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Framing student engagement in higher education Page 1 of 21
This is the accepted (post-print) version of the following published article:
Kahu, E. R. (2013). Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education,
38(5), 758-773. doi:10.1080/03075079.2011.598505
Framing student engagement in higher education
Ella R. Kahu
Student engagement, increasingly recognised as an important influence on achievement and
learning in higher education, is being widely theorised and researched. This paper firstly
reviews and critiques the four dominant research perspectives on student engagement: the
behavioural perspective which foregrounds student behaviour and institutional practice, the
psychological perspective which defines engagement as an individual psychosocial process,
the sociocultural perspective which highlights the critical role of the socio-political context
and finally, the holistic perspective which takes a broader view of engagement. Key problems
are identified, in particular poor definitions and a lack of distinction between the state of
engagement, factors that influence engagement, and the immediate and longer term
consequences of engagement. The second part of the paper presents a conceptual framework
that overcomes these problems, incorporating valuable elements from each of the
perspectives, to enable a better shared understanding of student engagement to frame future
research and improve student outcomes.
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 2 of 21
Student engagement is a current buzzword in higher education, increasingly
researched, theorised, and debated with growing evidence of its critical role in achievement
and learning. Trowler and Trowler’s (2010, 9) recent review goes so far as to suggest that
‘the value of engagement is no longer questioned’. With governments increasingly interested
in measuring student outcomes (Zepke and Leach 2010a), and suggestions that student
engagement can act as a proxy for quality (Kuh 2009b), a clear understanding of this vital
construct is essential. However, engagement is complex and multifaceted; an overarching
‘meta-construct’ that aims to draw together diverse threads of research contributing to
explanations of student success (Fredricks et al. 2004). While all agree it is important, there is
debate over the exact nature of the construct; a key problem is a lack of distinction between
the state of engagement, its antecedents, and its consequences. While there is some overlap,
four relatively distinct approaches to understanding engagement can be identified in the
literature: the behavioural perspective, which focuses on effective teaching practice; the
psychological perspective, which views engagem1ent as an internal individual process; the
sociocultural perspective, which considers the critical role of sociocultural context; and
finally a holistic perspective, which strives to draw the strands together. Focussing on higher
education, this paper describes these four approaches and aims to clarify the construct of
engagement and clearly differentiate it from its antecedents and consequences. In order to
progress our understanding and improve the value of future research, an overarching
conceptual framework is proposed that acknowledges the importance of the student and the
institution while recognising the critical influence of the sociocultural context.
The most widely accepted view of engagement in higher education literature
emphasises student behaviour and teaching practice. Following dissatisfaction with college
ranking systems and the measurement of quality in higher education in the United States in
the late 1990s, a project was set up to develop a new measurement tool (Kuh 2009a). Student
engagement was seen as an evolving construct that captures a range of institutional practices
and student behaviours related to student satisfaction and achievement including time on task,
social and academic integration, and teaching practices (Kuh 2009a). The emphasis was on
how institutions can affect student engagement, drawing from Chickering and Gamson’s
(1987) Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Within this
perspective, student engagement is defined as the ‘time and effort students devote to
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 3 of 21
educationally purposeful activities’ (Australian Council for Educational Research 2010b, 1).
The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and its successor the
Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) are the survey tools used to measure
student engagement within the behavioural perspective. The NSSE (2010) has five
engagement scales: academic challenge, active learning, interactions, enriching educational
experiences, and supportive learning environment, while the AUSSE has a sixth, work
integrated learning (Coates 2010). The items in the AUSSE are also grouped into six
educational outcome measures: higher order thinking, general learning outcomes, career
readiness, grade, departure intention, and satisfaction. Increasingly, these surveys are
becoming the definition of student engagement; for example, in one study it was argued that,
‘in order to better understand the concept of student engagement, it is important to review
NSSE’s benchmarks’ (Kezar and Kinzie 2006, 151). This assumes the measure has high
validity, an area of considerable debate.
