How can we improve student engagement?

Resolution lists are common at this time of year, so I think that I will add a piece to the 2011 pie by summarizing Zepke and Leach’s  (2010) 10 calls to action for improving student engagement.  They examined four specific perspectives on student engagement (p. 169):

1. Motivation and agency (engaged students are intrinsically motivated and want to exercise their agency [to engage])

2. Transactional engagement (students and instructors engage with each other)

3. Institutional support (institutions provide an environment conducive to learning)

4. Active citizenship (students and institutions work together to enable challenges to social beliefs and practices)

In support of these four perspectives, the authors present 10 proposed calls for action:

1.  Enhance students’ self-belief.  Learning is about self-confidence, and learners must first believe that they are capable, and have the resources necessary to successfully meet the intended learning objectives/outcomes.

2.  Provide opportunities for students to learn autonomously and with others.

3.  Recognize that instructors can have an enormous impact on student engagement by being supportive and approachable, by enhancing student-faculty interaction, and by effectively establishing a ‘classroom’ environment that encourages an active, collaborative and deep approach to learning.

4.  Enhance opportunities for peer interaction and collaborative learning.

5.  Create challenging and enriching educational experiences that, “challenge students’ ideas and stretch them as far as they can go” (p.171).

6.  Ensure an inclusive and adaptable academic culture that welcomes diversity.

7.  Provide a variety of support services that help students succeed (e.g. transitioning to academic life; career development; connecting with peers and mentors; improving writing, research and communication skills; childcare services).

8.  Adapt to student expectations by developing an understanding of and responding to the challenges facing students.

9.  Enable students to be active citizens, such that students become increasingly aware of their ability to influence and affect societal change. “What is needed is a democratic-critical conception of engagement that goes beyond strategies, techniques or behaviours, a conception in which engagement is participatory, dialogic and leads not only to academic achievement but to success as an active citizen” (p.173).

10.  Provide opportunities for students to develop the ‘social and cultural capital’ necessary to succeed in and beyond the classroom.

Although broadly stated, these 10 principles can be used by institutions and instructors to inform change, increase student engagement, and to improve our educational practices.  They provide an effective framework to guide positive change in higher education.


Zepke, N. and Leach, L. 2010.  Improving student engagement: ten proposals for action.  Active Learning in Higher Education 11(3): 167-177.

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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