Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

The fifth blog in this series has been written by Jenny Lloyd, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in the School of Economics, Finance and Management. 

Today’s’ students – not so different after all?

A few weeks ago, my twin daughters returned home for a weekend from their respective universities. As they tumbled through the door, clutching suitcases and bags of washing, voicing complaints about being overworked, laughing about some mildly embarrassing incident and, of course, heading straight for the fridge, it occurred to me that despite the changes in the educational landscape, students themselves were very much the same as when I went to university.

However, it was after they’d filled the washing machine, emptied the fridge, and decided they needed to do a bit of work that the real differences began to show. They rejected the quiet bedrooms and sensible desks that I would have used and instead colonised the kitchen table with their laptops, phones, and seemingly any other device they could find. As a student, I would have worked in isolation, wrestling with library books and folders of handwritten notes; by contrast, my daughters skimmed through databases, websites and forums, annotating handouts and worksheets they’d been given. They typed directly into Google docs that formed the bases of projects with collaborators who were offering their own contributions from tens or even hundreds of miles away.

As I watched them work, I couldn’t help but reflect upon this difference between generations of learners. It occurred to me that differences between them are less about what is learned and more about how it is learned and the information landscape in which the learning takes place. True, developments in research have driven changes in the content of courses – for progress to occur that should always be the case. However, the subject matter remains little changed; Law, Medicine, Economics, Politics, Classics – students are still studying so many of the same subjects that were available to generations of students before them.

The real difference between students of my generation and those of my daughters’ is how they engage with the subjects they study. I grew up in an educational environment that was primarily dictated by the ‘transmission’ model of learning: it was the role of teachers, and later lecturers, to deliver information, and my role as student to learn it[1]. ‘Learning’ was a much more singular process and related more to outcome than process. In contrast, my daughters’ learning experience both at school and at university has been much more akin to what Lave and Wenger (1991)[2] describe as ‘engagement in actions and interaction and situated in a social world’ (p.35). Harlan, Bruce and Lupton’s (2012)[3] recognition of the pivotal role that social context plays in teenagers’ practices of gathering information, thinking about that information and ‘creating’ (ie producing the required artefact) appears particularly pertinent. Digital communities and multiple points of contact seem not only to drive the sources of information they use but to offer both normative influence as to what is acceptable/appropriate and feedback on the outcome in terms of positive or negative reinforcement.

Academically, this is a double-edged sword. The noise and the energy of the digital environment (or the kitchen) is much more akin to the world outside of the university, and I can’t help but feel that it is good that they are acclimatising to it early. The digital environment also gives students access to resources that allow them to research their work more widely, and in more depth, than previous generations. Moreover, the opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas on online fora is potentially an invaluable way to challenge preconceptions and generate new ideas.

The flipside, however, as Harlon, Bruce and Lupton (2012) note, is that teenage learners are not necessarily drawn to ‘challenging’. Instead they tend to prefer sources that have low barriers to entry and are welcoming; something that explains why students often eschew academic journals in favour of Wikipedia and other such sources of variable quality. Moreover, online fora are effectively self-selecting ‘communities of practice’ which can often become uncritical echo chambers. This being the case, they can stifle the very rigour and intellectual debate they should be promoting.

In the end, I suppose the choices students make in the long term will come back to the results their work generates and the feedback they get. Like their parents’ generation, they will treat the marks they receive as a barometer of success or failure and, if they engage with them, the comments will act as signposts as to which sources were of value and which weren’t. The old cliché applies – the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In the case of my daughters, fortunately they seem to be doing OK. However, I must say it defeats me as to how they achieve so much with noise of the latest reality television show rattling along as a soundtrack in the background. In fact, I was about to say as much when I remembered my mother saying exactly the same thing to me when she found me sitting amongst a pile of papers and listening to the Sunday night chart show on Radio One. Perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all?

