Author: Karl C. Alvestad, Project Officer – University of Winchester

In recent weeks the Winchester research team for the Changing Mindsets project have observed that we have had a declining number of students attending our interventions and sessions in general, and personally I have experienced a similar trend in my own teaching session as well as heard from anecdotal evidence that this pattern is not unique for our interventions. As a result, I find myself wondering: How do we engage students in change? What factors influence the attendance and their engagement? These questions
come as a result of a series of conversations I have had with my peer leaders, and with students who took part in these interventions.

At the core of these observations is the question: how do you get students to attend extra-curricular events that might be useful for development but is not critical for assessments? This question is not something that is unique to Winchester but is part of a wider shared pattern in Higher Education. What this reflects is the experience that we are seeing declining attendance numbers at extra-curricular activities, particularly if they are competing with other activities. This is corroborated by Irwin (2017) and Marie et al (2017) who both suggests that students will choose to not attend engagement opportunities if there are other opportunities that are more exciting or assignments that are more pressing, or if sessions are in times or places that are inconvenient for them to attend. This might include that if students are commuting, or living off campus, they might find it inconvenient to attend sessions that are not in close proximity to their other timetabled sessions. Similarly, a session that is at the opposite end of campus from previous sessions might discourage attendance. So making the sessions easy to access – both in context of time and space might, therefore, enable attendance. These observations very much reflect my observations from the last few weeks, where we have seen better attendance at sessions that are more accessible in terms of time and space. Baron and Corbin’s article from 2012 suggests that students in the 2000s spent less time on campus compared to the 1990s, which might also shed light on the trend that students are choosing away time on campus in favour of off-campus activities.

In addition to the practical dimension, Irwin identified that students are likely to attend if sessions are directed at them and it is explicitly explained why these sessions are relevant and helpful for them (2017: 198-203). Irwin and Marie et al.’s student experiences reflect in many ways our own and raise a number interesting plausible causes for our attendance pattern, including the timings of our sessions, our ability to relate to our target audience why they should attend, and what else we are competing against. But at the same time Irwin and Marie et al. fail to consider the impact of the content of sessions and mode of delivery as factors that might impact student attendance and engagement.

So what does this mean? In essence, it means that Irwin and Marie have not considered how activities and tools used to engage participants in sessions might contribute to engagement or lack thereof, or how they might amplify the impact of other barriers to engagement. Baron and Corbin (2012) suggest that active and collaborative learning techniques are key for fostering engagement and as an extension of that attendance. Drawing on this and the attendance patterns one must ask: are our sessions not interactive enough or collaborative enough? Or are there other contributing causes to these attendance and engagement patterns. What Baron and Corbin imply is that activities that rely on direct activities and engagement with ideas are more likely to see participant engagement than sessions that are based on leader delivery. As this idea is not new, interactive and engaging activities are at the core of our interventions. Among the activities we have used are videos followed by the pair and group discussions, mind maps, group discussion, re-enactment, role-play and more, all of which have actively engaged the students that have participated in our sessions. As such these sessions have aimed to be interactive and varied in engagement methods, as engaging students in the interventions helps to embed the interventions and their ideas firmly in the participant’s mind, but interactive sessions do not always translate to student attendance, and without attendance, our interventions will have limited success.

These reflections and ideas combined with my observations suggests that we must continue our practices with active and collaborative learning at the core of the sessions, and try – as far as feasible to facilitate easy access to these sessions, alongside providing the potential participants with a good understanding of why these sessions might be beneficial for them.

But as Niamh Moore-Cherry suggested in a paper given in Winchester recently (2018) the key is to create an environment of opportunities for participation in which students are able to participate, engage and develop. In this context, we can see and read the attendance patterns for our interventions as part of a wider debate on student engagement, and say that even when trying to control all components in a research project we cannot always control human components. All we can do is to provide them with the information and attempt to make it as easy as possible for them to engage in change.

Bibliography

Baron, P. & Corbin, L., (2012) ‘Student Engagement: Rhetoric and Reality’, Higher Education Research and Development, 31:6, 759-772.

Irwin, J. & Knight, J., (2017) ‘Developing an understanding of why students do not engage’, Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change, 5, 198-203.

Marie, J., MacKenzie, S., Rowett, S., Wright, M., (2017) ‘Staff Perception of “Hard to Reach”’, Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change, 5, 286-292.

Moore-Cherry, Niamh (2018) Creating an active learning community: Insights from the practice to create an ethos of partnership in higher education, University of Winchester, Winchester. [8 February].

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.

Considering barriers to engagement
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