What we have learned from lockdown about student engagement and achievement?

A new QAA survey sheds light on the vastly variable student experience offered to emergency online learning. Ailsa Crum, Kate Mori, and Kerr Castle take us through the findings.

Ailsa Crum is Director of Membership, Quality Enhancement and Standards at the QAA


Kate Mori is Academic Engagement Manager at QAA


Kerr Castle is a Quality Enhancement & Standards Specialist at QAA.

Two years on from the initial pandemic pivot to online, we are at another pivotal moment – this time considering what the future shape of higher education learning, teaching and assessment will be.

Successful strategies will learn from the experience of the pandemic while not being worn down by it. The full report from QAA’s latest research, Made Digital, aims to identify the approaches to delivery and assessment that supported improved student engagement and achievement. Made Digital draws on survey responses from more than 90 different providers, complemented by 17 individual in-depth interviews, as well as building on learning from our earlier work.

Scores on the virtual doors

More than half of the Made Digital survey respondents indicated that the shift to digital teaching and learning had affected students’ final grades, with around 38 per cent believing the shift positively impacted student achievement, and 16 per cent believing it had a negative impact. Respondents from smaller providers and colleges were more likely to indicate that the pivot had lowered students’ final grades.

Redesigning the nature of what was being assessed was believed to have a positive impact on student learning and performance, reducing the element of recall and placing greater emphasis on assessing understanding and critical reasoning. The shift from final exams towards more formative and continuous assessment was also viewed positively in that it was less likely to reward good exam technique and therefore potentially enabled greater parity of achievement between students.

As one respondent, a Deputy Head of Department, put it,

There is a general consensus…that open book examinations have improved the abilities of our students. Open book papers, where students should not be able to find easy solutions on the internet or within their notes, force question setters and students to more deeply consider the content and issues raised within the modules. Often this encourages greater reference to real life situations and requires understanding of the module content as the foundation for the solution, rather than the solution itself.

Unsurprisingly, given the widespread reports of students – and staff – experiencing a sense of isolation, synchronous interactions with staff were considered to have a very positive effect on student achievement, with structured video content, lecture recordings and other materials for students to revisit in their own time also seen as important in supporting student success. In addition, it was emphasised that the shift to online learning has positively impacted students’ digital capabilities, offering potential benefits for future employment.

Winner and losers in digital pedagogy 

It is evident that changes in teaching and assessment affected different student groups in different ways. In some cases, hybrid and digital learning environments provided students with increased agency over their learning and enabled institutions to better prepare students for practical in-class work. Online teaching and learning also created opportunities for students to develop new skills and competencies that were relevant to their discipline, for example creative arts students had the opportunity to develop digital production techniques.

However, the research found that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to be negatively impacted, highlighting the growing digital divide that has been reported in numerous studies since the beginning of the pandemic. The differential ability for students to pay for additional resources, for example to support art and design projects, was a further factor.

Amongst the student groups who gained from the shift, our research found a noticeable improvement in the achievement of mature students, which respondents attributed to the reduced need to travel and the associated time saving gained from studying at home. Where additional support such as tutorials could be facilitated online, uptake amongst that student group increased dramatically.

Back to the basics

As our previous work has highlighted, offering a coherent institutional approach to learning, teaching and assessment is more important to overall student engagement than individual innovative teaching activities or opportunities to use specific digital tools. Overall, survey respondents emphasised that getting the basics right is crucial for a positive student experience. This includes starting classes on time, avoiding log in glitches, being able to contact a member of staff easily and having a timetable that avoids overload with too many sequential online sessions.

Student engagement is strengthened through cultivating learning communities, much of which happens in informal settings, as highlighted by one respondent:

The student experience is integral to learning. Students need to walk back to digs with mates after classes to digest, complain, gossip. Much learning goes on in these informal situations after classes, over coffee, walking home - and it’s still unclear how to achieve this online.

However, staff respondents also described how digital delivery encouraged many students to be more confident and keener in their questioning through facilities like the chat function. One Head of Learning and Innovation commented,

Going forwards, large lectures will be online rather than in-person because we get better engagement from students. Students comment in the chat in a far more willing way than they would have if required to raise hands in-person. Also, teachers get to know students better through the chat function.

A little more conversation

The Made Digital project has provided a range of information including practical ideas about what works to increase student engagement and achievement in a digital and hybrid environment. Many respondents emphasised that student achievement was more dependent on student characteristics or individual circumstances, than the particular delivery or assessment format used. This suggests it will be challenging for institutions to identify digital approaches that work well for all students. It is also evident that successful redesign of delivery and assessment – particularly developing and delivering an imaginative mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning resources – requires significant staff time, and institutions will need to ensure that future approaches are sustainable for staff.

What is also clear from our engagement with the sector is the extent of data within institutions that is still awaiting in-depth analysis. This project is, therefore, part of what will be a continuing conversation with our members to really understand the differential impact of particular delivery and assessment methods on different groups of students. This is an area where we will keep working with our members and add to the insights we are able to share, for example through our Collaborative Enhancement Projects, a number of which focus on aspects of pedagogy and diversity and inclusion.

Made Digital is accompanied by our Hallmarks of Success playbook series which helps providers to explore the conditions needed to achieve success in digital and hybrid delivery, identify potential roadblocks, and determine how they can be navigated. Two of the playbooks are available now on Student-centred learning and teaching, and Assessment in digital and blended pedagogy with two more due in April and July to focus on Programme design, approval and management, and Supporting and empowering teaching staff.

2 responses to “What we have learned from lockdown about student engagement and achievement?

  1. Some important points discussed here. Confirmed issues with digital teaching for students in the lower socioeconomic background. Would like to know what % of this cohort represent “BAME” students? I am sceptical re student “engagement” on online teaching. If attendance is engagement then perhaps a yes, but a very weak yes. Clearly flexible learning was a big outcome generated by the pandemic but nothing beats being on campus for community building and sense of belonging.

    1. We had attendance requirements for online – one bright student wrote a bot that simulated engagement with the VLE which he then provided to other students.

      My student engagement stats were the highest in the University and I was lauded for it. Sadly, I left for a new job before the end of year results came in and anyone could ask me why so many failed…

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