According to the developers, the NSSE items and scales are theoretically and
empirically derived with good psychometric properties – strong face and construct validity,
and good reliability (Kuh 2001). Others disagree. There is debate over the structure of the
instrument with Porter (in press) suggesting the domain definition is too broad and many
items lack theoretical justification. The construction of the five scales has also been
questioned. An evaluation of the academic challenge scale, for example, found considerable
confusion and disagreement by both staff and students (Payne et al. 2005). Other scales and
dimensions, developed through factor analysis, have been suggested (LaNasa et al. 2009;
More importantly, the NSSE’s predictive validity is disputed with a relative paucity of
research relating the data to objective outcomes such as GPA and retention (Gordon et al.
2008). One such study across 14 institutions found very weak associations between academic
success and the NSSE benchmarks (Carini et al. 2006). Interestingly, the linkages varied by
institution and were stronger for lower ability students. Other single institution studies (e.g.
Gordon et al. 2008) have found at best only modest contributions of NSSE benchmarks to
explaining student outcomes with Korzekwa (2007, 45) concluding ‘there is little evidence
for predictive validity’.
Finally, the validity of the student responses is also cause for concern. The survey’s
authors claim the NSSE satisfies the criteria by which self-report data are most likely to be
valid (Kuh 2001). However, the reliability of student responses regarding the skills they have
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 4 of 21
acquired or used must be questioned in light of research showing students struggle to
understand academic terms such as ‘thinking critically and analytically’ (Australian Council
for Educational Research 2010a, 3). Porter (in press) points out that even apparently simple
items referring to actions such as ‘had serious conversations with students’ are open to
interpretation – which conversations are serious? Problems with memory storage and recall,
in particular the frequency of events across a year, the context of the question, and social
desirability bias are all potential limitations to the validity of the data (Porter in press).
The reliance on surveys for measurement is a key limitation of the behavioural
perspective. Firstly, a single survey instrument spanning all disciplines is problematic when
there is evidence that teaching and learning vary across disciplines (Nelson Laird et al. 2008).
For example, how is the number of assigned readings or length of written assignments, both
items in the academic challenge scale, relevant to a design or mathematics student? This
problem has led to claims that mathematics and science students are less engaged (Ahlfeldt et
al. 2005), while others have argued that engagement is qualitatively different across
disciplines (Brint et al. 2008). A second limitation of using a survey instrument is that it is a
single wide angled snapshot and as such misses much of the complexity of the construct:
Engagement is both dynamic and situational. Finally, surveys obscure the participant voice
with no opportunity for a perspective that does not fit the predefined questions (Bryson et al.
2010). Longitudinal, qualitative measures may be more effective tools.
Due to its development as a tool for institutional improvement and comparison
(Coates 2010; Kuh 2009a), the definition of student engagement within the behavioural
perspective is limited and unclear. This restricts its usefulness as a research perspective for
understanding student engagement. Blending institutional practices with student behaviour
has resulted in a lack of clear distinction between the factors that influence engagement, the
measurement of engagement itself, and the consequences of engagement. For example, there
is considerable overlap between items included in the active learning engagement scale and
the higher order thinking outcome measure. Much of the focus is on institutional practices
such as support services; while these are important influences on engagement, they do not
represent the psychological state of engagement (Wefald and Downey 2009). By focussing
only on elements the institution can control, a wide range of other explanatory variables are
excluded, such as student motivation, expectations, and emotions.
