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01 June 2022

Reclaiming student engagement: The first year of a collaborative approach from Wales


Dr Myfanwy Davies

Head of Quality Enhancement, Bangor University

Dr Myfanwy Davies is Head of Quality Enhancement at Bangor University. Dr Davies led one of QAA Cymru’s first Collaborative Enhancement Projects in collaboration with Grŵp Llandrillo Menai, focused on Student Engagement in Learning. Head to the project page for the full findings to date.

During the last two years of frenetic teaching activity, a quieter revolution has happened in University regulation across the UK. In Wales, we have moved towards a more enhancement-focussed approach, with the Welsh regulator, HEFCW, recently announcing its intention to strengthen the enhancement focus of its reviews and to develop joint quality activity across Wales and with Scotland and Northern Ireland.


The new approach mirrors what has been in place in Scotland for almost 20 years, where enhancement involves well-planned activities that seek to improve the student experience, and commitments to evaluation and collaborative efforts to drive sector-wide improvements. With these developments in mind, QAA Cymru launched a first round of funded collaborative enhancement projects in Spring 2021.


Discussions at QAA’s Wales Quality Network (WQN) had focused on flexible forms of collaboration and information sharing in response to the pandemic. We wanted to build a strong collaborative structure to develop the first enhancement projects and to trace what we had done systematically. Using a Community of Practice approach, our aims were to consider evidence, develop and discuss research, and develop and test interventions on the basis of the research. Early discussions focused on student engagement as a theme of interest to most institutions.


A digest of research in student engagement was produced and shared with the Network. It indicated a strong tendency to promote active learning. Interest in enhancement was widespread, but the research base was small with a definitive review initially finding over 21,000 items, of which only 2% met quality criteria such as reporting the sample, methods and outcomes. Members agreed to reflect on their own institutional needs and whether they might fit in a broad focus on student engagement.


At Bangor University, we convened a group consisting of an SU representative, the Student Voice Manager, a seconded academic, myself and our PVC T&L. We had initially been interested in student engagement in relation to students’ experiences of off-campus teaching. But when we unpacked it, we found that we each meant different things by it. Did it mean turning up, be that online or in-person? Did it mean submitting work or doing well or feeling a sense of community or academic discovery? Did it mean involvement in decision making and governance?


Our neighbours and long-term collaborators in HE in FE, Grŵp Llandrillo-Menai, also decided to explore student engagement. Their priority was to address retention and progression issues that arose out of their exceptional commitment to widening access. We devised a study with multiple strands that we hoped would help us understand our distinct engagement issues better within a short timescale.


We triangulated routine data including VLE activity, Google meet, Active Classrooms, an attendance app and views of lecture capture for both sites and across all disciplines. In all cases, we found a clear picture of high initial engagement followed by lesser peaks immediately prior to assessment, suggesting that initiatives in assessment and feedback might be used to modify students’ access to resources.


Informal contact with other students to discuss and commit to learning emerged as the main focus of the interview study. University students would test their comprehension of new ideas, try out approaches to assignments, and debrief on feedback and exams through peer discussion. Students in the HE in FE group who would try out ideas on each other, sometimes using social media and would check their understanding with staff. The role of staff as catalysts for student confidence and commitment to learning and in promoting retention and continuation was specific to the HE in FE group. Students in the University groups were aware of different preferences for learning styles, disliked groupwork and believed the University should design courses to accommodate multiple learning styles.


Our main aim for the first year of the project was to identify interventions with good evidence of success. We designed a search using terms relating to all the main components of student engagement as indicated by our discussions and the review discussed above. Of just under 1,000 papers and reports, 75 reported good quality interventions.


Of these, just under half focused on approaches led by lecturers. These related to innovations in assessment and feedback and active learning. Another significant group measured the effects of online learning on student attainment and group interaction. Interventions using student self-reflection were used to improve student performance, but also to raise students’ awareness of their learning styles and their effective use. Others explored the effects of the staff-student relationship on attainment and inclusion or reported the delivery of additional support to students identified as being at risk of low attainment or non-completion.


We are still working through our library, now at 50 studies, ranking interventions by their design and their evidence of effectiveness. We have organised the interventions by the questions they answer rather than the claims made. The largest groups promote student attainment or modify students’ perceptions of quality learning, belonging or inclusion.


We will produce and disseminate a toolbox of the interventions with the very best evidence of success and return to the WQN to discuss how they might fit our changing needs and be introduced and tested at scale. Developing cross-institutional evaluations of interventions that already have good evidence will provide a new level of rigour to the literature.


As partners in a joint and Wales-wide collaboration, we have learned to question our assumptions about a key concept, to take a new look at our priorities and to welcome fresh expertise. Working as part of a group of 8 universities, and with our HE in FE partners, we can achieve tangible changes at scale to help students learn more effectively and be confident in their learning and their value as learners.