The Importance of Engagement in the Learning Experience

Engagement is literally everywhere you look! In the news, political speeches, education policy, business strategies and big data analyses. Everyone is engaging in specific activities all day long – even if that activity is ‘not engaging’ e.g. Meditation or Mindfulness – you are still engaging! Wherever you travel in the world, how people engage may change, but they engage just the same. In politics too, where the Higher Education sector claimed that ‘Students [are] at the Heart of the System’ (BIS, 2011), engagement has become a buzzword, for individual politicians and institutional leaders alike. The use of the word is largely in relation to student engagement, but other sectors in business are also starting to utilise the word and identify metrics for employees and customers. In the US, engagement researcher George Kuh has been creating a mass of data which shows that when students engage more, the impact can be profound. Engagement data, as measured by the National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE), has been shown to have positive impacts on retention, student success and achievement of learning outcomes (Kuh, 2003).

Not only is engagement a key cross-cultural and political buzzword, it is part of early habit development. I have been aware of the impacts of being engaged since my participation at the age of 6 in my school play. I invite you to think back to a memorable occasion in your formative years: did you engage in something beyond your compulsory education which resulted in a positive or negative experience? Did you continue to engage? Why did you perceive it to be positive or negative and did you think it was more the benefits or a perceived competency (or not)? I noticed that my engagement in the school play led to lots of comments like: ‘well done’, ‘oh you were wonderful’ and ‘isn’t he adorable’. On one level, this is simple reward and punishment, activating my salivation for praise, turning me into one of Pavlov’s experiments. However, having now watched my own children in school nativity plays and engaging with certain research findings that point to the importance of positively perceived engagements at this stage of learning new skills/activities (Bandura, 1997), I realise now, how important perceptions of such formative experiences can be in building habits for the future and self-confidence.

Student Engagement

Research suggests that when children engage in ‘acts of engagement’, their perceptions of whether that engagement was worthwhile, or that they were able to engage successfully, is key to the future formation of habits and future engagements (Lawson and Lawson, 1998). To give you another anecdotal example, I was 12 when I decided to give the great English classic of cricket a go. I loved other sports like football, cycling, coasteering and basketball – so why not cricket? I was physically active, fairly well co-ordinated (which I attribute to hours of Sonic and NBA Jam on the Megadrive with my brother) and had quite the competitive spirit. So picture this adventurous young lad, walking to the crease and having only ever held a rounders bat (which is about a third of the size of baseball bat) attempting to wield this small tree, shaped like a cricket bat. Only when you are stood there, apprehensively awaiting this rock solid ball traveling towards you – at what seems to be the speed of a meteorite – can you understand the anxiety, mixing wildly with adrenaline. The adrenaline for me did not mask the fear and the inexperience, which must have been evident by my awkward posture and the bowler (sensing this) delivered his fastest and most accurate bowl of the the day, resulting in a ‘Golden Duck’ (out on the first ball). Unsurprisingly, I vowed that cricket was not for me and for 12 years, that experience informed me that the effort was not worth it neither in benefits, nor for my competency.

Fast forward 12 years. I had studied my BSc Sports Science and Coaching and MSc Sports Psychology, when I was invited to play a staff match at the University of Winchester. I got over the fact that I thought ‘any sport you can play for 5 days and still draw was not for me’ and decided to book some time in the nets (I even hit a few good ones). The day came and my opportunity to bat, too. As I walked across to the crease, for the second time in my life, I realised I was happy to be trying again. I stood and awaited the first ball, bat by my feet and eyes fixed on the ball… an eternity passed and I felt in the zone, the other players vanished, time stopped and I watched in slow motion as the bowler approached – the ball left his hand spinning like the earth in orbit and I followed its course all the way to my bat, or at least to where I thought my bat was. The ball seemed to keep going through my bat as I looked down at it, and then completely ripped one of my stumps out of the ground – GOLDEN DUCK again – arrrggggghhhh!!! I quit (at least in my mind – I still had to field for another 90 mins)! I have never touched a cricket bat since!

Lucky for me, I had other extra curricular interests (including other sports) which sustained my lifelong belief that ‘engaging in learning is always worth the effort and that I can learn from anyone, anywhere and anytime’. I also understand that we will never have enough time to master every sport. My cricket experience probably is someone else’s maths algorithm nightmare, failed science experiment or being a class prefect (but that’s a different story).

Children have experiences from which they infer a lifelong belief or choice based on one negative high stakes interaction. To serve our children’s potential, we should create powerful learning environments and scaffold their learning experiences. What our children engage in is so powerfully influenced by society, advertising and perceived normalised roles that as parents and teachers we have to actively re-balance it. Both my 7-year-old daughter and my 4-year-old son love: science, maths, art and reading. I attribute a large part of this to our conscious decision to buy them both solar panel robots, engineering sets and the inevitable Lego sets; in addition to making them bedtime babies, doing face-paints/artwork and reading poems. By introducing them to those activities in spaces where failure, or the likelihood of perceived failure, is reduced i.e. not in a competitive or ego situation where the comparison to others can be reduced, learning can be for mastery and enjoyment. Research has shown the importance of creating learning environments that embed sources of self efficacy (e.g. performance accomplishments) and exhibit autonomy-supportive behaviours (e.g. providing choice within boundaries) that engender a focus on intrinsic motivations (Mageua and Vallerand, 2003). In the future, creating learning experiences within digitally enhanced ‘personal learning environments’ that draw on learner analytics, will enable a more student-centred, personal, adaptive and engaging learning experience.


BIS Department for Business Innovation and Skills (2011) Students at the heart of the system. (Accessed: 26 January 2016).

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The exercise of control (2nd Ed.), New York, NY: W.H.Freeman & Co.

Kuh, G.D. (2003) What we’re learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for effective educational practices, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 35, (2), 24–32.

Lawson, M.A. & Lawson, H.A. (2013) New conceptual Frameworks for student engagement research, policy, and practice, Review of Educational Research, 83, (3), 432–479.

Mageau, G.A. & Vallerand, R.J. (2003) The coach–athlete relationship: A motivational model, Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, (11), 883–904.