Student engagement in teaching and learning: Like eating your broccoli?

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In this post, a visiting Research Fellow from Australia, Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, explores the question: is scaling-up of student-staff partnership initiatives necessarily a good approach?…

I have recently joined IAD as an Endeavour Research Fellow for six months working on research that explores systematic approaches to scaling up student-staff partnership (also known as ‘students as partners’) in higher education institutions, through the lens of inclusivity and diversity. I recently completed my PhD at the University of Queensland where in 2017 I was also the Project Co-Lead on the collaborative design of a university-wide student-staff partnership program.

I have just come back from the student engagement conference, RAISE 2018, and my mind is still buzzing with new ideas. Amidst all the discussions of student engagement in higher education, certain words and phrases stuck with me:

         must engage


                                             own good

                                                                 didn’t like it at the time.

This notion of implementing student engagement best practice simply because it is ‘good for students’ even if they ‘just can’t see it yet’ made me wonder: has student engagement become like eating broccoli? We tell our children that they must do it because we know it’s good for them, even if they don’t enjoy it.

It was during a presentation on a SCALE-UP (Student-Centred Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies) initiative that this dawned on me. Presenters shared data in which many students seemed apathetic (or in disagreement) as to whether the interactive environment helped them learn more in comparison to traditional lectures, and whether they were more engaged, even though international studies including over 16,000 students say otherwise.

But if we think about the individual student (rather than the trends, mean, or median), who is forced to engage in an initiative despite apathy or dislike: that concerns me. Granted, pedagogical approaches won’t always suit everyone, and we’d be tumbling down a rabbit hole if we tried to ensure that they did. But what impact does this have for those students who, pedagogically speaking, just don’t see eye-to-eye with their teachers?

This concern arises from my work in student-staff partnership in which the experience of the individual is key. Partnership in teaching and learning is a pedagogical approach to engaging students in dialogic relationships with staff and other university stakeholders. This approach acknowledges the inherent value in students and staff having “the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualization, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis”.

Research shows that partnership initiatives are often small-scale. Questions I get asked at my workshops on partnership often revolve around scaling-up: if we know partnership can be so transformational, what about all the other students? I agree that partnership opportunities should be available to all students who wish to engage, and therein lies the benefit of scaling-up such initiatives. However, much of the value of partnership lies in the intimate, relational processes when students and staff engage in ways that are disruptive – subverting the hierarchy of universities through acts of mutual learning and empowerment.

I then question: can partnership be scaled-up while still embracing and supporting those transformative relationships among individuals? What if, as we try to ‘fit’ partnership into hierarchical university systems, the radical nature of partnership slips through the cracks? What if, at scale, partnership becomes like eating your broccoli?

This was a fear I had when I undertook the process of collaboratively scaling up partnership at my previous institution. Now at IAD, this is the focus of my research. Whilst I am just beginning, I have a gut feeling that scaling-up partnership won’t work if, at the foundation, dialogue is not central.

Circling back to the apathetic students in the SCALE-UP classroom, I wonder whether their survey responses might have been different if teachers had taken a partnership approach to implementing such initiatives; if students had had the opportunity to engage in critical and transparent conversations with their teachers about why this particular pedagogical approach had been chosen.

For example, if she knew that previous research in STEM showed that, with this approach, female failure rates were reduced by 80%, would that change how she engaged with her learning? If he knew that, despite feeling like carrying the load when working in group classroom activities, high-achieving students actually gain the most from SCALE-UP classrooms, would that affect how he interacted with his peers? Engaging students in such critical dialogue over, for example, assessment feedback has been shown to have substantial benefits.

So, perhaps one approach to the question of ‘what about all the other students?’ might be to aim for the values and ethos of partnership to infuse across teaching and learning. While partnership for all may not be feasible (or even desirable), perhaps, as a community, we can aim to foster a culture of dialogic transparency around teaching and learning processes such that engagement becomes less like eating your broccoli and more like the dessert that tops off a sumptuous meal.

Lucy Mercer-Mapstone

Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone is an Endeavour Research Fellow at the Institute for Academic Development, where her research focusses on systematic approaches to scaling up student-staff partnership (also known as ‘students as partners) in HE institutions, through the lens of inclusivity and diversity. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia. At UQ, she was also the Project Co-Lead on the collaborative design of a university-wide student-staff partnership program. She has been involved in an Australian Learning and Teaching Fellowship focused on Students as Partners, and was an inaugural co-editor of the International Journal for Students as Partners.

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