The behavioural approach does incorporate students’ thinking processes as well as
behaviour, as evidenced by subscales such as level of academic challenge and active and
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 5 of 21
collaborative learning. However, learning is also emotional (Christie et al. 2008) and, except
for a single item assessing overall satisfaction, the students’ emotions are not measured. That
affect is an important part of engagement is illustrated by the finding that international
students, traditionally high scorers on the NSSE, on a Coping and Comprehension scale
showed signs of struggle and of being overwhelmed (Krause 2005). Interestingly, while
tutors see engagement as cognitive, students see it as predominantly affective (Solomonides
and Martin 2008). By failing to measure how students are feeling, the behavioural
perspective misses valuable information that would give a much richer understanding of the
This is not to suggest there is no value in the behavioural approach. It explains part of
the complex and multidimensional picture of student engagement, in particular the
relationships between teaching practice and student behaviour. A particular strength is the
inclusion of more distal consequences of engagement with questions about how their time as
a student has contributed towards broader life skills such as understanding people of different
ethnicities, developing personal values, and contributing to the welfare of the community. A
second strength is the popularity of the approach allowing exploration of the impact of a wide
range of variables on student engagement such as missions (Kezar and Kinzie 2006),
expenditure (Pike et al. 2006), and learning communities (Zhao and Kuh 2004). New models
of engagement are also being proposed such as Coates’ (2007) four way typology of student
engagement styles: intense, collaborative, independent, and passive, linked to the common
distinction between social and academic engagement. However, the behavioural perspective’s
understanding of engagement is too narrow; a problem that the psychological perspective
goes some way towards resolving.
The psychological perspective of engagement is particularly dominant in the school
literature and views engagement as an internal psychosocial process that evolves over time
and varies in intensity. A key strength of this approach, in comparison to the behavioural
perspective, is the distinction between engagement and its antecedents. Various overlapping
dimensions of engagement have been proposed including behaviour, cognition, emotion, and
conation, with earlier work often defining engagement as just one of these, and later theorists
suggesting engagement is a combination.
The behaviour dimension, paralleling parts of the behavioural perspective just
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 6 of 21
discussed, has three elements: positive conduct and rule following including attendance;
involvement in learning including time on task and asking questions; and wider participation
in extracurricular activities (Fredricks et al. 2004). For example, Finn’s (1993) participation-
identification model argues that participation in both the classroom and wider school leads to
success, which then develops a sense of belonging which, in a perpetual cycle, further
The second dimension, cognition, is illustrated by Newmann, Wehlage, and
Lamborn’s (1992, 12) definition of engagement as ‘a student’s psychological investment in
and effort directed towards learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge skills or
crafts’. This cognitive dimension most commonly refers to students’ self regulation and
effective use of deep learning strategies (Fredricks et al. 2004), as touched on in the
behavioural perspective. However, within the psychological perspective, cognition also
incorporates individual characteristics such as motivation, self efficacy, and expectations
(Jimerson et al. 2003).
The affective dimension of engagement is a strength of the psychological approach:
As ‘there is an emotional intensity attached to the experience of learning that is often
overlooked’ (Askham 2008, 94). Some consider engagement to be synonymous with
attachment, focussing predominantly on whether students feel they belong (Libbey 2004).
Others consider more immediate emotions such as enjoyment and interest in the task
(Furlong et al. 2003). The affective dimension highlights the distinction between instrumental
and intrinsic motivation. With the former, the student is motivated to engage cognitively and
behaviourally as a means to an end – high grades or a qualification for example. With the
latter, the student is motivated by their pleasure and interest in the learning. There is a
tendency in the literature to privilege the intrinsic over the instrumental approach. For
example, Bryson and Hand (2008) describe the instrumental approach as false engagement,
while Nystrand and Gamoran (1991) distinguish between procedural engagement, the more
superficial and often task based activity, and substantive engagement, a more sustained
psychological investment in learning.
