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Invisible engagement: how can we support students when we can’t see what’s going on?

Student engagement is emotional as well as cerebral - and stress, anxiety and loneliness can all have an impact on learning. Ruth Taylor and Lee Watson reflect on what can and can't be "seen".
This article is more than 2 years old

Ruth Taylor is Vice-Principal, Education at the University of Aberdeen

Lee Watson is a Student Adviser with the Aberdeen University Students’ Association.

Student retention, wellbeing and mental health have rightfully been identified as key issues for universities in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We know that the affective components of the student experience have very much come to the fore during the pandemic – issues such as loneliness, and stress related to the general impact of Covid-19 on finances, living arrangements, different ways of learning, self-isolation and so on – issues that are often hidden from our sight.

Invisible engagement

Tom Lowe’s Wonkhe article does a great job of covering key theory and practice around student engagement, and is very sensible in suggesting the practices that can make a difference to engagement and thus to student retention, wellbeing, and success.

However, there are still areas within the “invisible engagement” notion that continue to prove elusive. It begs the question, how can we develop our practices and priorities to make the invisible, visible, so that we can provide support for difficulties when that support is needed?

We don’t want to give the impression that we think we should understand everything about a student, or that we know best about a person’s situation or possible needs. What we want to try and surface are the possibilities related to providing an environment in which students feel able to make relevant issues visible to their university such that they are then able to negotiate the support that they feel they need.

For the context of this article we refer back to Taylor’s research back in 2009 which used social capital as a lens through which the student experience could be seen. To synthesise the arguments made in that research, student engagement is:

The ways in which students relate and connect to their formal and informal learning experiences, their peers and faculty, their university and their discipline, and to the support that is in place when difficulties arise; and the impact of their behaviours, knowledge and emotions in this context on their wellbeing, retention, and success.

Those connections and networks highlighted in the definition remain crucial to overall student engagement, and we know that student engagement leads to improved student outcomes.

At least for some students, there is less opportunity for them to make those connections to people and place than previously. Advance HE’s Student Academic Experience Survey 2020 lets us see how important the interaction between staff and students is to the overall student experience. So, it is the connections, the support, wellbeing, and the impact of those affective components of the student experience on behaviours that we want to attend to.

What can we see? 

To identify what we don’t know, it is useful to firstly identify what we do. There are multiple ways in which we gain an understanding of whether an individual student is engaging through behaviours such as online or in-person attendance, accessing resources for learning, or attendance at student services.

These are all proxies for student engagement and could indicate whether the affective components of the student experience are getting in the way of overall engagement. But there are students who become invisible in ways that aren’t necessarily related to what we measure – and they could be continuing to “perform” and therefore not draw attention to their problems.

We ask students about their experiences all the time – through course evaluations, surveys and focus groups. But what does this really capture when it comes to an individual experience? The actions that we take off the back of this information and data is retrospective; reactive rather than proactive. It serves those that follow, whose needs can differ based on their circumstances.

Covid-19 is a drastic example of this. As we ponder just what is often invisible to a university, our thoughts drift towards the formulation of the questions we ask students. We rarely ask students how they feel about their learning or their overall engagement on an individual level. Perhaps a greater understanding of these affective aspects could hold greater insight into the issues surrounding “invisible engagement”.

What is invisible?

This affective aspect is perhaps the place which is least visible. In the context of Covid-19, students are now not being “seen” by their families, friends, lecturers, support services, the person who serves them in the coffee shop, the library staff – all those places where students can feel seen or where they may not even realise that they are visible.

Even in lectures or tutorials when they are online, students can turn their cameras off, or hide their feelings or experiences more easily. Without wanting to intrude on students’ lives, is there more we can do to provide an environment where students feel able to let us “see” them properly – perhaps when they are struggling with mental health or loneliness?

As a recent article in Wonkhe on how to tackle student loneliness articulates, “loneliness is internal” and could well, for some, reduce engagement with the overall experience, or at least reduce the achievement of potential.

There is a sense of accountability that arises from presence being required on campus which is potentially being lost in the less visible world of learning in the context of Covid-19. No hugs, no jostling out of a lecture theatre or lab, no in person contact with a supervisor, no chance for that last-minute “and another thing….” ie the really important point as a student walks towards the door after an hour of supervision and has built up confidence to say what’s troubling or hurting them.

We can’t, of course, enforce equivalent forms of engagement in our Covid-19 learning worlds. But we do have a responsibility in two ways: to support students to develop the skills for a changing post-pandemic world where engagement will look different in many workplaces; and for the purposes of this argument, ensuring as best we can that each student is doing OK with their lives and their learning.

How do we make the invisible visible?

Another way we could word this is “how do we make those that wish to remain invisible want to be visible?” We might also question whether students are raising individual issues affecting their experiences – we simply can’t know if they are not, we can only know if they are.

We also need to consider where the responsibility should lie in making visible the invisible. It seems to us that, while individual lecturers can create environments that are engaging, it is the institution as a whole that should identify whether we can find ways to understand how students feel in the moment, provide support that addresses those feelings, and create that overall approach to engagement that encourages individuals to make themselves visible when the going gets tough.

Should we systematically ask students how they are feeling? Maybe we will see “it” when students turn on their cameras, or contact our staff and services; when they tell us that they are feeling engaged and are doing OK even if we can’t see them clearly. Every person is obviously different and we should not pathologise seeming non-participation. We should just keep doing our best to create those trusting and supportive environments that can make the invisible visible where that’s what students want.

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