words used to define engagement were ‘interest’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘interaction’. The most commonly cited constraints to effective engagement were the method or quality of teaching and a lack of student confidence. All of the teaching methods included on the survey (e-learning, group work, independent learning, field work, lectures, seminars, projects, practicals and workshops) were felt to promote engagement, although respondents felt that e-learning was the least effective teaching method in promoting engagement.

The data will be discussed with particular reference to (1) the similarities and dissimilarities of staff and student perceptions of student engagement, (2) differences between academic disciplines, (3) the relationship between student engagement and other potentially important factors (e.g. feedback, school research) and (4) the specific implications for future course design (e.g. the need to use a broad range of teaching methods including practicals and tutorials).

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Paper presented at the University's Fifth Learning & Teaching conference (September, 2004).
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