Learning is social

Engagement/Participation: Are they the same and why might it matter?

Those who design and/or teach units know there’s nothing more dispiriting than turning up to class to find you’re the only one there. Or that five students out of 60 have turned up.

Some of us blame the students: ‘Students these days are lazy and unmotivated. They expect to be handed their degree without having to do anything for it’. Some of us blame the university: ‘If I didn’t have to record my class/seminar for students to watch at their leisure, they’d turn up’.

And some of us take it personally. After all, we put a lot of our time and energy into teaching and when many students either don’t show up at all or remain invisible to us apart from at assessment time it can feel like a slap. We decry a lack of attendance and wonder how students can achieve the learning outcomes if they don’t at least attend; if they don’t participate.

But does a lack of participation mean a lack of engagement? It is this question that speaks to the importance of distinguishing between participation and engagement, particularly in an era where engagement is high on many universities’ agendas.

Students working together on a laptop

I don’t have the space in this post to define participation and engagement or to share the way I’ve framed engagement (see Pittaway, 2012 for more detail), but I encourage you to think about how those two terms might be different and what it might mean for us to think about engagement as more than participation:

  • A student might be intellectually engaged, open to new ideas, making connections between one concept and another and seeking out more information. They could engage intellectually without attending classes or seminars.
  • Another student might be professionally engaged, seeking work in the industry/profession they’re preparing for, networking, engaging in WIL programs – yet not participate in classes or seminars.
  • A third student might be personally engaged, taking responsibility for their learning, timetabling learning activities, and planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning. They can be engaged personally without attending classes or seminars.

How might we consider engagement more broadly, beyond equating it with participation? In what ways might we design units that encourage engagement?

What might it look like, to design a unit that provides opportunities for students to engage intellectually, professionally, personally, and academically?

If we use participation as a proxy for engagement, if we focus on the social and the collaborative in our unit design, particularly with first-year students, we might drive away those who want to ease into interacting with others, and we might also, perhaps more damagingly, introduce inauthentic learning experiences for students. This is much more likely to do the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve – we might disengage students through reductionist teaching strategies that increase participation but at the cost of engagement.