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This is the accepted (post-print) version of the following published article:
Picton, C., Kahu, E. R., & Nelson, K. (2018). ‘Hardworking, determined and happy’: First-year
students’ understanding and experience of success. Higher Education Research & Development,
37(6), 1260-1273. doi:10.1080/07294360.2018.1478803
Student engagement in the educational interface: Understanding
the mechanisms of student success
Ella R. Kahu & Karen Nelson
Student success and retention continue to be of concern for higher education institutions.
Wider participation combined with lower completion rates for non-traditional students
highlight the need for new ways of understanding the student experience to ground policy
and practice. This article provides this insight by drawing together a number of key
constructs to refine a recent framework of student engagement. We argue that the transition
metaphor, focusing on the first year, is limited because it depicts differences between
students and institutions as both transient and temporal. Instead we use a cultural lens to
introduce the educational interface as a metaphor for the individual psychosocial space
within which institutional and student factors combine and student engagement in learning
occurs. Incorporating the interface into the existing framework of student engagement
makes three contributions to our understanding of the student experience. First, the
educational interface is a tangible way of representing the complex interactions between
students and institutions, and how those interactions influence engagement. Second, the
refined framework highlights four specific psychosocial constructs: self-efficacy,
emotions, belonging, and well-being, which we contend are critical mechanisms for
mediating the interactions between student and institutional characteristics and student
engagement and success. Finally, the refined framework helps explain why some students
with demographic characteristics associated with lower completion rates, are retained and
do go on to successfully complete their studies, while similar others do not. These three
contributions: the interface, the key constructs within it being mediating mechanisms, and
their explanatory utility, provide focus for the design and implementation of curricula and
co-curricular initiatives aimed at enhancing student success and retention, and importantly
to evaluate the impact of these interventions.
Key words: student engagement, transition, student success
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Student success, whether measured by grades, retention statistics, or qualification completion
rates, continues to be a concern of governments, higher education policy makers, leaders, and
practitioners. Low success rates are particularly concerning for under-represented groups of students,
which in Australia include Indigenous students and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds
(LSES), remote areas, and regional locations (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent, & Scales, 2008). Arguments
for attending to student retention and completion are varied and include social justice concerns that
see higher education as breaking cycles of social and cultural inequity and disadvantage (Devlin,
2013; Gale, 2011), politicised concern over the rising costs of uncapped higher education, and debate
over the balance between public and private investment and the return on that investment for
individuals and funding bodies (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2013; Trow, 2006).
Student engagement is widely recognised as critical – simply put, students who are engaged
with their studies are more likely to be successful. However, the mechanisms contributing to the
individual student’s engagement have not yet been clearly articulated and the term engagement is
used differently in various contexts. We understand engagement as an individual student’s
psychosocial state: their behavioural, emotional, and cognitive connection to their learning (Fredricks,
Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). This paper extends Kahu’s (2013) conceptual framework of student
engagement. While the original framework acknowledges the influence of both student and
institutional factors, it does not illuminate how those factors interact and impact on the underlying
psychosocial mechanisms that influence individual student success. Therefore it did not provide
specific focus for understanding how to design and implement curricula and co-curricular initiatives
that can enhance student success and retention.
By drawing on transition theory and cultural studies, we propose that individual student
engagement occurs dynamically within an educational interface at the intersection of the student and
their characteristics and background, and the institution and its practices. We contend that the
educational interface, when integrated into Kahu’s (2013) earlier framework, offers a cogent
explanation for the dynamic, complex, and individual nature of students’ psychosocial learning
experiences – and highlights mechanisms critical for engaging all students, and particularly non-
traditional students. Finally, we outline four psychosocial constructs (the mechanisms) that help
explain how students experience the educational interface and how that experience impacts on their
engagement and therefore success and retention.