[1] Tishman, S., Jay, E. and Perkins, D.N., 1993. Teaching thinking dispositions: From transmission to enculturation. Theory into practice32(3), pp.147-153.

[2] Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Harlan, Mary Ann, Bruce, Christine and Lupton, Mandy. (2012) Teen Content Creators: Experiences of Using Information to Learn, Library Trends, Vol 60, No.3, Winter, pp 569-587.

We invite you to leave comments below. 

Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

The fourth blog in this series has been written by Emilie Poletto-Lawson, a BILT Fellow and language associate in the School of Modern Languages. 

Have you ever tried to learn a language? Gone to your local bookshop or library and brought home the best resources you could find, sat in front of them, very excited and determined, that day is the day you start your journey! You booked on the highest rated course and sat there listening. And yet, ten minutes later, half an hour later, two hours later, one year later you realise that, well, you cannot have this philosophical conversation you dreamt of having with a native speaker, you cannot read your favourite writer in her/his original language, you cannot watch the latest film by your favourite foreign director without subtitles. Why? Because no matter how good the resources, no matter how good the facilitator, if you do not engage, if you only sit there, it will not work, it is about you.

I chose this example because I am a language tutor and this is a story I hear often but I think this applies to anything you do in life. Attending a talk, a workshop, reading a book, going to university etc. it will not work unless you engage with it. You might need to define what engaging is to you but it certainly is not sitting there, waiting for a miracle. You are the key and that can be daunting or extremely empowering.

As an educator, It think it is essential to build a supportive community in class, of course, but also outside of class. I remember amazing lectures from my time at university but my fondest memories are the activities I chose to engage with and the human adventure they were. Bearing this in mind, I try to offer those to my students. Starting a radio show in French, directing the French year abroad on stage acts, running subtitling workshops are all activities I love and that bring me closer to my colleagues involved in the project, and to my students. Seeing colleagues come together and students engage, build their confidence and further their language skills is the best reward for a teacher.  As facilitators we can make offers, we can listen, we can guide but the key lies with the students themselves.

We invite you to leave comments below.

Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

Our third blog in this series is from Philip Kent – University Librarian and Director of Library services. 

You are invited to leave comments below.

It is timely that BILT’s next theme is ‘ReThinking Spaces’. This is something that exercises my mind daily and is front of mind as we commence planning for the new University Library. In terms of library and study spaces this is an area that has seen considerable progress in the past 15 years. The Information or Learning Commons concept has grown out of changing needs of modern curricula and support for collaborative and individual learning. It has revolutionised the physical environment and created inspiring spaces to research, learn and to contemplate new ideas.

It is important that we understand the difference between library and study spaces despite the overlap of concepts. Post-occupancy evaluation of such spaces ensures that we refine models over time. Nevertheless we strive to create timeless, inspirational spaces including a diversity of contexts to suit different learning preferences. There is some difference of opinion about the role of books in 21st century libraries. Of course discipline differences contribute but there is no right answer. Digitisation of rare books for example, has created greater demand from scholars to visit, consult, touch and smell the real thing! In my opinion, the digital and physical co-exist and the sum is greater than the parts.

The topic of ‘Engagement vs. Attendance’ also inspires valid debate surfacing varied academic theories and opinions. In a former life I had institutional responsibility for university systems such as lecture capture and learning management. I heard impassioned debates for both sides of the argument in Senate-like bodies. We must listen to student demand for this technology. I was fascinated to see that usage of lecture capture was not a single substitute for lecture attendance. Usage data proved that lectures were revisited many times as part of the revision process. At risk of being cast as a fence sitter, again I think it is not either/or but rather a great opportunity to increase understanding and better educational outcomes. It is incumbent on practitioners to maximise face-to-face teaching opportunities to instil magic into the process!

As we approach Teaching and Learning Week, we also can learn from our colleagues and open our minds to new possibilities to transform students lives through the power of higher education.

Philip Kent
Director of Library Services and University Librarian

Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs Attendance?