Drawing on older philosophical constructions of the human mind, a few theorists have
suggested that conation, the will to succeed, is a separate dimension of engagement (Corno
and Mandinach 2004; R Harris et al. 2004). A much less researched and theorised concept,
conation is considered to have six attributes: belief, courage, energy, commitment,
conviction, and change (Riggs and Gholar 2009). Most theorists however consider the three
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 7 of 21
dimensions of behaviour, cognition, and affect adequately capture the psychological state of
engagement (Fredricks et al. 2004), with recent studies supporting the view that the
dimensions are facets of a single meta construct (Archambault et al. 2009; Wang and
The key limitations of the psychological perspective centre on a lack of definition and
differentiation between the dimensions. Clear definition of the construct of engagement is
essential for shared understanding, but Jimerson et al.’s (2003) review shows that, of the 45
articles examined, 31 did not explicitly define the terms. In addition, not only is there
considerable overlap with previously studied constructs such as motivation, learning
approaches, and values (Fredricks et al. 2004), there is also overlap between the different
dimensions (for example effort often appears in both behavioural and cognitive measures).
There is also disagreement on the relationships between the dimensions. For example,
Newmann et al. (1992) suggest a student can complete their work and learn well without
being emotionally engaged in the topic while Gibbs and Poskitt (2010) argue that both
behavioural and emotional engagement are necessary prerequisites for cognitive engagement.
These problems of definition have also led to inconsistencies in measurement. While
there is some use of direct observation and teachers’ rating scales (Chapman 2003), like the
behavioural perspective, most measures are student surveys, raising concerns over the
validity of the responses (Roth and Damico 1996). It is often unclear which aspects of
engagement are being measured with some surveys focusing on single dimensions and others
claiming to be a single general measure of engagement (Fredricks et al. 2004). In addition,
the context of the engagement, for example school, peer, or classroom, is often unspecified
(Furlong et al. 2003). More recently developed measures are attempting to overcome some
of these limitations by measuring all three dimensions based on clearer operational
definitions (Appleton et al. 2006; Archambault et al. 2009; Fredricks et al. 2005). All surveys
have the problems discussed earlier of limiting the participants’ voices and failing to capture
the dynamic nature of engagement.
Despite these issues, the psychological perspective has much to recommend it.
Psychology in the past has tended to treat feeling and thinking as if they were entirely
separate processes but is more inclined now to see them as ‘inseparable, interwoven
dimensions of human social life’ (Forgas 2000, 4). Viewing student engagement as
multidimensional recognises this and enables a rich understanding of the individual’s
experience (Fredricks et al. 2004). Moreover, engagement as a psychological process is
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 8 of 21
considered to be malleable, varying in intensity and responsive to the environment,
suggesting that there is much that can be done to improve engagement, although more
longitudinal and intervention research is needed to support this (Fredricks et al. 2004). The
final, and most important, benefit of the psychological perspective is that it does not conflate
the state of being engaged with its antecedents or its consequences, a problem that is rife in
other perspectives. However, in positioning engagement so clearly within the individual,
there is a danger of downplaying the critical importance of the situation. Engagement is
fundamentally situational – it arises from the interplay of context and individual.
The sociocultural perspective on student engagement focuses on the impact of the
broader social context on student experience. In particular, theorists have explored
explanations for the polar opposite to engagement, alienation, ‘a subjectively undesirable
separation from something outside oneself’ (Geyer 2001, 390). Mann’s (2001) influential
work identifies contextual factors such as disciplinary power, academic culture, and an
excessive focus on performativity that can all lead to the disconnection of students within
higher education. Similarly, Thomas (2002) argues that institutional habitus results in an
inherent social and cultural bias within educational institutions in favour of dominant social
groups, leading to poor retention of non-traditional students. The experience of starting
university is variously described for some students as a culture shock (Christie et al. 2008),
learning shock (Griffiths et al. 2005), and akin to being ‘a fish out of water’ (Thomas 2002,
431), illustrating the powerful barrier this cultural difference represents to engagement for
many students. This perspective on education is particularly common within feminist
literatures examining women’s alienation within the university culture (e.g. Grace and
Gouthro 2000; Stalker 2001).
