Last month I attended the first part of an afternoon conference on ‘Exploring Student Engagement at Reading and Beyond’, which took place in the Agriculture Building at Reading University. Towards the end of Cathy Bovill’s excellent keynote talk I asked the following:

“Shouldn’t we be thinking about why we want to engage students in the curriculum? There seem to be two parallel agendas here. In the first, student engagement is an end in itself: it takes some control away from academics and demystifies the profession at the same time as it increases the influence and the responsibilities of students. In the second, student engagement is a means to an end since students will learn better if they have a bigger stake in the curriculum and understand how it is constructed.”

The question was poorly timed because the discussion had moved on to practicalities and away from the rationale for student engagement. I ought to have saved it up, if I was going to ask it all, for the closing session – but I had to leave before then. But I want to suggest here that the rationale for student engagement can affect the practicalities. A key issue for me here is who exactly we mean by ‘students’ when we talk about ‘engaging students’.

If we say that student engagement is a good in itself then this goes some way to explaining the increased presence of students in the University’s committee structures, including committees that control the curriculum – for example boards of studies and periodic review panels. But these offices are available to only a minority of students; and they tend to provide opportunities for those who are already keen and articulate. There is a clear gain for the University from having a student perspective in discussions; but the wider benefit to individual students is harder to track.

If however we say that student engagement has instrumental value in the learning process then this encourages lecturers to involve all their students in the management of teaching and learning. Plenty of this already goes on. When I supervise a third-year dissertation the student chooses the topic and frames research questions; so, with guidance, the student is responsible for setting some of the criteria for a successful piece of work. Perhaps there is room to do this in taught courses too, asking students not only what topics they want to cover but how and why; making them think what the learning outcomes will be.

All of which is to oversimplify some awfully complex arguments. I do not wish to suggest that my two suggested rationales for student engagement are in any way in competition with each other; or that there is only one way to realise either of these aims; or that there is no sense of continuity between engagement in the lecture room and broader curriculum planning. But it does seem to me that at the present time we need to have a conversation on what we mean by student engagement as well as how we expect to put it into practice. I am grateful to Cathy for starting it off.

Dr David Carter