Creating the conditions for student success

The publication comprises a series of chapters, focusing initially on a battery of student engagement surveys developed at the University of the Free State in collaboration with international partners. Various publications have emerged from the engagement research but this is the first collection of the comprehensive survey framework.

Chapters are written by a range of national and international authors, the latter including Kuh, Torres and Kinzie.

The preface states that the purpose of the publication is to give a South African perspective and ‘contextualised measures’ (xiii) as part of a global movement on student engagement. Using the evidence produced by the surveys, universities can ‘create conditions that impact student development and student success’ (xiv). The approach is thus evidence-based and produces actionable data.

The best known survey is the South African Survey of Student Engagement (SASSE) as it has been implemented for a number of years and most South African universities participate in it. The companion Lecturer Survey of Student Engagement (LSSE) is also longstanding.

New in the range are the Beginning University Survey of Student Engagement (BUSSE – to understand the entry characteristics of students) and the Classroom Survey of Student Engagement (CLASSE). SASSE has aggregated institutional data and is completed by a sample of students only, so CLASSE becomes important at module and individual student level to inform a specific lecturer about issues in the classroom.

An important point to note for any of the surveys is that results can be used to start discussions rather than immediately plan interventions. Evidence from the surveys can be used to change behaviours of students, lecturers and support departments.

Professor Francois Strydom introduces the publication. He has led the project at the University of the Free State since its inception. Strydom defines ‘student engagement’ as ‘students devoting their time to educationally purposeful activities’ (p.2). He also states that the student engagement surveys are a result of both ‘conceptual and empirical research’ (p.2) and explores the ‘high impact practices’ (p.5) that have emerged from research.

He introduces the link between student engagement and success that is developed in subsequent chapters. He also connects what students do, how they spend their time and effort, and what institutions do to create effective interventions to increase students’ chances of success.

An important point is student agency in practising educationally sound behaviour such as preparing for class or asking questions in class. Equally important is ‘the way that institutions allocate resources and organise opportunities and services to induce students to participate in and benefit from such activities’ (p.4). The complementary roles of students and institution are reiterated throughout the publication.

Throughout the publication there is quite a bit of repetition of, for instance, effective educational practices. This might be the result of each chapter being separately conceived. It is not necessarily a drawback as people might enter the publication at any point, rather than following a linear reading style and thus missing out on relevant principles if they were not included.

While the publication explores theoretical and empirical foundations of student engagement research, a further step in the process when it comes to pedagogical applications (Chapter 10 on CLASSE – Using engagement data for change and empowerment at course level, and Chapter 9 – Promoting pedagogical practices that matter) might be to link survey data and high impact practices back to learning science, particularly the latest neuroscience research, to validate why certain practices might lead to better learning.

In some ways the effective classroom practices identified might become mere lists of unrelated activities if not informed by a coherent learning science approach. Educationally purposeful activities should not be reduced to checklists (p.191).

There is a certain idealism in the conceptualisation of student engagement, perhaps appropriate to the subject. There are some real take away assertions such as ‘teachers must help students believe in their ability to learn’ (p.202).

Many people in higher education think of teaching as a thing apart from other student experience, so it is mind altering to read: ‘Creating a classroom experience that acknowledges campus life experiences is an important approach to fostering students’ connections to campus’ (p.201). There is continual mention of the importance of students needing to feel a sense of belonging on campus.

The publication acknowledges that in South Africa, as in the United States, ‘increased participation in effective educational practices exercises a small yet positive impact on the academic performance’ (p.12). By ‘educational’ it is clear from the publication that the entire university environment from mission to policy to programmes and practices are part of the students’ experience and engagement.

It is also clear that by using data one can move away from ‘myth’ and perception to evidence-based practices to improve student engagement, experience and success on the one hand, and teaching and support practices on the other.

Engaging Students: Using evidence to promote student success by F Strydom, G Kuh and S Loots (2017) is published by Sun Press.