What do we mean by “engagement”?

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I’m currently studying for am MA in Academic Practice as part of my CPD. At the moment I’m working on Research Methods, not necessarily the stuff dreams are made of, but useful and interesting nevertheless. Our weekly task has been to critically read and reflect on a journal paper.

I’ve decided to post a blog about this, as the article I read has made me consider a term that gets bandied about a lot in my line of work- engagement.

The paper I have read is Ella Kahu’s “Framing student engagement in higher education” (Kahu, 2013). The paper is a discussion around different types of engagement and reading it has made me stop and think.

What do I mean by engagement? Is it what other people mean by engagement?

I talk about student engagement, I talk to others about student engagement, I sit in meetings about student engagement, but are we all talking about the same thing? I have always had a reassuring assumption that there was a shared understanding, but after reading Kahu’s paper, I’m not so sure. The OED presents numerous definitions of the term engage, which perhaps clearly illustrations the trouble with the term.

Can engagement be measured through clicks in Moodle? Or attendance at lectures?

I would argue not. Click counters in Moodle demonstrate that a student has visited a page or resource, but not that they have internally reflected and considered the content, debated it with their peers, or contextualised into their own understanding. Similarly, attendance in lectures demonstrates a physical, but not an emotional, engagement with the subject. However, both of these have been used as ‘measures’ of student engagement.

When I consider engagement, it is definitely something more than a physical attendance or interaction with a web page. To me, to be engaged, truly engaged, must be an emotional state. There needs to be some connection with what is being taught, beyond that of ‘going through the motions’ of what is needed to achieve the qualification.

As discussed by Kaul (2013), depending on your definition, engagement is influenced by many factors outside of the control of a teaching institution…and perhaps, cynically, it isn’t important if a student is paying lip service to the ‘engagement’ requirements of the organisation, if they, the student and the institution, achieve the outcome they desire? But surely, education that provokes and extracts emotional reactions from students, that forces them to challenge their viewpoints and understanding of the world, that excites and intrigues them, creates a more rewarding educational experience? And I think that is what I would look for in engagement. Engagement that has an emotional impact on the student, not something that can be measured by a Moodle clicker.

In future, when people talk about student engagement, I’ll explore what that means to them!

Anyway, I’m rambling…

What does engagement mean to you? Do you think engagement matters? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Kahu, E.R. 2011, “Framing student engagement in higher education”, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 38, no. 5, pp. 1-16.