The refined framework’s contribution to student engagement research is a tangible
representation of how and where the interactions between institutional and student factors occur. It
also offers a more comprehensive depiction of the psychosocial mechanisms that facilitate students’
connections or disconnections to their study. By describing these mechanisms, the refined framework
provides clarity for academic and professional practitioners about which mechanisms need to be
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activated by curricula and co-curricular initiatives to promote students’ engagement in learning. While
the scope of this paper is limited to the refinement of the framework, we are concurrently conducting
a programme of qualitative research investigating how the mechanisms in the interface influence the
engagement of a contemporary student cohort (see for example, Kahu, Nelson, & Picton, 2017, and
Picton, Kahu, & Nelson, 2017).
Reviews of higher education (e.g. Behrendt, Larkin, Griew, & Kelly, 2012; Bradley et al., 2008),
economic demands for a more highly skilled workforce to enable competition in the global economy,
as well as increasing evidence of the individual and societal benefits of higher education (Department
for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013), all trigger concerns over student success rates. The six year
completion rate is 67% in Australia (Edwards & McMillan, 2015), 59% in the United States (United
States Department of Education, 2015) and ranges from 46% to 80% in Europe (Quinn, 2013).
Of particular concern are the particularly poor outcomes for non-traditional students. For
example, in Australia, nine year completion rates are 69% for LSES students compared to 78% for
those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and 47% for Indigenous students compared to 74% for
non-Indigenous students (Edwards & McMillan, 2015). European research also highlights that LSES
status is the most significant factor associated with dropping out of higher education (Quinn, 2013).
Non-traditional students also often belong to multiple equity groups (for instance are Indigenous and
LSES) and are more likely to have other characteristics such as studying part time or lower academic
entry scores. These factors compound to further negatively affect completions (Edwards & McMillan,
2015). However, caution is required when implying that pre-existing factors such as SES or entry
scores are the reason for the poorer success of the individuals and the group as a whole. For example
as Kemp and Norton (2014) found, Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) scores are not a
measure of academic potential and students with lower-ATAR can achieve success. While these
student characteristics may be predictive factors, the relationship between them and student
completions is not directly causal: that is, a student’s SES status, ethnicity or entry score is not the
cause of their success or failure.
In a similar vein, students give a range of reasons for withdrawing from their studies including
quality, psychosocial, financial, practical, and academic (Coates, 2014). Of particular note, equity
group students more often cite finance and family obligations as reasons, whereas non-equity group
students’ reasons centre more on choice and lifestyle (Edwards & McMillan, 2015). However, as with
demographic factors, we do not yet fully understand the processes by which these factors influence
students’ university experiences and lead to withdrawal for some students but not for similar others. If
we are to understand these different outcomes, we need a better understanding of the mechanisms that
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explain the relationships between institutional and student characteristics, and student learning and
One known pathway to success is student engagement. In 1984, Astin was grappling with a
similar issue: a large body of research demonstrated that there were associations between educational
programmes and student achievement. But there was a missing link – a ‘mediating mechanism’ that
would explain how institutional actions influenced student outcomes. Astin (1984) proposed student
involvement as that missing link. This idea was the seed for a large body of research on what is now
termed student engagement. However, while we now have considerable evidence that Astin was
correct in his estimation of the role of student engagement, we still do not fully understand the
complex ways that individual and institutional factors interact to influence that engagement. The
remainder of this article addresses this issue by integrating ideas from transition theory and cultural
studies to extend Kahu’s (2013) earlier framework of student engagement, to provide a richer
understanding about the complexity of students’ experiences and to provide a useful framework to
guide practice in the area of student success and retention.
Student engagement theory
Student engagement is key to student achievement and retention (Krause & Coates, 2008)
with notions of success and student engagement inextricably inter-twined. As Tinto (2014) says
succinctly, ‘engagement matters’ (p. 20). But engagement is a complex and contested construct with
multiple theories and a plethora of reviews (e.g. Trowler & Trowler, 2010; Zepke & Leach, 2010).