Our second blog entry is by Shanaz Pottinger, undergraduate student studying Experimental Psychology, at the University of Bristol.

You are invited to leave comments below.

Do we even need traditional lectures?

Succinctly, yes, we do! Lectures are an intrinsic part of the university experience, a rite of passage for all degree holders and an important arena for community building. In many ways Bristol is a traditional institution that draws a student body who are attracted to elements of the traditional educational experience (at least at the undergraduate level). I am in full agreement that the university must innovate and move with the times, however, far-reaching over modernisation at Bristol will lead to a loss of the university’s intrinsic appeal. Moreover, in my view, if courses were to see serious reductions in contact time there would need to be a reduction in tuition fees charged for this type of degree.

I appreciate that an opposing argument may be that traditional lectures favour a ‘one size fits all’ approach whereas an engagement focussed approach allows students to engage with material in a way that works for them. However, human beings are fundamentally social animals and research suggests that the quality of our social networks has an impact on our sense of wellbeing. Thus, I propose that the social benefits of traditional lectures should not be overlooked. These can be simulated in a digital environment but in my view these interactions are not totally comparable. After all Facebook has not replaced the social benefits of actually meeting up for a coffee has it?

In my view, we should be aiming for a model that champions attendance and engagement. As a student I would love the opportunity to experience a little less death by PowerPoint and a little more blended learning and flipped classrooms- just not entirely from the comfort of my own bedroom.

Great Debate

The Great Debate: Engagement vs. Attendance?

Our first blog entry is by Bruce Macfarlane, Head of the School of Education at the University of Bristol. 

‘Student engagement’ has become a buzz phrase in universities influenced by a growing moral panic about whether higher education represents good value for public investment. UK universities are also under pressure to improve retention rates and this has largely led to the focus on student engagement.

I believe that there is a fundamental problem with many university engagement policies. They tend to forget that a) higher education is a voluntary post-compulsory activity b) the students are, in most national contexts including the UK, legally defined as adults, and c) attempts to measure engagement and punish non-compliance are ham-fisted at best and, at worse, represent a threat to student academic freedom.

Academics are keen to assert their right to enjoy academic freedom but we need to take the rights of students as learners much more seriously. This ought to include being allowed to engage in their university studies on their own terms and being able to exercise choice about how, when and where to learn.

Attendance at class is being increasingly monitored and students are also being graded for their ‘class participation’. In my view these types of things – what I call bodily performativity and participative performativity in a recent book – are academic non-achievements. They are about forcing compliance with social and behavioural expectations, not about learning. Attendance rules and class contribution grades do not provide a legitimate means of measuring whether learning is actually taking place. In truth, this is more about assessing large numbers of students in a lazy and time-efficient way. I also oppose progression rules that have minimum attendance requirements.

Universities want students to ‘engage’ but only on their terms as domesticated customers. Others forms of engagement, such as student protest, are not so welcome on campus. We should be interested in how students want to engage and pay more attention to assessing them legitimately rather than using tactics that are essentially a coercive abuse of power.

You are welcome to leave comments on this post below. Comments will be moderated for appropriate language. 

You can find a list of Bruce’s publications below: 

Macfarlane, B. (2017) Freedom to Learn: the threat to student academic freedom and how it can be reclaimed. Routledge/Society for Research into Higher Education, New York/Abingdon.

Macfarlane, B. and Tomlinson, M. (2017) Critiques of student engagement, Higher Education Policy, 30:1, 5-21.

Macfarlane, B. (2016) The performative turn in the assessment of student learning: a rights perspective, Teaching in Higher Education, 21:7, 839-853.

Macfarlane, B. (2015) Student performativity in higher education: converting learning as a private space into a public performance, Higher Education Research and Development, 34:2, 338-350.

Macfarlane, B. (2013) The surveillance of learning: a critical analysis of university attendance policies, Higher Education Quarterly, 67:4, 358-373.