Contributor: Karin Barac

In recent years, many Australian universities have undertaken large-scale transformational projects to improve and increase student engagement in an effort to attract and retain students. Student engagement: how it is measured and enacted, how it connects to student satisfaction, and its connection to notions of quality in education make it a highly political topic within Higher Education (Zepke, 2014).

There are generally two understandings of student engagement contained within the literature (Zepke & Leach, 2010): –

  1. “students cognitive investment in and active participation in their learning”


  1. “students involvement with activities…to generate high quality learning”.

The two most well known international and national benchmarking surveys used to measure student engagement are the NSSE (in the USA) and the AUSSE (in Australia). The factors that these instruments look at are :-

NSSE (2003)

AUSSE (2013)

1.     Level of academic challenge 1.     Higher order thinking
2.     Active and collaborative learning 2.     General learning outcomes
3.     Student-faculty interaction 3.     Career readiness
4.     Enriching educational experiences 4.     Grade
5.     Supportive campus environment 5.     Departure intention

6.     Satisfaction

When we looked at these two surveys and the other current student surveys (the SES and before that the CEQ) conducted by the Australian government, we found that these tend to focus on institutional services, co-curricular/affective factors, peer engagement, and satisfaction, rather than the narrowing down on a student’s own motivation or expectations of their learning. Institutional surveys such as the Student Experience Surveys (SEC and SET) also tend to make strong connections between student satisfaction and student engagement that can also blur the lines to fully understand their notions of engagement.

As such, facing a wide-ranging institutional change project of our own and given this focus of existing surveys, we were interested in finding out from our students what engagement meant to them. In particular, we were interested in finding out how they perceived engagement in their learning and how they made their judgements to answer the engagement question on their Student Experience of Course (SEC) surveys.

The results of this student survey were very interesting to say the least. An outline of the survey, its participants and the preliminary analysis of the data (presented as concept maps of the major themes) is presented in the slideshow below.

What has emerged from this data is just how important a role content plays in student engagement. Content related comments accounted for 35% of all responses. This is something that Zepke (2014) recognises as being often overlooked in the research to date. It is also something that is not always talked about in institutional transformation projects.

It was also interesting to see that contrary to popular belief assessment is not always what drives students as only 19% of comments were directed towards this factor. In fact, they were much more interested in their cognitive engagement during and after a course with this accounting for 71% of all the comments.

What I found most interesting in looking at this data (and from other data I’m collecting within my PhD project) is that students have a greater awareness of pedagogy and how best they learn than I think we sometimes give them credit for. As such, I am becoming much more passionate about involving Students As Partners  in learning and teaching projects, as I saw firsthand during my recent tour of universities in the UK how successful this can be for institutional reform.

Implications for Practice

Given this data, what can we do to improve our learning designs to align with student conceptions of engagement?

  1. Content is king – relevant, interesting and challenging content is what they crave.
  2. Passion is key – exhibiting your own and fostering it in the students
  3. Authenticity is important – linking content to practical and “real-world” applications.
  4. Students value opportunities for discussion to apply new knowledge with teaching teams and with their peers.


Zepke, N., & Leach, L. (2010). Improving student engagement: Ten proposals for action. Active learning in higher education, 11(3), 167-177.

Zepke, N. (2014). Student engagement research in higher education: questioning an academic orthodoxy. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(6), 697-708.