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Teacher engagement

Retired from the University of Oxford, England


The term «engagement» has flooded through British universities the way that the term «student centred learning» once did, but faster and more irresistibly, drowning everything in its path. And just like «student centred learning» the meaning of «engagement» has become less clear the more it has been used. One of my last public presentations was about seven quite different uses of the term «engagement», in an attempt to try to make sense of all the very different university initiatives I had come across, and their very different rationales, that were all flourishing under the banner of «engagement». It is all very confusing.

Nearly all the work undertaken, round the world on «engagement» has been about student engagement, for reasons I discuss below. I would like to comment here on two rather different meanings of «engagement» as the term applies to teachers.

Teachers being «engaging»

Both in educational research and in attempts to improve student learning, there has been a very long and comprehensive preoccupation with teachers and their behaviour, particularly their behaviour in the classroom. However, the assumption underlying this preoccupation, that what teachers do in class is the most important variable affecting student learning, is patently false. The proportion of variance in student learning gains explained by teachers’ classroom behaviour is usually small or non-existent. Furthermore, the kinds of teacher variables that do explain at least some student learning gains are often intractable. It may indeed make a difference if a teacher is «stimulating», whatever that means, and «being stimulating» is therefore found as a variable on the most reliable and valid teacher evaluation questionnaires. However, it can be very difficult to take an unstimulating teacher and make them more stimulating. Those of us who lack a personal style that appears to stimulate students without much effort, may be better off working our way round the problem and doing other things that make our courses work, rather than desperately trying to simulate being «stimulating». For example, we could be better organised, and that is known to have more impact than being stimulating. But the real problem here is that this kind of research has been looking at the wrong things.

In the last decade or so, in reaction to the dismaying lack of progress associated with a concentration on teachers and teaching, research has shifted its emphasis from what teachers do, to what students do. In particular, it has emphasised the importance of students being «engaged». The crucial issue here is that once you have started at the «outcome» end (instead of the «input» end) of the equation you can then start looking, in an open minded way, at what seems to bring about student engagement – and it is rarely «teacher behaviour» variables. Rather it is «time on task» (students spending enough time on the right things); it is students learning in collaborative and social ways, especially outside class; it is «close contact» with teachers (for example discussing an assignment) and it is clear and high expectations – not just clear, but demanding, stretching, expectations. You can readily identify how well your learning environment embodies those features that are known to be associated with better student engagement, and if you then modify your environment in evidence-based ways, then student engagement has been shown to improve and student learning gains also improve. What is more, and this is my point, you can achieve significant improvements in student engagement and learning gains whilst ignoring teachers’ behaviour altogether.

A good example of this shift of perspective can be found in research and development work on «feedback» – here I mean the things teachers write on students’ assignments. What «good feedback» is supposed to look like is well documented and has been for decades. Most of the effort to improve the impact of feedback has involved trying to get teachers to take the trouble to write more and better feedback. However it turns out that students tend to make very little productive use of feedback, whether it is «good» or «bad» feedback. Much of it is a waste of time however beautifully and professionally crafted it is. The way to get a bigger bang for your buck in feedback is not to tell teachers to write more, or «better», feedback, but to change the assessment environment, and in particular the sequence of things that students do, so that feedback can feed forward and actually be useful next time round. And instead of trying to change teachers’ marking it seems to make more difference to increase the sophistication of students, so that they know how to make the best use of whatever feedback they get. Students who get higher marks make quite different uses of feedback than do students who perform less well, and even quite brief efforts to tune students in to feedback have been shown to have quite dramatic effects on their performance.

