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R. Burchielli, K. Coventry, P. Halteh, M. Riddle

La Trobe University (AUSTRALIA)
The aim of this paper is to investigate factors that contribute to student learning and student engagement (SE). Existing research on engagement documents various attempts at operationalising the concept in learning and teaching environments (Coates 2007) in order to reverse the trend of declining student attendance and engagement in the higher education sector (McInnis 2002). There are few empirical studies about SE and the concept is still being mapped. Broadly speaking, SE relates to individuals’ intrinsic involvement with their learning (Shulman 2002). It is associated with collaborative teaching and learning methods which motivate students to expend a “quality of effort” (Pace 1979), and gives primacy to ‘what the student does’ (Biggs & Tang, 2007). Current definitions of the concept do not explicitly acknowledge the critical role that teachers play in promoting SE. Student-centred pedagogies, such as Enquiry Based Learning (EBL) are associated with learning and engagement. EBL represents a shift away from more passive methods which involve the transmission of knowledge to students to more facilitative teaching methods through which students are expected to construct their own knowledge. Research on EBL indicates that students need to be supported (Edelson 1999; Crabtree 2004). Other research suggests that learning and teaching are relational concepts and activities (Baxter Magolda 1996; Brownlee 2004; Prosser & Trigwell 1999) based on interpersonal relationships and making a range of connections. Our paper engages with this broad body of literature: while we fully support student-centred approaches to learning and teaching, we propose to re-incorporate the important role of the teacher in motivating and promoting student learning and engagement. Our research investigates two key research questions. What do students want from the teacher in the EBL context? How does this inform our knowledge about the role of the teacher in motivating student learning and promoting student engagement?

This paper is based on Australian data, collected from university students and staff involved in learning and teaching within a management subject (Business Ethics). Two focus groups were conducted to discuss student experiences of EBL, student engagement and teamwork. As well as this, teaching staff made their own personal reflections, which they recorded in journals and emails. These data were then analysed using standard qualitative techniques of thematic analysis.

Students reported that they felt engaged by the EBL method, as well as by the assessments and class activities. However, this paper finds that students required information, direction and companioning from teaching staff to help them transition from the more traditional teaching and learning methods of the lecture-tutorial format to the more innovative, but unfamiliar approach of EBL. The requirements expressed by the students prompted staff to reflect on the existing curriculum design and materials and to respond by making changes that acknowledge the student. We propose that SE not only requires student effort and involvement, but that it is also contingent upon the teacher’s effort and involvement, and that student engagement requires teacher engagement. Our paper contributes to the SE literature by extending the concept in a way that recognises the need for teaching staff to play a specialised role in motivating student learning.