Kahu’s (2013) critical analysis of the literature identified three approaches to engagement:
behavioural, emphasising student behaviours and teaching practices (stemming from Astin’s early
work); psychological, viewing engagement as an internal psycho-social process with behavioural,
cognitive, and affective dimensions (for a review see Fredricks et al., 2004); and socio-cultural,
emphasising the broader social context of engagement (e.g. Mann, 2001). Drawing these approaches
together, Kahu (2013) proposes an integrative framework which emphasises engagement as a variable
state that is influenced by a wide array of student and institutional factors, as well as by the socio-
political context within which the students, teachers, and institutions are situated. The framework also
acknowledges the outcomes of engagement: It is through being engaged with their study that students
learn and thus not only acquire skills and knowledge, but also experience academic success and
Bryson (2014), like Astin (1984), suggests that student engagement is a black box and draws
on a metaphor of quantum mechanics to argue that the complexity of student engagement is such that
we cannot measure or map all of its properties. Like Kahu (2013), he argues that institutional factors
and structural factors in a student’s background are related to student engagement, and engagement
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results from the complex interplay between factors. However both these contributions are limited in
that neither has identified ‘mediating mechanisms’ underpinning that interplay – in order to improve
student success, we need to better understand how the various factors interact and impact student
engagement and therefore success. To address these limitations we turn to the body of literature
looking at student transitions and use those ideas to further refine Kahu’s (2013) conceptual
Transition theory aimed to understand why higher education, particularly the first year, is challenging
and why so many students therefore withdraw or fail in that year. It sought to provide practical
responses to the identified challenges. In some ways it is the opposite of engagement theory which
aims to explain why students succeed. Three broad theoretical explanations of the challenge are
evident (e.g. Devlin, 2013; Gale & Parker, 2014) and describe the ‘gaps’ between student and
institution differently and so offer different solutions. First, early theorising argued the problem was
insufficient skills. Often targeting ‘at-risk’ cohorts, this explanation assumed that, due to their
demographic characteristics, these students will have poorer literacy, numeracy, and academic skills
(Warren, 2002). The transition metaphor here depicts university staff as masters teaching student
apprentices the skills necessary for the trade of higher education. Solutions were co-curricular and
focused on filling the skills or knowledge gap through supplementary instruction or services (Wilson,
2009). However, this perspective is too narrowly conceptualised – the difficulties many students face
extend beyond a lack of skills and in fact ‘speak to a cultural inequity’ (McKay & Devlin, 2014, p.
The second explanation, academic socialisation, argues students also need to be inducted into
the cultural ways of the academy (Lea & Street, 2006). Here the transition metaphor is a maze and
students leave or fail because they don’t know how to navigate. Despite increasingly diverse student
populations, the overarching academic culture continues to assume traditional young, white, middle-
class learners, thus making navigation more challenging for others (Read, Archer, & Leathwood,
2003). Solutions were delivered within the curriculum so that all students had the opportunity to
develop the skills and knowledge required to navigate the academy (Wilson, 2009). A key limitation
of these first two approaches is that both view the student as in deficit – in skills and in cultural
understandings (Smit, 2012). In addition, socialisation assumes that students should be moulded to fit
the institution’s existing culture.
The third explanation, founded in critical discourse analysis, argues that learning also involves
identity and power (Lea & Street, 2006) and draws on Bourdieu’s (1997) ideas of habitus. Traditional
students bring not just economic capital, but also embody cultural and social capital which is valued
and represents power (Bourdieu, 1997). Educational institutions have maintained this order through
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institutional habitus, which favours the knowledge and experience of dominant groups (Thomas,
2002). For students whose embodied practices are not equally valued, institutional habitus can lead to
alienation (Mann, 2001). Indigenous knowledges in particular have not been valued by the Western
academy (Sefa Dei, 2000). Proponents of this view suggest we need to value what diverse students
bring and create space ‘not just for new kinds of students but also for the knowledges and ways of
knowing that they embody’ (Gale, 2011, p. 679).