You can have profound impacts by changing the «assessment environment» and thinking more systemically about feedback. For example, one degree programme I worked with complained that despite all the time teachers spent writing feedback, students did not seem to learn from it or improve. One solution involved adding a space at the bottom of their assignment feedback forms, on every assignment on every course, that was for comments about «what to pay more attention to next time you undertake an assignment like this one». Students were required to tear off this section and attach it to the next assignment they did of the same type, so that both they and the next marker were oriented to paying more attention to that aspect of the work. This virtually guaranteed that feedback fed forward rather than being thrown in the bin, and co-ordinated the efforts of teachers on successive occasions, even across courses or years, without any need to redesign courses. The «pedagogic work» being done here was not the teacher writing down the feedback, but the student paying attention to, and acting on, that feedback next time round.

Another programme I worked with, where students previously ignored most of the feedback, introduced two-stage assignments. The first stage was «formative only» with feedback but no marks, and the second stage was summative only, with marks but no feedback. The feedback was little different than before, but students now had the opportunity to do something with it and improve (rather like a supervisor’s feedback on a chapter of a doctoral thesis) and so read it assiduously and acted on it. What changed here was not teacher behaviour (the quality or quantity of their feedback) but the nature and sequence of student learning activity. It was so spectacularly successful in improving the quality of student work that the University involved introduced a regulation to ban it, on the grounds that it «artificially boosted student marks». It is the word «artificial» that requires attention here. Had it been teachers being «engaging» that improved marks, no doubt this would have been considered acceptable. But redesigning assessment in such a way that students performed better was considered «artificial». Wonderful!

It is difficult for me to perceive these kinds of effective change in pedagogic practice as having much to do with teachers being «engaging».

So rather than thinking about how teachers can be more engaging I suggest people think about what they would hope to see happening if teachers were, indeed, more engaging – perhaps students would read more or discuss the course out of class more, or spend longer on their assignments. Then think about how you could get students to read more, or discuss more, or spend more time on their assignments – and go straight for those «learning variables» rather than hoping that you could magically achieve these ends through some kind of amazing teaching «performance». The links between teachers being engaging and effective student learning behaviour are tenuous at best.

Teachers being «engaged with teaching»

I once gave a keynote lecture at the first national conference on university teaching in Spain. I had been asked to talk about the evaluation of teaching. When it came to questions, at the end, a head of a prestigious academic department got up and said that if any of his colleagues had any time at all to spare, then they would spend it on research or consultancy, not on evaluation of teaching. What did I think of that? My answer was that he had hired the wrong people.

Being engaged with teaching and with students and their learning is, first and foremost, a matter of values. At the University of Oxford, I once conducted interviews as part of an international study of academic departments that were much better at teaching than other departments at the same university, to try and understand what was going on. I interviewed the head of a science department that was hugely successful at teaching and asked him what appointments panels were looking for in applicants for new academic posts in his department. He said that all the applicants had very impressive research records and could bring in big grants and research teams. That was almost taken for granted. But what they were really looking for, he said, was whether the applicants «liked young people». He thought it particularly important that any new academic «fitted in», and by this he meant that they shared a belief in the importance of developing students as future academics in the discipline, a focus that had been carefully nurtured for decades. As a demonstration of the role of values this could hardly be beaten. The students in this department told me that the teaching was not actually especially good «but it didn’t matter», as they knew how much their teachers cared.

Much of the interesting work going on to get academics to talk more about teaching, to care about teaching, to put effort into trying to teach better, seems to me to start from a position in which all these academics did not initially talk much, care much, or put in much effort. The kinds of strategies and practices that clever and committed educational developers have been working on to engage academics with teaching seem to me to be fundamentally remedial. These efforts are needed because the university got it wrong in the values they emphasised when they employed academics in the first place, and in the values these new academics encountered amongst their colleagues when they started to teach. I once had a young academic come up to me, six months into his first year, bursting to tell me about some innovations he was trying out in his teaching. He wanted to tell me because he could not tell his colleagues. He was innovating in secret in case they found out that he cared about his teaching. He was worried that he would not gain a permanent academic position unless his commitment to research was undiluted by a commitment to anything else, and in particular any kind of engagement with teaching or students.

Let us address the cause of the problem, rather than only work to minimise the damage it causes.

Graham Gibbs is now a sailor.

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