A related constructivist approach argues that higher education needs to take an
ontological turn and institutions need to ‘engage the whole person: what they know, how they
act, and who they are’ (Dall'Alba and Barnacle 2007, 689). Solomonides and Reid (2009)
have proposed a relational model of student engagement that locates the sense of being,
similar but deeper than the affective dimension of engagement discussed previously, at the
centre. Barnett and Coate (2005) take the concept of ontological engagement a step further
and argue that it entails a project of active citizenship and engagement with the political
nature of the world. This ontological approach is well represented in the literature on student
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 9 of 21
identity. The challenges of renegotiating their identity within a culture where they are
positioned as the ‘other’ has been examined with many groups of non-traditional students
such as older students (e.g. Askham 2008), working class women (e.g. Christie et al. 2005),
and ethnic minorities (e.g. Johnson et al. 2007). These groups are often described as not
having the necessary social, cultural, and academic capital to easily fit into the university
culture (Lawrence 2006). While potentially a less challenging process, more traditional
students may also experience identity struggles and a sense of being an outsider in the world
of academia (Mann 2001).
The wider socio-political context also influences student engagement. McInnis (2001)
asserts that the term disengagement is misleading as it implies a deficit on the part of the
students. Instead he argues that recent declines in academic engagement are due to societal
changes such as market driven changes in universities, changes in societal values, increases
in flexibility of delivery and online courses, and generational differences. The
‘commodification of education’ (Smith 2007, 684) and, in particular the widening
participation initiative and the later introduction of student loans and higher fees, has
impacted on non-traditional students in particular (Christie et al. 2005). Krause (2005) also
notes that generational changes have meant shifts in the meaning of university study and
therefore the nature of student engagement.
The sociocultural perspective offers important ideas on ‘why’ students become
engaged or alienated at university, with a particular emphasis on non-traditional students. It
highlights the need for the institutions to consider not just the student support structures but
also the institution’s culture and the wider political and social debates impacting on student
engagement. It adds therefore a critical and often neglected piece to the task of understanding
A few authors are striving to draw together these diverse strands of theory and
research on student engagement. For example, researchers in the UK have proposed a more
holistic definition: ‘The conception of engagement encompasses the perceptions, expectations
and experience of being a student and the construction of being a student’ (Bryson et al.
2009, 1). In line with the constructivist approach discussed earlier, they argue for a wider
focus that incorporates the notion of ‘becoming’, arguing that universities should be about
more than getting qualifications (Bryson and Hand 2008). Engagement in their view is a
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 10 of 21
dynamic continuum with different locations (task, classroom, course, institution), and thus
not measurable by surveys but best understood through in-depth qualitative work.
Like the psychological approach, a key strength of this work is the recognition of the
importance of emotion. For example, findings highlight the critical importance of the
teacher’s disposition and in particular the need for warmth and respect to foster a sense of
belonging (Bryson and Hand 2007; Kember et al. 2001). Bryson and Hand (2007) suggest
staff need to consider three levels of engagement – discourse with students, enthusiasm for
the subject, and professionalism with the teaching process. However, they also note that
while individual staff are important, a wider institutional approach is needed that provides the
necessary resources and supports both students and staff to be engaged (Hand and Bryson
In striving to take a more holistic view, this approach makes the same mistake as the
behavioural perspective in that it fails to distinguish between engagement and its antecedents.
For example, student expectations are included within the definition of engagement, and
while this has been found to be an important influence on the student experience (e.g.
Christie et al. 2008), to enable a better understanding, such antecedents need to be clearly
distinguished from the state of being engaged. Bryson et al. (2010) suggest engagement is
both a process and an outcome - that the former is what institutions do and should be labelled
‘engaging students’ whereas the latter is what students do and should be labelled ‘students
engaging’. A clearer distinction would be to recognise that what is considered to be the
process is not engagement, instead it is a cluster of factors that influence student engagement
(usually the more immediate institutional factors), whereas the outcome is student
engagement – an individual psychological state with the three dimensions discussed earlier of
affect, cognition, and behaviour.
