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How can HE’s improve student engagement?

Anish Bagga

Anish Bagga

The pandemic caused a seismic shift in the lives of both current and prospective students. The result? Many students have become more passive and are disengaged from their learning. 

Across the board, universities are experiencing changes in student satisfaction. In order to better understand how to tackle this, institutions need student feedback. 

However, to effectively collect this feedback, universities need engaged students. So how can universities break this cycle?

Institutions approach student engagement in different ways depending on their students, staff, and mission, but all universities can benefit from reviewing their approach and adapting it to suit the changing climate.

How do we define student engagement in the current landscape?

Student engagement embodies how an individual student interacts with their university in the broadest sense. 

According to the the CEO of Unitu, Anish Bagga, student engagement’ is a vast and multifaceted topic, with many layers, approaches and perspectives. 

The first layer is the most widely recongised — to what extent students engage with their educational experience. Certainly, course engagement is essential, but what is also important are connections with peers and the wider community at the institution. These connections are often created through opportunities with sports clubs, societies, and union volunteering, for example. 

Following the unprecedented change over the last few years, institutions must also consider secondary forms of engagement. For example, students’ engagement with feedback and student voice channels. Do students willingly provide feedback on their experience? This feedback is essential to universities to understand and improve offerings in the current landscape.

What are the key challenges in student engagement?

High student engagement rates are not only desirable, but vital for universities to understand how to better serve the student population. 

However, getting students to engage isn’t always easy.

Student engagement varies according to intake and each individual’s capacity and motivation. 

With such a diverse community, it’s hard to know what will work. After all, universities are home to thousands of individuals each with their own commitments and needs. When you’ve got live-in undergraduates, commuting students, post-graduate students, international students, and mature students all in one establishment, there’s no one size fits all approach. 

Each engagement strategy needs to be implemented with an end user at front of mind. 

Unfortunately, they are often too slow. There’s a lack of agility from univeristies in implementing these strategies. Even with a clear picture of the problem, they are often unable to make the changes at the pace required to improve the student experience. In this day and age, students expect more.

Rising tuition fees mean that what was once a rite of passage to gain further education has now become a business transaction. Students are paying huge amounts for their education, and they expect a different level of service that is reflective of their investment.

Why is this more important than ever right now?

The pandemic also caused a seismic shift in the higher education experience for students. From how they are taught, to how they interact with the faculty, their peers and the wider institution. 

The Student Futures Commission interim report warned that students will need more support to regain a sense of control over their university experience and rebuild their confidence. 

Without this support, students will struggle to re-engage with the student experience fully.

When you combine the impact of the pandemic on the student experience, an increasingly diverse student body and issues surrounding mental health, it’s clear there needs to be an engagement strategy that ensures all students have a safe space to be heard throughout the year.

How can HE’s increase student engagement?

Improving student engagement needs more than one single strategy. 

The universities with the best student engagement are constantly evaluating their student engagement model and listening to their student body to respond to their cognitive, behavioural, and emotional needs.

Here are some strategies universities can use:

Introduce a digital strategy

In recent years, the higher education sector has been forced to move rapidly to adopt new technologies, tools, and ways of working. This has provided an abundance of opportunity for HE’s to reach prospective and current students with what they need, when they need it. 

Student engagement is vast, and each type of technology focuses on different aspects of engaging students within the student lifecycle and journey,” explains Anish Bagga, CEO of Unitu. Consider the technology available for finding the perfect course or institution at the application stage. The solutions available to facilitate lessons and online learning. Platforms to support students with their emotional and physical wellbeing. The list continues and will continue to grow at a rapid rate.

Each of these solutions seeks to utilize what is already known about a student to deliver the information they need, where and when they need it.

Foster a sense of community

For a learning environment to be successful, all members of the community need to feel a sense of belonging. 

Universities need to seek to address all of the learning, social, and spiritual needs of their student body so that all students feel seen, heard, and valued. What’s more, with a strong sense of community, students will feel empowered and in control of their experience at university.

How can universities do this? By facilitating open and honest dialogue between staff and students. Anish Bagga, the CEO of Unitu, talks of how conversations have changed in the last decade: “It wasn’t commonplace when I was a student, but now institutions are seeing the benefit of that dialogue… It enables a stronger community among students and staff and increases engagement with students and their staff members.” 

In order to truly foster a sense of community, universities need to do more than just encourage transparent feedback, they also must be seen to be listening to it. By closing the feedback loop,  students feel like their voice is not only seen but heard and valued.

Introduce student experts for learning and technology support

When students feel valued, they engage more — and when other students see their peers engaging, they’re more likely to follow suit.

A strategy that stands the test of time is involving expert students to support other students. 

This could be in the form of learning support from a final-year student to a first-year student or technology support from someone who’s well-versed in all of the university’s systems.

Essentially, with student representatives and support in different aspects of university life, it becomes easier to close that feedback loop and make a difference to student engagement for the better.

Identify and support students at risk

It’s the same all the way through school, when a student engages, they are more likely to achieve. 

To help those underachieving, universities need to use a variety of strategies. Of course, one strategy is to increase their engagement. Before this can happen, though, these students need to be identified so that they can be supported.

By implementing robust learning analytics, institutions can do exactly this. 

Technological advances now enable universities to utilise data to show how students are engaging with different content and modules, and identify less engaged students quickly. 

By identifying behaviours associated with a lack of engagement, universities can then make the appropriate interventions where necessary.

Alignment between all key stakeholders

Universities are big places. Unlike in a high school where you can implement a whole-school strategy fairly easily, alignment between stakeholders in universities is much more difficult — especially when taking a new technology-driven approach.

Edtech in higher education is still unfamiliar territory for many in the sector” explains Anish. In order to utilize new technology to boost student engagement and see the positive effects that this brings, it’s essential for all stakeholders to be on the same page; “I’d recommend clear alignment and transparency among stakeholders on the reasons behind embedding the technology, how and who will be using it operationally and defining clear measures of success.

This is a critical step in getting buy-in from stakeholders and enabling better adoption of the overarching strategy.

Improve your HE’s student engagement with Unitu

In order to improve student engagement, students, staff and stakeholders need to experience a sense of belonging and connection to the institution. Proactive student feedback can give students a voice, close the feedback loop and really make a difference to their student community. Get in touch now to see how your university can benefit from Unitu’s online student feedback platform. 

Make Unitu part of your establishment’s student engagement strategy and reap the rewards.

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About the author

Anish Bagga

Anish Bagga

CEO, and Co-Founder of Unitu - helping universities improve the student experience by engaging with the student voice.

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