Transition theory highlights that alignment, or misalignment, between student and institution
is important for success. However, while transition theory usefully emphasises the importance of the
first year and highlights the need for institutions to adapt to diverse students, attrition is not limited to
the first year. For example 7.9% of Australian students dropped out after their first and before their
second year, and a further 13.8% dropped out in later years (Edwards & McMillan, 2015). The
experience of higher education is an ongoing ‘transformation of being’ (Barnett, 2007, p. 38). It
requires an iterative navigation of difference between the student’s individual habitus and the culture,
knowledge, and practices of the academy – and not just during the transition to higher education. Each
new learning experience has the potential to challenge students’ ways of being and thinking, and to
require students to bring their diverse identities and experiences to bear on new ideas. The transition
metaphor therefore does not capture the lived experience of learning as a dynamic and constant
reworking of the self (Quinn, 2010). Instead we need to ‘reconceptualise transition in a way that
reflects students’ lived realities’ (Gale & Parker, 2014, p. 747). To do that, it is useful to view the
experience of higher education through a cultural lens.
A cultural lens - the educational interface
The student deficit models of transition discussed draw on well-contested ideas of cultural
deficit. In 1971, Valentine proposed the theory of biculturalism – cultures were not mutually
exclusive, but rather people could be simultaneously socialised into two different ways of life. This
idea extends beyond ethnicity and parallels contemporary understandings of identity as a continuous
construction, with individuals moving between identities relating to their life roles (Hall, 2004). Dual
socialisation is facilitated by the degree of overlap, of norms and values, between identities. So in
education, students from high prestige schools with university educated parents have a greater overlap
between their existing identities and that of higher education student. This overlap facilitates learning
and encourages persistence (Kuh & Love, 2000).
Devlin (2013) terms the lack of overlap for non-traditional students as ‘sociocultural
incongruity’ and suggests a bridge, a joint venture between students, university, schools, and
government, is a useful metaphor for conceptualising what is needed. However, the bridge metaphor,
as with transition, suggests there is an end point. Nakata (2007), theorising indigenous student
experiences, argues that a ‘cultural interface’ is a theoretically useful metaphor:
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The Cultural Interface… is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional space of dynamic
relations constituted by the intersections of time, place, distance, different systems
of thought, competing and contesting discourses within and between different
knowledge traditions, and different systems of social, economic and political
organisation. (p. 199)
Adapting this idea to describe the student experience and student engagement as an active
process within an ‘educational interface’ has much to commend it. First, it is a positive metaphor,
emphasising the importance of drawing on both ways of being, rather than focussing on any lack of
alignment between cultures or positioning the student as in deficit. Second, the concept of an
educational interface recognises the importance of student agency. As Nakata (2002) argues, this is
‘the place where we are active agents in our own lives – where we make our decisions – our life
world’ (p. 285). In the educational interface, the student is not a passive actor required to sacrifice
their existing ways of being; rather the goal is to negotiate the experience in between. Third, an
interface is not a transition, a temporary state; it is the place where students continue to experience
their world. The student is in a set of relationships within multiple educational settings and their sense
of self is dynamic and fluctuating, varying according to the situation being experienced. The
educational interface is a psychosocial space within which the individual student experiences their
education. Integrating the concept of the educational interface with Kahu’s (2013) framework of
student engagement discussed earlier, shines a light into Astin’s (1984) and Bryson’s (2014) black
box of student engagement and thus furthers our understanding of how different institutional and
student characteristics interact to influence a student’s engagement and success. Next we look more
closely at the student experience within the interface.
Experiencing the educational interface
Figure 1. Refined conceptual framework of student engagement incorporating the educational
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Figure 1 presents a refined version of Kahu’s (2013) conceptual framework of student
engagement, depicting the central role of the educational interface. The interface is the place where
students live and learn in higher education (Nakata, 2007); their experience is influenced by their
background, skills, and motivations, but also by the institutional and wider context. The factors shown
as student and institutional structural and psychosocial influences are not an exhaustive list, but rather
indicative of the types of factors in each category. It is within this micro-context, when institutional
and student factors align, that individual student engagement occurs. For instance, students engage
emotionally when the curriculum is linked to their interests, life experiences, and future selves (Kahu,
Stephens, Leach, & Zepke, 2014), and cognitive engagement occurs when the student feels their skills
align with the task at hand (Schunk & Pajares, 2004).