In another attempt at integrating the research, Zepke et al. (2010b) have proposed a
conceptual organiser for student engagement which identifies six research perspectives:
motivation, transactional engagement with teachers and with each other, institutional and
non-institutional support, and active citizenship. This organiser successfully draws together
many of the influences on student engagement identified in the other perspectives:
institutional support and interactions with staff from the behavioural perspective; active
learning and academic challenge from the cognitive dimension of the psychological
perspective; and the influence of external circumstances, touching on the sociocultural
perspective. Also included is student motivation as expressed by the three needs proposed by
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 11 of 21
Self Determination Theory (SDT): autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci and Ryan
2000). The organiser has enabled comparison of the relative strengths of these influences.
For example, teachers were found to be a stronger influence than student motivation or
external factors (Zepke et al. 2010b), while competence needs were more important than
either relatedness or agency (Zepke et al. 2010a). The findings have also been translated into
very specific proposals for action by institutions (Zepke and Leach 2010b).
As with the other perspectives, the limitation of this approach centres on issues of
definition, categorisation, and scope. The authors acknowledge the contrasting behavioural
and psychological definitions of engagement but leave this issue unresolved. If the organiser
aims to clarify what influences student engagement, then a clear definition is essential. There
is also some confusion between antecedents and consequences of engagement. While the first
five items are all influences on student engagement, the indicators of the final perspective,
active citizenship, suggest this is an outcome of engagement; for example, ‘students are able
to live successfully in the world’ (Zepke et al. 2010a, 3). Finally, in limiting the consideration
of individual characteristics to the needs proposed by SDT, the conceptual organiser excludes
other important antecedents such as personality, academic skills, and expectations. Also
missing is the critical influence of the wider socio-political culture.
Each of the four perspectives discussed offers useful and relevant insights into this
complex construct. The behavioural approach highlights the importance of student behaviour
and institutional practice; the psychological approach clearly defines the state of being
engaged and acknowledges the essential role of affect; the sociocultural perspective
foregrounds the sociocultural context in which student engagement takes place; and finally,
the holistic approaches recognise the need to consider the student’s own motivations and
expectations. However, each only tells part of the story and problems of definition and poor
understanding about the relationships between the variables is hampering progress. It is
widely acknowledged that a more comprehensive understanding of engagement is necessary
if the potential of this important construct is to be realised (Bryson et al. 2010; Fredricks et al.
2004; L.R. Harris 2008). The second section of this paper proposes a conceptual framework
for understanding and researching student engagement that integrates these diverse
perspectives and, in particular, more clearly separates the antecedents and consequences of
engagement from the psychosocial state of being engaged.
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 12 of 21
The aim of this framework is not to produce what Haggis (2004, 350) calls a ‘generalised,
quasi-deterministic model’ and it is certainly not to generalise and view the student as ‘a
member of a stereotyped, homogenous mass’ as Bryson and Hand (2008, 13) warn. Instead it
is the opposite. By depicting the complex array of factors influencing a student’s engagement
and by embedding these phenomena and processes within the wider sociocultural context, the
unique nature of the individual experience becomes clearer and the need for in-depth study of
particular student populations self evident. As well as being valuable for guiding further
research, the framework is a useful tool for targeting interventions aimed at increasing
student engagement. The framework does not claim to depict all the influences and
relationships, but rather to disaggregate and organise the central variables and relationships
between them. As shown in Figure 1, there are six elements: the sociocultural context; the
structural and psychosocial influences; engagement; and the proximal and distal
Figure 1. Conceptual framework of engagement, antecedents, and consequences.
