Defining Engagement

Engagement.  There’s $500 million Australian university’s CGS cluster funding potentially at stake, turning on the definition of that word.  If the plan goes ahead (Department of Education and Training 2017, p27), it will be a financial incentive to bring student experience of higher education into sharp focus.

As one of the four key quality measures, how you define engagement is, therefore, all important.


In sum, there is little agreement as to what engagement is or how we might measure it. It seems that we are often describing different parts of the elephant, rather than the whole.
Baron and Corbin 2013,

Herein lies the problem.

There are two QILT Student Experience Satisfaction indicators that refer to engagement; one for Teaching Quality and seven for Learner Engagement:

Teaching Quality Learner engagement
During 2015/2016, to what extent have the lecturers, tutors and demonstrators:
  1. engaged you actively in learning?

During 2015/2016, to what extent have you:

  • felt prepared for your study?
  • had a sense of belonging to your institution?

In 2015/2016, how frequently have you:

  • participated in discussions online or face-to-face?
  • worked with other students as part of your study?
  • interacted with students outside study requirements?
  • interacted with students who are very different from you?

During 2015/2016, to what extent have you:

  • been given opportunities to interact with local students (where applicable for international students)?

Note that learner engagement results do not include survey responses from students studying by distance education, because the current form of questions used in the SES may not adequately capture the learner engagement experience of these students.

QILT, Social Research Centre Pty Ltd and Commonwealth of Australia, accessed 24/2/2018.

This is so limited yet academics can’t agree on the definition as Baron and Corbin (2012, p763) point out:

  • Harper and Quaye: participation in educationally effective practices, both inside and outside the classroom.
  • Akey: the level of participation and intrinsic interest that a student shows.
  • Krause: the time, energy and resources students devote to activities designed to enhance learning at university.
  • Ainley: energy in action: the connection between person and activity.
  • Kuh: the time and energy students devote to educationally sound activities inside and outside of the classroom, and the policies and practices that institutions use to induce students to take part in these activities.

Baron and Corbin themselves suggests the engaged student “has a positive, fulfilling and work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption and who views him or herself as belonging to, and an active participant in, his or her learning communities.”

The danger of codifying ‘engagement’ measures is to risk being not responsive to structural changes in society and higher education. The harsh realities for students include rising cost of living and education, fewer university cultural clubs and societies to participate in, longer commuting distances and increased debt-financed degrees requiring quicker repayment.  Universities are pushing aggressively into online degrees; the NBN will facilitate distance online learning.  Technology and AI is changing knowledge-based economies around the world.

Why the emphasis? Student have a choice how and when to engage.  Students are very rational in how they spend their time. They balance engagement in learning (Dolnicar 2009) in very pragmatic ways and at the same time, managing other non-academic responsibilities.


The point is – a distinction needs to be made between engagement and quality of engagement.  The focus should be in maximising the quality of the learning experience in the time they have to give.

As a learning designer, engagement is about providing a learning experience that engages students, helping them find flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1997) in learning.  Getting to and sustaining that point of flow is the goal of engagement.


Department of Education and Training. “The Higher Education Reform Package.” Australian Government, May 1, 2017.
Baron, Paula, and Lillian Corbin. “Student Engagement: Rhetoric and Reality.” Higher Education Research & Development 31, no. 6 (2012): 759–72.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1997). Finding flow. (creativity and optimum functioning)(excerpt from the book ‘Finding Flow’). Psychology Today, 30(4), 46-48.
Dolnicar, S., Kaiser, S., Matus, K., & Vialle, W. (2009). Can Australian Universities Take Measures to Increase the Lecture Attendance of Marketing Students? Journal of Marketing Education, 31(3), 203-211.


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