The student experience comprises of more than just their engagement however, as shown in
the revised framework. A search of the education literature for psychosocial constructs that strongly
influence student outcomes and which result from the interaction between institutional and student
characteristics reveals four constructs that illustrate important components of the student experience
within the interface. These are: academic self-efficacy, the student’s perception of their capabilities
for the task at hand; emotions, resulting from the student’s appraisal of their situation; belonging, the
connection students feel to the institution, discipline, and people; and finally well-being, stemming in
part from lifeload and stress. These four psychosocial constructs are best understood as mediating
mechanisms: student and institutional factors may interact to directly influence student engagement,
or engagement may be mediated via one of these four mechanisms. Next we briefly discuss how each
construct manifests within the educational interface and impacts on engagement and success. We also
highlight how each of these mediating mechanisms offer explanations for differences in outcomes for
Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in their capacity to perform a given task, stemming from
a cognitive appraisal of personal and environmental factors (Schunk & Pajares, 2004). Self-efficacy is
critical to behaviour: ‘Unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions, they
have little incentive to act’ (Bandura, 1997, pp. 2-3). Academic self-efficacy influences student
motivation and learning through its impact on persistence, goal setting, and the use of self-regulatory
strategies (van Dinther, Dochy, & Segers, 2011). High self-efficacy increases student engagement and
success and, in return, engagement and success increase self-efficacy (Schunk & Mullen, 2012).
Viewing self-efficacy as occurring within the educational interface acknowledges the complex
array of intersecting institutional and student based factors, which influence a student’s belief in their
capabilities. It also highlights that self-efficacy may be one of the key mechanisms that could cause
non-traditional students to be less engaged. Middle class students have higher academic self-
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confidence than working-class students who often express anxiety about their academic abilities
(Crozier, Reay, & Clayton, 2010); this then influences their self-efficacy. Schunk and Mullen (2012)
also highlight the influence of family on self-efficacy – through cultural capital, encouragement, and
role models – as well as the influence of wider sociocultural factors such as socioeconomic status.
These are all factors underpinning the challenges facing non-traditional student groups and we concur
with these authors that more research is needed on academic self-efficacy in non-traditional student
Appreciating students’ emotional responses is essential to understanding and theorising
student experiences (Linnenbrink, 2006). Emotions are situated and dynamic, and like self-efficacy,
the result of a subjective appraisal of the situation (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008). Emotions therefore
occur within the educational interface, and viewing them this way enables a clearer understanding of
the complex roles emotions play. For example, Kahu et al. (2014) found that positive topic related
emotions, interest and enthusiasm, stem from life integrated learning: the intersection between course
material and the students’ personal or work interests and experiences. Similarly, task based emotions,
such as anxiety, depend on both the nature of the task and the student’s skills, personality, and past
experiences. Emotions within the interface also include social emotions, those related to people such
as admiration and empathy (Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2012).
The first year is a particularly emotional time for students. For non-traditional students, the
gap between their existing identities and experiences and the expectations and requirements of the
institution may result in more negative emotions. For example, lack of access to technology, concerns
over money, and families who do not understand the pressures of tertiary study are all factors that can
increase student anxiety and frustration and thus influence a student’s engagement and success. While
some anxiety can be a motivating force leading to greater behavioural engagement, chronic or
extreme anxiety can have a negative impact and lead to disengagement and withdrawal (Kahu et al.,
2014). Emotions are therefore another mechanism explaining differences between groups of students
and another illustration of the effects of the complex interactions within the educational interface.