The framework has the student at its centre. The psychological perspective is evident
with the inclusion of the three dimensions of engagement, affect, cognition, and behaviour, as
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 13 of 21
recommended by Fredericks et al.’s (2004) comprehensive review. The different facets to the
dimensions are also acknowledged; for example, affect is recognised as being both the
enthusiasm for the topic and the sense of belonging to the institution. However, in order to
highlight that student engagement is more than just an internal static state, this individual
experience is embedded within the sociocultural context and shown as influenced by
characteristics of both the student and the institution. A key strength of envisioning
engagement in this way is that it both acknowledges the lived reality of the individual while
not reducing engagement to just that. This goes some way to addressing Zyngier’s (2008,
1771) concern that a narrow definition of engagement can lead to the impression that ‘if the
student is engaged then the teacher is responsible but if the student is disengaged then the
problem is with the student’.
The immediate psychosocial influences are categorised as university, relationships,
and student variables. There is little doubt about the importance of teachers and teaching
practice on student engagement with numerous studies demonstrating the link (Pascarella and
Terenzini 2005). Similarly, relationships with staff are considered to be the crux of the
learning situation (Smith 2007) and feeling part of a learning community also positively
influences student engagement (Lear et al. 2010; Zhao and Kuh 2004). The student variables
shown are merely representative of the wide range of factors influencing engagement that
have been studied; for example, motivation (Fazey and Fazey 2001), personality (Poropat
2009), and self theories (Yorke and Knight 2004). Understandably, institutions have tended
to focus on teaching and support as targets for improving student engagement, however the
framework suggests a further strategy could be to increase student awareness of the range of
variables within their own control and the potential impact these factors have on their
engagement and success at university. It is important to recognise that engagement is not an
outcome of any one of these influences but rather the complex interplay between them as
suggested by the arrows within this section of the framework. As Nystrand and Gamoran
(1991, 284) point out, engagement ‘depends on what teachers and students do together...
neither can do it alone’.
The proximal consequences are divided into academic, learning and achievement, and
social, satisfaction and well being, paralleling earlier work on academic and social integration
(Tinto 1975). An important feature of the framework is the recognition that the influences are
bidirectional between engagement and both its immediate antecedents and proximal
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 14 of 21
consequences as illustrated by the two-way arrows in the framework. It is widely recognised
that engagement breeds engagement; for example, Llorens et al. (2007) found evidence that
learners believing they have sufficient resources leads to increases in self efficacy which
leads to increased engagement which then spirals up to greater self beliefs. Similarly, good
relationships foster engagement which in turn promotes good relationships; and engagement
leads to better grades which in turn motivate students to be more engaged.
Structural influences within the university such as curriculum and assessment have a
recognised impact on student engagement (Barnett and Coate 2005). For example, the culture
of academic assessment is an example of Foucault’s (1977/1995) disciplinary power, a
process of hierarchical and normalising judgement in a relationship of unequal power that
risks alienating students (Mann 2001). Teaching and learning differ by discipline with a
distinction often made between the ‘soft’ disciplines, such as humanities, where there is less
consensus of knowledge, and the ‘hard’ disciplines, such as natural sciences and engineering,
where there is greater agreement about both content and methods (Brint et al. 2008). These
differences manifest in different approaches to learning (Nelson Laird et al. 2008) and
different ‘cultures of engagement’ (Brint et al. 2008, 383). ‘Lifeload’, the sum of all the
pressures a student has in their life including university, is a critical factor influencing student
engagement. Employment, needs of dependants, finances, and health have all been noted as
prominent (Yorke 2000). Zepke et al. (2011) suggest that the impact of these external factors
may not be continuous but rather only exert influence at times of crisis.
