What do we mean by “student engagement”?

It’s not possible to walk through a (virtual or physical) corridor in university these days and not hear someone mention “student engagement”. We worry that students are “not engaged” or we want to “increase engagement”. I sometimes think of students sitting in the lecture, and imagine them sitting up or opening their eyes even wider, smiling as hard as they can, eventually to a point when we can relax and sigh; they are engaged.

Because the phrase is nebulous, isn’t it? And while I am about to share some of my own understanding of it, it is a challenge because even the people who know about student engagement can’t seem to agree on what it is we are talking about (Kahu, 2013). There’s a camp that look to student behaviours in teaching contexts; so for example how much time they spend on a task, or how they show they are integrating into academic activities through attendance. Behavioural engagement looks to the extent to which (we can see) the time and effort students dedicate to their academic work, and as it is behaviour that we can see or students can say that they engage in, it is this form of engagement that often ends up as the basis for the student satisfaction surveys.

A second camp looks to psychological engagement, and as an educator this appeals to me more. This tends to look at particular learning events, or even particular learning activities, and explore four forms of engagement: behavioural (the extent to which students participating, such as asking questions); cognitive (the extent to which students are making meaning of their learning; reviewing concepts, learning from mistakes); emotional engagement (the emotional connection with the learning situation: boredom, or interest or perceived value) (Naibert and Barbera, 2022). Naibert and Barbera also consider the social dimension at the activity level (assuming the activity incorporates a social dimension), such as asking students whether they built on other students’ ideas.

A third consideration is a broader socio-cultural one; the extent to which the student feels they engage with the institution, culturally, but also in the context of their discipline and the associated norms. I am mindful of Gravett and Ajjawi’s (2022) excellent recent article on belonging, one that infers caution about the extent to which we can homogenise an experience of belonging for a group of students; especially in a post-COVID context. Similar caution about broad brush statements relating to student engagement is probably wise.

Symptom or cure?

The concept of engagement is therefore complex, but within the general domain, there is at least consensus that we wish to “increase engagement”. Of course students don’t just become more or less engaged, it is part of a complex set of interrelated factors about themselves, their context, and the environment they are in. This almost ephemeral experience may be the reason why engagement work relating to learning tends to look at psychological engagement, and even within that area, tends to look at cognitive engagement. But more broadly we can ask the question: what affects engagement?

Zumbrunn et al. (2014) explored the relationships between engagement (in effect cognitive engagement), belonging, and motivation. These are known to impact on achievement, and this work looked to explore the extent of interrelation. They found quantitative evidence for the model shown in the scheme below. I find this useful to tease out, so as to begin to address the questions: what affects engagement, and perhaps of more importance, how can we improve opportunities of engagement?

Figure 3 from Zumbrunn (2014) showing the output of structural equation modelling relating engagement with other constructs such as belonging, self-efficacy, and supportive classroom setting


Their data summarised in the figure can be loosely summarised (in my lay terms!) as follows. Firstly, we are right to be interested in engagement, from a pure “academic performance” perspective: engagement is a strong predictor of achievement. Second, student self-efficacy significantly predicts engagement. So a student’s concept of their ability to achieve in a given situation will influence both their engagement and (directly and indirectly) their performance. Self-efficacy itself can be fostered by a sense of belonging; this is well known from literature on self-efficacy (if one can immerse in an educational setting and feel like they belong, their sense of their capacity to achieve will be greater). Zumbrunn goes as far as to argue (p. 665) that “[h]igher self-efficacy and value beliefs may be less likely unless aspects of the classroom context first facilitate belonging”, which I think is quite a powerful statement. Belonging is in turn fostered by a supportive classroom environment.

This flow of significance though the model – supportive environment begets belonging begets self-efficacy begets engagement begets achievement – gives a lot of useful touchpoints in terms of thinking about what affects student engagement, and how it can be fostered. Of note here is that task value (“students’ beliefs about the potential importance, usefulness, and enjoyment associated with an academic task”, p. 664) is not, in and of itself, a predictor of engagement. This may be peculiar to this particular study, as the task at hand may not have been directly relevant to the students’ ultimate career path, although the non-significance observed is a useful flag to warn ourselves that assessment tasks are not necessarily a means to promote engagement.

Untangling knots

All of this is very confusing and I think points to why quite a lot of discussion around student engagement is often vague or unspecific. Not least is the intention of what is meant by engagement, but even acknowledging this (and perhaps coalescing on cognitive engagement as a first approximation), it appears that this is an output of the circumstances the student is in rather than something that can itself be directly dialled up or down. Interestingly, this may then draw in some of the broader definitions of engagement relating to general behavioural or sociocultural aspects.

But hidden in this wilderness are some tangible bookmarks that we can think about from a teaching strategy perspective; especially those focussed around belonging, and around promotion of self-efficacy, and ultimately, around creating a space that is supportive for students to belong to and engage with.


Gravett, K. and Ajjawi, R. (2022) ‘Belonging as situated practice’, Studies in Higher Education, 47(7), pp. 1386-1396.

Kahu, E. R. (2013) ‘Framing student engagement in higher education’, Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), pp. 758-773.

Naibert, N. and Barbera, J. (2022) ‘Development and Evaluation of a Survey to Measure Student Engagement at the Activity Level in General Chemistry’, Journal of Chemical Education, 99(3), pp. 1410-1419.

Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E. and Hawley, L. R. (2014) ‘Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: a mixed method study’, Instructional Science, 42(5), pp. 661-684.