Tired student asleep in lecture

Written by Sylvie Lomer and Elizabeth Palmer.


“Why should I even be doing this no one else can be bothered…”

“If I think it is going to benefit me then I will do it, if I don’t I won’t”

“It’s all so boring and hard, I can’t be bothered” 

These are the kinds of phrases every teacher dreads overhearing in whispers in class, or in the corridors or even straight to our faces! Instead, we hope against hope for the student that at least trusts us enough to go with the flow….

“For me, I just do it anyway even if it’s not compulsory I’m probably going to do it because there’s a good reason someone has set it up”

…and even more so for that keen student, bright eyed at the front, hand raised, prepared and ready to go!

This blog post deals specifically with what might constitute ‘student engagement’ and the fact that it is often hard to tell what ‘non-engagement’ looks like. In addition, it hopefully goes some way towards establishing that  there are different ways to support engagement and that both staff and students need to develop the right skills to foster high levels of engagement under active learning pedagogical models.

What is ‘Engagement’?

Active learning gives preference to group work, co-production, discussion and debate because its pedagogical underpinnings are based on relational and social learning theories. Engagement in these activities is, supposedly, easily observable. Students are either talking, writing, creating etc. or not. One of the difficulties faced by lecturers when moving to such models of learning is the discovery that engagement is not, in fact, as easy to measure as one might assume and that the characteristics of engagement that are easily observed in active learning favour more vocal and confident students. This may leave teachers with a group of students who are not observably participating in these activities. This gives rise to concerns about engagement and participation levels. Are those students that are not vocal, not participating, not creating or ‘doing’ the learning task not engaging and by proxy not learning?

If we begin by assuming that engagement is not necessarily:

  • Verbal

  • Written

  • Product-based

  • Observable

  • What teachers expect.

Then what is it and how do we support it?

Fredericks, Blumenfield and Paris (2004) talk about 3 dimensions to engagement: behavioural, emotional, and cognitive. This suggests that a student could exhibit what we might constitute as observable behaviourally positive engagement through regular attendance and completion of all tasks and assignments, but still be emotionally alienated by the material and therefore, not necessarily have learnt anything (cognitive engagement). In this example has the student ‘engaged’  and does that represent quality learning?

An online environment makes visible things which are present in traditional classrooms, but may remain implicit. In online contexts, for example, we might presume that to be engaged, students must be contributing to discussion boards, raising hands in virtual classrooms, writing blog posts, commenting on classmates’ contributions, and so on. But a small proportion of students are watching the discussions unfold. They may still be learning by watching. Indeed this is part of established learning models, such as Kolb’s learning cycle.

Undoubtedly, there are always some in a given group whose silence reflects confusion, uncertainty, sleepiness, or alienation. But arguably, it is possible to listen actively, to take effective notes and learn by doing so. Sometimes silence is an indicator of thought, of processing, of reflection, of listening.

Not all forms of engagement look the same. So how do you as a teacher determine whether silence is problematic or a different form of engagement?

If it’s online, set the tracker on each of your learning activities. You will be able to see who has accessed each learning activity, even if they have not made a written contribution. Contact them and ask what’s going on, non-confrontationally. Look for changes in patterns. A decline or shift in regularity of tracking patterns might indicate that the student is struggling. This requires regular involvement from the tutor, checking the statistics on the VLE and responding to individual students where appropriate.

If it’s face-to-face, ask questions as you circulate through the groups. Check in with students who seem quiet – have they understood the task? are the group dynamics excluding them?  Think about whether they can participate in an alternative mode (e.g. make notes and pass them on). Make this check in personal – ask how they are, whether something is going on, this helps students to feel heard as an individual not just a collective.

Once you’ve determined that there is an engagement problem, the next step is to understand why.

What creates barriers to engagement?

Firstly, and fairly obviously, it’s worth considering prior assumptions about why students are not engaging. They may not be engaging for a number of reasons, some of which are outside their control. There is no meaningful category of ‘disengaged students’ and even students exhibiting “inertia, apathy, disillusionment, or engagement in other pursuits” (Krause, 2005, p.4) may have significant and understandable reasons.  Indeed students experience different modes of engagement at different times as a continuum rather than as innate characteristics or traits.  Whilst some modes of engagement may be desirable and some may not be, categorising students in relation to modes of engagement is unhelpful.

Students may be temporarily disengaged due to personal stress or concerns. They may be more permanently disengaged due to a fundamental breakdown in one or more of the three dimensions of engagement. If a student is in this situation, telling them to engage is probably not going to work. Asking them whether they are OK or why their engagement patterns have changed may be enough to show them that they are heard and seen as a whole person and they may consequently re-engage. Other times it may be necessary to implement a longer term strategy.

Often, it is necessary to address implicit requirements and skills for effective participation in learning activities.  For example, many students in their first year are expected to engage in seminar debate and discussion. For many, this is a first. They may not have the requisite transferable skills of listening, building on contributions, negotiating, synthesising, and courteously disagreeing. These are sophisticated, high order thinking skills which are not innate to any of us. Scaffolding activities and modelling good practice, starting with easier tasks and concrete learning activities is vital.

Assumptions about requisite implicit skills extend to teachers as well. Facilitation of discussion and group work is an extremely challenging task and most of us have never been formally taught either how to formulate questions for discussion or how to stimulate and continue the discussion (or other learning activities). Anyone who has been to a conference will know that discussions do not emerge automatically and can be very difficult to manage. It is worth asking, therefore, whether it is our own uncertainties and fears, subconsciously perceived by students, that underlie disengagement. Beginning to address issues of engagement amongst a student cohort invariably starts with necessary self-reflection and personal development. Finding problems with engagement in our classes  and recognising we need help is a particularly hard thing to admit to as it can feel like a loss of face. Often we try to identify a solution or solutions on our own, feeling unable to admit to the problem or indeed not knowing where, or from whom, to get support.  Engaging in collaborative peer observation that is not  in any way linked to  performance management processes can be a start to this. Sometimes having a second pair of eyes and ears in the room can help spot things that it is difficult to do alone.