The distal consequences of student engagement include not just the more obvious
academic benefits but also longer term social impacts. Inclusion of these recognises that
student engagement has the potential to have a much more profound influence upon students
and society than merely content learning (Zyngier 2008). For example, Zepke et al. (2010a)
include active citizenship, students’ ability to live successfully in the world and have a strong
sense of self, as a lens in their conceptual organiser of student engagement. Likewise, Mercer
(2007) suggests that academic growth and personal growth are interrelated outcomes of
Finally, and most importantly, the framework gives prominence to the wider
sociocultural influences. Rather than position the macro influences as simply the first link in
the chain, the entire process of student engagement is embedded within these wider social,
political, and cultural discourses. It is not just the antecedents that are influenced by this
broad context, but every element of the student and institutional experience. Foregrounding
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 15 of 21
the impact of the wider influences goes some way towards addressing McMahon and
Portelli’s (2004, 60) critique that popular discourses of engagement are too narrowly focused
on the procedural and so ‘fail to address substantive ethical and political issues’. Mann
(2001) highlights how alienating these sociocultural conditions and power imbalances can be
for students and the framework illustrates the potential to counter these influences through
change at more immediate levels. Mann’s (2001, 18) suggestions of ‘solidarity, hospitality,
safety and the redistribution of power’ are useful examples of using the more immediate
antecedents of engagement such as relationships and university culture as pathways of
The aim of this review was to disentangle the strands of student engagement and to
propose a conceptual framework to guide future research into this important construct.
Viewing student engagement as a psychosocial process, influenced by institutional and
personal factors, and embedded within a wider social context, integrates the sociocultural
perspective with the psychological and behavioural views discussed. The framework includes
not just those elements within an institution’s control thus ensuring a much richer and deeper
understanding of the student experience.
However, any attempt to categorise variables risks constraining understanding. It is
important to acknowledge that the framework does not include every possible antecedent and
consequence of student engagement and there may be some overlap between the structural
and psychosocial influences on one side and the proximal and distal consequences on the
other. However, as discussed, a lack of distinction between antecedents, engagement, and
consequences is the dominant limitation of current theories. This framework clarifies these
differences and highlights the primary direction of influence, thus facilitating a shared
understanding of the complex process of student engagement and enabling the different
research perspectives to be woven together.
Zepke (2011, 9) proposes complexity theory as a tool for understanding student
engagement as a ‘dynamic and non-hierarchical network’ in which the factors are distinct and
yet connected. This is definitely the case within the psychosocial influences as shown in the
framework. For example, how a student responds to a teacher’s enthusiastic teaching depends
upon their own expectations, background, and personality. Similarly, the motivations and
expectations of the student will influence the relationships they form. The network metaphor
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 16 of 21
also works well for considering the central element of the framework, the student experience
of being engaged. As previously discussed, the different dimensions of engagement are
dependent on each other, interlinked rather the discrete and disconnected. However, to
describe the whole framework as an interconnected network fails to recognise that there is a
dominant direction of influence from the antecedents to engagement and from engagement to
No single research project can possibly examine all facets of this complex construct.
But by starting from a place that acknowledges the multilevel phenomena and processes, and
the complex relations between them, the focus can be on developing a greater understanding
of one element without denying the existence of the others. The clearer our understanding of
student engagement and the influences on it, the better positioned we will be to meet the
needs of students, to enhance the student experience, and to improve the educational
outcomes. More research is needed to further explore the relationships within the framework
to strengthen our understanding of each element. One particular area in need of greater
research in higher education is the role of emotion in student engagement. Much of the focus
has been on behaviour and cognition and while the importance of relationships and the wider
sense of belonging are recognised, little attention has been paid to students’ more immediate
emotional responses to their learning. For example, does the anxiety that many first year
students experience impact upon the other dimensions of engagement – their behaviour and
their cognitive strategies? The framework highlights the need for projects that focus on
narrower populations, including single institutions, as it is evident that a broad generalisation
of the student experience is ill-advised. The use of in-depth qualitative methodologies is
recommended to capture the diversity of experience and also longitudinal work that examines
the dynamic process that is student engagement. Most importantly, the framework highlights
that there are numerous avenues for improving student engagement and that the responsibility
for this lies with all parties: the student, the teacher, the institution, and the government.
Framing student engagement in higher education Page 17 of 21
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