With an increased focus on how student engagement affects educational outcomes, Higher Education (HE) professionals have become more creative in the way they reach out to, and connect with, students.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews spoke to David Woolley, Director of Student and Community Engagement at Nottingham Trent University, about his journey into HE, how engagement links to achievement, and more.
We are a modern university (currently Times/Sunday Times Modern University of the Year), and our entry is around 10,000 students per year, with a consistently diverse intake. I facilitate student engagement, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. My role combines the widening participation agenda pre-entry and the student success agenda post-entry. The most significant focus in both is on the groups of students with lower success rates, which overlaps significantly with equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).
Prior to this, I was a teacher abroad and in the UK, which sparked an interest in engagement. Working in Russia and Brazil made me ask a lot of questions about why people engaged in education in such a different way, even when it wasn’t as widely accessible. I then took a position here at Nottingham Trent, and worked my way up, via some time at the University of Nottingham.
It’s what made me interested in the relationship between engagement and provision. In both Russia and Brazil, there wasn’t a lot of high-quality educational provision for some groups, but people really sought it out and wanted it all the same. Here, where there is more provision, not everyone engages in it. I realised that simply providing a service isn’t enough to guarantee that people will engage with it — a belief we often fall into in the UK.
It’s an interesting question: why do we need to run initiatives to get students to engage in the services provided to them? We take a two-pronged approach to this. What’s most important is that we look structurally at how the services are designed: it’s often why students aren’t engaging. So, how do we design them in a way that facilitates student engagement, particularly from the groups that need it the most?
I realised that simply providing a service isn't enough to guarantee that people will engage with it — a belief we often fall into in the UK.
The second part is running initiatives that encourage students to access these services. The initiatives largely look at characteristics for success and how we can help students thrive in these environments: agency, curiosity, resilience, and responsibility — these serve most successful people well. It’s also looking at ourselves and looking at what facilitates or hinders the engagement of different groups.
A structural change, for example, would be changing how we deliver lessons and exams to make them more engaging. We use a teaching method called SCALE-UP — a student-centred active learning environment with upside-down pedagogies and a much more task-based group work methodology, that involves students a lot more.
We also run initiatives like welcome workshops, which happen during Welcome Week and are compulsory for all students to help develop the characteristics I spoke of before.
We also have a Black Leadership programme for students to develop the same characteristics and become leaders within their community. You need structural change alongside initiatives.
We have a learning analytics system that measures the digital footprint of our students such as cards swiped into buildings, use of online learning environments, and attendance in classes, and this all gets monitored and builds an engagement score for every student.
The correlation between engagement and success is very strong — the more you engage, the more likely you are to progress to the next level. It quickly tells us who isn’t engaging after the first few weeks so we can intervene before it’s too late. It targets lack of engagement, rather than specific characteristics like low-income backgrounds, which we find to be more effective.
Community heavily influences how people behave, which in turn influences how you feel you belong to the institution. We place a lot of focus on community, responsibility and agency.
Our Steps programme involves pre-arrival tasks, a call, an online module, a welcome workshop, and content for specific groups. This focus is on all the characteristics I’ve been speaking about, and this makes everyone feel safer, because everyone is equipped to stand up for one another against discrimination.
Positivity, flexibility, having a proactive attitude, and being prepared for variety and change.
The people I work with: my direct reports and my whole department. Externally to CenSCE, Omar Khan, Director of the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes. He’s a very impressive individual.
Motivation, Agency and Public Policy by Julien Le Grand. It provides insight into how the state should provide services and how people who receive them should be — are they active consumers of education or health, or are they grateful recipients? And also, why do we work in these fields: is it for the greater good, or are there other motivations?