September 2018

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In a published interview, author and professor, Robert E. Quinn describes his observations of teaching at a higher education institution (HEI).

“I taught on a university campus where the main building was constructed with long rows of classrooms and each one had a big window. As I walked along I could look in on each class … As I passed the classes, I would ask myself what was happening in each one. I never had to look at what the teacher was doing. All I had to do was look at the body language of the students … In the majority of the classes, the students were draped over their desks, only half awake,” he said.

Such apparently withdrawn students may be detrimental to a HEI’s service and its survivability given the increasingly competitive market.

The competition between HEIs for students means that students are becoming more like ‘customers’ of the institutions’ service. Historically, service quality and higher education seemed about as compatible as oil and water. Students are now more savvy and selective in their choice of a HEI, often relying on university rankings (The UWI recently ranked 37th among universities in the Caribbean and Latin America).

This change, accompanied by shifting socio-economic conditions such as globalization, withdrawal of funding for education, and emphasis on graduation rates, means that HEIs must transition towards a service quality mentality in order to attract students. If students become dissatisfied, enrolment figures can fall and this in turn can negatively influence funding and job security.

In a race to provide the best student ‘experience’, the term ‘student engagement’ has captured the spotlight in the HEI context. Despite the popularity of student engagement, there is surprisingly little regard for its meaning. In fact, educational researchers explicitly acknowledge that there is considerable ambiguity with respect to the definition and scope of student engagement. For instance, student engagement has often been defined according to its measurement by popular student engagement surveys such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) used in Canada and the US.

The NSSE contains questions such as, ‘During the current school year, how often have you had discussions with … people with religious beliefs other than your own?’ The approach of using such wide-ranging scope of questions to conceptualize student engagement is counterintuitive to the theoretical development of student engagement because (1) operational definitions follow conceptualizations in scientific research and not the other way around, and (2) student engagement becomes an all-encompassing construct riddled with ambiguity and fuzziness. Evidently, there is a need to clearly outline what constitutes student engagement.

One approach to conceptualizing student engagement is to adopt the conceptual features of engagement from the organizational behaviour discipline. Within this discipline, the concept of engagement has matured more than in the education discipline by focusing on what it means to be ‘engaged’. Borrowing from organizational behaviour, the scope of student engagement can be narrowed so that engagement is characterized by high levels of activation.

The idea that student engagement can be characterized by activation is not completely new. In the early 1990s, educational researchers distinguished between two types of engagement – procedural and substantive. Procedural engagement is characterized by normal or ‘undistinguished’ activity. Here, students ‘go through the motions’ in order to develop competence in academic activities. In contrast, substantive engagement transcends procedural engagement, and is characterized by meaningful and highly energetic activity. From this perspective, there is a clear similarity between substantive student engagement and the concept of work engagement from organizational behaviour research.

Both (1) the concept of substantive student engagement and (2) empirical studies using work engagement measures adapted for the HEI context, emphasize high activation for engagement. Accordingly, the eclectic concept of student engagement in extant educational research needs to shed its procedural aspects in order to have value as a distinct concept that would be aligned with the latest developments in organizational behaviour approaches to engagement. In this view, student engagement refers to highly activated emotional (passionate feelings and beliefs), behavioral (demonstrations of initiative, proactivity, and/or innovation), and cognitive (deeply immersed and focused) involvement in academic activities. This definition of student engagement describes a state of activation that surpasses student satiation/satisfaction and even motivation. Following this definition, researchers and practitioners should consider using recently adapted measures of engagement from organizational behaviour research that capture
the activated state of student engagement.

Dr. Paul Balwant is a lecturer in OB & HRM at the Department of Management Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, UWI St. Augustine. This article is based on his publications in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, which can be read online ( and or at Paul’s personal webpage (