The need for belonging, to have positive interpersonal attachments, is widely recognised as a
fundamental human need (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). In education settings, belonging is described
as the students’ connectedness to the institution, staff, and other students (Thomas, 2012), as well as
the discipline being studied. Linking to Bourdieu’s (1997) theory outlined earlier, belonging relates to
the degree of fit an individual perceives between their individual habitus and that of the institution and
is therefore usefully conceptualised as a component of the educational interface. Viewing belonging
as the outcome of both institutional and student factors recognises that belonging can manifest
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differently for each student depending on their background, their personality, and other aspects of
their experience. For example, mature-aged students have busy lives and may not seek a sense of
belonging to the institution (Wyatt, 2011).
Belonging may influence retention directly. As discussed earlier, despite wider participation,
academia still reflects traditional students. Others, who feel ‘alienated by academic culture itself’
(Read et al., 2003, p. 271), may choose to leave, regardless of how engaged they are with their study.
Belonging can also influence success through its impact on engagement. For example, that sense of
alienation may create anxiety, which then inhibits participation in classroom discussions hampering
both behavioural and emotional engagement. Belonging can also have a positive impact on well-
The final construct that we suggest is critical to understanding the educational interface is
student well-being, and its opposite, stress. Attending university is stressful: Stallman (2010) found
84% of Australian students reported elevated distress, and 19% reported high distress compared to 3%
of the general population. This stress can be caused by personal factors, institutional factors, or the
intersection between the two. For example, conflict between study and other commitments affects half
of first year Australian students (Baik, Naylor, & Arkoudis, 2015). Stress can inhibit engagement with
higher stress levels associated with lower academic motivation and enjoyment (Gavala & Flett, 2005).
Stress can also lead to withdrawal: 72% of first year Australian students who had seriously considered
withdrawing cited emotional health as an important factor (Baik et al., 2015).
As with the other three constructs discussed, viewing well-being as an interaction within the
educational interface, offers possible explanations for differences in the learning and persistence of
non-traditional students. In particular, well-being is more likely to be compromised for students who
belong to multiple equity groups (Edwards & McMillan, 2015). For example, high levels of paid
work, additional family responsibilities, or living far from campus (all characteristics of non-
traditional students) are all potential causes of stress, which can influence student success by
impeding student engagement.
As explained, recognising that student engagement and student learning occur within an
educational interface at the intersection of institution and student is theoretically valuable. It
illuminates some of the processes by which factors influence student success and helps us to
understand the additional challenges faced by non-traditional students. We do not claim that the four
psychosocial constructs depicted in the interface and discussed here are a definitive list of critical
intersections between student and institution. They are however those that are most dominant in the
current literature. In addition, while presented separately here for clarity, self-efficacy, emotions,
belonging, and well-being are not discrete elements of experience. The student experience of the
interface is complex and dynamic as Bryson (2014) reminds us, and there are many overlaps and
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interactions. One final benefit of viewing the student experience as occurring within an educational
interface is the alignment with another key development in higher education: students as partners.
It would be negligent not to acknowledge the work, mostly from the United Kingdom, calling
for institutions to create supportive environments for diverse student bodies and to distribute the
power more equitably by developing stronger relationships or partnerships between students and their
institution. For instance, Student Participation in Quality Scotland (Sparqs) defines partnership as ‘an
equal relationship between two or more bodies working together towards a common purpose,
respecting the different skills, knowledge, experience and capability that each party brings to the
table’ (Williamson, 2013, p. 8). Advocates argue that staff and students working together, whether in
governance, research, or teaching spaces, facilitate student engagement students (Healey, Flint, &
Harrington, 2014). Our revised framework acknowledges the criticality of relationships, specifically
including the construct as a key interaction within the ‘Psychosocial Influences’. The students as
partners literature, similar to research into other institutional practices such as relevant curriculum and
early intervention programs, does not illuminate the mediating mechanisms or psychosocial processes
that explain how these practices influence a student’s engagement and outcomes. Our framework, and
the educational interface in particular, provides that insight. For instance, including students as
partners in governance structures may give the student a sense of belonging to the institution, which
then leads to greater engagement with their study. Or including students as co-constructors of an
assessment task may increase their self-efficacy, leading to increased engagement and success.