How do I improve engagement?

Our role as teachers, then, is to establish the conditions in which all students can and do engage in different ways at different times. Learning design, in all its facets, is the key means to tackling this effectively.

As a starting point this may mean reflecting on the content.  Get engaged/ re-engaged yourself! Are you excited about this session/ module? Do you think this is a really interesting topic? Are you looking forward to spending time with your students? Are you keen to see what they learn and how they respond to the learning activities you have so carefully created? This must seem incredibly obvious, but often over the course of many years of teaching a subject, it is easy to underestimate the power of a teacher’s authentic emotions on the outcome of a class. The demands on a lecturer’s time and emotional energy have increased exponentially over the last few years and it is easy to become alienated ourselves from our discipline and our desire to educate. Our own well-being as practitioners has a significant impact on our students. A sense of excitement about learning and growth within our field is as important for us as it is for our students. Teachers can be gatekeepers for students into their profession, and modelling continuous learning and development offers opportunities to make learning relevant to future practice. If you can communicate your enthusiasm, students will pick up on your engagement. In an active learning model, having projects in your professional field that you are working on and enjoying can be a useful basis for case studies, work experience opportunities for your students, collaborative student research etc.

Secondly, be transparent, open and honest with respect to your pedagogy. If you’re not sure about something, or if you are trying something new and you don’t know how it’s going to work, tell your students. Ask them for their feedback and cooperation. Ask for their help. Most students will be delighted to be treated as equals in this scenario, and very few will take advantage of it. Student agency in the design and implementation of their learning is highly important and often a successful way of raising engagement in a  cohort. Equally, give students some control and agency within the learning activities and tasks. For a given task, give choices about how to complete it. This can be individual or a group discussion about how best to complete the task – this is often a brilliant opportunity for meta-cognition or explicit reflection on learning. In relation to technology-enhanced learning this can also be a means of extending digital literacy within a class. Whilst you may not be aware of the range of technology available for a given task, the collective has a wider reach. Provide opportunities for students to share practice to extend learning and tech usage beyond themselves.

Thirdly, engage in staff development to increase your facilitation skills for both face-to-face and online environments, so that in group work you can effectively manage the dominant members of the group in order that there is space for more reticent students to develop their ideas. It can be helpful to alert students in advance so that they can prepare for the activities (e.g. tell them what the discussion topic will be).  This gives students more time to process, collect their thoughts, develop arguments etc. before they are required to discuss the content with classmates. In a blended learning scenario, this can be a  significant strength. Online preparation activities can be developed to allow students the time to reflect on issues, in advance of face-to-face sessions. Virtual classrooms allow students to raise their hands, ask questions and participate without being seen by the rest of the class. Therefore, use of virtual classrooms  in addition to face to face sessions can offer alternative means of participation. Students that might never  raise their hand in class normally, often do in an environment that offers greater anonymity and reduces the risk of embarrassment.

Coming back to the 3 dimensions to engagement – behavioural, emotional and cognitive – we can, and must, examine our learning activities and environments to foster all 3 dimensions.

What does that mean for how we understand ‘engagement’?

All of this suggests a need to re-conceptualise the notion of engagement. The key thing is the recognition that student engagement is the responsibility of both students and their institutions (including the teaching staff) (Witkowski, 2015; Morrison, 2014). Dealing with a ‘lack’ of student engagement should, therefore, not constitute a blame game. Instead it is about genuine, open and honest conversations about how learning should take place and what our mutual roles are between those involved in the learning. At Higher Education level the agency of the students is key but must be understood in the context of the structures within institutions.  Here’s one possible, working definition:

Student engagement is concerned with the interaction between the time, effort, and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and development of students and performance and reputation of the institution (Trowler, 2010).

If any of the content of this blog post has caused you to want help in identifying or problem solving for engagement in your module please contact: LD@northampton.ac.uk


Fredricks, J.A., Blumenfeld, P.C. and Paris, A.H. (2004) School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence. Review of Educational Research. 74 (1), pp. 59–109. In:  Trowler, V. (2010) Student engagement literature review. Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. The Higher Education Academy. Available at: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/trowler/StudentEngagementLiteratureReview.pdf (Accessed on 2nd September 2016)

Krause, K. (2005) Understanding and Promoting Student Engagement in University Learning Communities. Paper presented as keynote address: Engaged, Inert or Otherwise Occupied?: Deconstructing the 21st Century Undergraduate Student at the James Cook University Symposium ‘Sharing Scholarship in Learning and Teaching: Engaging Students’. James Cook University, Townsville/Cairns, Queensland, Australia, 21–22 September. In:  Trowler, V. (2010) Student engagement literature review. Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. The Higher Education Academy. Available at:http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/trowler/StudentEngagementLiteratureReview.pdf (Accessed on 2nd September 2016)

Morrison, Charles D. (2014) “From ‘Sage on the Stage’ to ‘Guide on the Side’: A Good Start,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 8 (1) Article 4. Available at:http://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/ij-sotl/vol8/iss1/4 (Accessed on 2nd September 2016)

Witkowski, Paula, & Cornell, Thomas. (2015). An Investigation into Student Engagement in Higher Education Classrooms. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 10, pp.56-67.

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