Although our definition of student engagement is specifically focused on learning, the educational
interface embraces the notion of partnership, of academy and student working together in a productive
and cooperative relationship.
This article, by refining Kahu’s (2013) framework of student engagement, addresses the limitations of
the framework and increases its relevance and validity for understanding the student experience. It
makes three important contributions to the literature on student engagement and success. First, it
affirms that students’ engagement is influenced by the interactions between student factors and
institutional factors and by applying a cultural lens, represents the place that these interactions occur
as the educational interface. This representation aligns with an increasing emphasis on higher
education being a partnership between students and their institution. The interface also provides a new
way of understanding what institutions need to do to activate students’ academic engagement. The
interface metaphor highlights students’ constantly changing experiences – for each new group of
students, with each new interaction, and on each new task.
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The second contribution the paper makes is to engagement theory. The presence of the
educational interface serves to remind us that student or institutional factors only rarely influence
student engagement separately and that the interplay between them is critical. For example, a lecture
engages a student when the delivery style matches the student’s personal preferences and/or the
content aligns with their interests. In addition, the interface provides clarity about how the interplay
can influence student engagement indirectly through the four mediating mechanisms within it. For
example, feedback on a student’s work increases the student’s self-efficacy which then improves their
engagement on future tasks. Or staff getting to know a student gives them a sense of belonging that
then facilitates engagement in the classroom. The four key constructs within the interface do not
guarantee engagement or success, instead they are mediating mechanisms that act to increase or
decrease the likelihood of engagement and therefore success. The identification of these key
mediating mechanisms provides focus for the design and implementation of learning and teaching,
and student experience enhancement initiatives. As the framework makes clear, there are a multitude
of interacting influences on engagement and often these will conflict, however we contend that
activating the mechanisms in the interface at the intersection of institutional and student factors is one
way of positively influencing student engagement.
The article’s third contribution is to our understanding of the experiences of non-traditional
students. Rather than viewing demographic characteristics as direct and negative influences on
engagement and retention, the interface highlights specific mechanisms that may help explain
differences in cohort outcomes. For non-traditional students, the limited overlap between their past
experiences and the context of higher education, or the conditions of their life, may mean their
experience with higher education is more challenging. As shown in the educational interface, these
challenges may be due to reduced self-efficacy, a lack of belonging, negative emotions, or decreased
well-being and increased stress. Each of these mechanisms can negatively impact on a student’s
engagement, inhibit their learning and then, in a downward spiral, lead to failure which further
reduces self-efficacy and belonging, as well as increases anxiety and stress. The bottom of the spiral is
withdrawal. The revised framework with the educational interface recognises the challenges faced by
non-traditional students. While we value their identities and existing knowledges we cannot hide from
the reality – that non-traditional students are less likely to complete higher education. However, there
are many very successful non-traditional students and the educational interface illustrates how student
engagement can be fostered for all students, and particularly for non-traditional students by adopting
institutional practices that activate these key mediating mechanisms.
The responsibility for students’ experiences in the educational interface lies with multiple
stakeholders. The framework is embedded within the sociocultural context highlighting the critical
role that government has to play; for example, policy that enables lower SES students with a greater
lifeload to study part time and still receive support would increase well-being. The institutional
context is also critical. It is through the curriculum that institutions mediate ‘student-institution
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interactions to enhance the broader student experience’ (Nelson, Kift, & Clarke, 2012, p. 125). Here
institutional flexibility is paramount – allowing students to study in ways that make their experience
of the educational interface more positive (Gale & Parker, 2014; Quinn, 2010). Finally, the student, as
an active participant in their own learning, has the central role to play. Learning is a partnership and
the experience of the interface is influenced as much by the student as it is by the institution. The
ongoing task of both student and institution is to facilitate working in the interface in order to learn
from each other and to draw on the strengths of both.
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