Fostering student engagement with diverse cohorts: A case study of BAME undergraduate students

Tolulope Eboka, Associate Lecturer in Foundation Study Framework, FAST, UoN

Statement of the problem

The present study explores how to stimulate student engagement with diverse cohorts at the University of Northampton. However, there are several definitions of what student engagement might be, being that there are different types of engagement–  academic, institutional, cognitive, emotional, behavioural, cultural, social, intellectual, to name a few.  For this study, student engagement will be defined as ‘the time and efforts students devote to activities, empirically linked to desired outcomes of college and what institutions do to induce students to participate in these activities’ (Bryan, et al., 2018:2). This study focuses on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) undergraduate students, the need to focus on BAME undergraduate students is based on my observation over the years that they are less likely to actively participate in course or group work than their white peers, using similar engagement techniques.

This issue has become much more important for me as I presently conduct workshops to different groups of Foundation Study Framework BAME students and a large number of them do not actively engage in their classwork or the University online learning space. The importance of student engagement cannot be over emphasised as learning tends to suffer when students are dispassionate, bored, or otherwise ‘disengaged’, and success rate improves when students are inspired, inquisitive, interested, or engaged (Smith, 2018; Neves & Hillman, 2017).

In my experience, some BAME students do not actively participate in class/group work as a result of reduced sense of belonging, lower self-esteem, difficulty in engaging with class work; financial commitments and concern; cultural attitudes, part time jobs and caring responsibilities. Studies (Ross, et al., 2018; Smith, 2017; Milner, 2011) also suggest that reasons for non-engagement by BAME students are complex, and several factors – cultural, attitudinal, organisational, structural and financial.  The present study therefore employed some strategies and engagement techniques to address this problem, and propose recommended actions that can be taken to support BAME students to engage and become active participants in their own learning.

It is however important to note here that many of the difficulties (mentioned above) BAME students face in higher education learning may actually be applicable to all students. For example, statistics (Smith, 2018; Ross, et al., 2014) from universities across the United Kingdom (UK) shows that increasing number of students miss classes and a large proportion of all students report never working with other students on projects during class and also never working with classmates outside classes. It is no doubt that student engagement in their courses and in university life is a desirable undergraduate attribute, but emerging evidence suggest that this may be an area of concern.

Although student charters provide a guide to expectations in terms of engagement and behaviour in many UK institutions, it appears that universities are limited in terms of being able to influence directly an individual’s active participation in coursework. Students’ active engagement should include ‘explicit and proactive consultations, whereby opportunities are provided for students to express individual opinions, perspectives, experiences, ideas and concerns or extend to student partnerships in co-development or co-review of their courses’ (Smith, 2018: 2).

Literature review

A large and growing body of literature has investigated causes to students’ non-engagement and proffered some solutions. For example, several studies (Kumar, et al., 2018; Kent Union, 2016; Pickford, 2016; Milner, 2011) suggest the notion of cultural competency resulting from a combination of academic competence from the student as well as the tutor’s professional ‘efficacy’ when looking at overall academic performance and creating a positive learning environment to all cultures in a diverse setting. To some extent, some teachers put this into practice through the understanding of their cohorts. For example, understanding that Chinese students are deferential to the ‘professor’ and that ‘saving face’ is important – setting of discussion tasks to ‘anonymous’ can help participation without ‘fear’ of getting things wrong. To embed cultural awareness into teacher training consistently across all levels of education I believe, would help performance of BAME students across the board.

Tsay, et al., (2018) investigated how student participation can be increased within some undergraduate Year 2 students in the ‘business school of a post-1992 university in the UK’. The study was conducted using ‘gamification (game design elements and game thinking in non-game contexts)’ in addition to face-to-face classroom practices. The gamification course was implemented to a cohort of 136 students for two academic terms and result shows that student performance was significantly higher in those who engaged in the gamified system than in those who participated in traditional delivery. Also, Tsay, et al., (2018)’s finding points towards an argument that increased amount of tutor time spent on creating and facilitating online activities equates to higher levels of engagement and attainment. In my experience, frequent communication with students to remind/persuade/encourage them to complete the online activities is vital, whether gamification is used or not. I also think there needs to be a clear purpose. What seems to be missing from Tsay, et al., (2018)’s article is discussion of whether linking the online activities to assessments makes any difference to engagement. I have found that online activities tend to only be seen as important if they are linked to an assessment and often take a back-seat to the deadlines of written assessments across taught modules. Tsay, et al., (2018) however conclude that ‘gamification course’ might not be effective for educators who wants to develop engaging technology-mediated learning environments.

Similarly, Bryan, et al., (2018)’s study investigated ‘the extent to which technological tools utilized in online settings enhance public administration students’ engagement at the University of Nebraska. Results from Bryan, et al., (2018)’s study indicate that students are more likely to engage in online lessons if they frequently interact with peer students using technologies. However, my teaching experience shows that this is not always the case. The fact that some students are active on social media or frequently interact with their peer using technologies does not make them active participants in online lessons. In most cases, students are found to engage more in online activities when these are linked to assessments. More so, it is not clear if this is relevant to BAME students, discussion above shows that reasons for non-engagement by BAME students are several and complex.

A research was conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2016 to identify barriers which prevent Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students’ engagement in universities. The NUS found themes which suggest racism (through ignorance, unwitting prejudice, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping), feeling of isolation and reduced sense of belonging. The findings suggest that the level to which students feel supported and encouraged to be involved in their education plays a crucial role in their engagement. Therefore, there should be provision of opportunities for students to engage with staff, and racism or discrimination should be challenged in universities across the UK. The NUS (2016)’s study however, lack enough qualitative data and research to provide an empirical account of the experiences of BME students in UK universities.

Some classroom practices which are essential for general pedagogy is proffered by Milner (2011) – things like showing interest in students’ lives beyond the classes, not giving up on students and not letting them give up. Milner (2011) also delves into the importance of cultural groups who have lower self-esteem and a reduced sense of belonging. These issues (lower self-esteem and a reduced sense of belonging) are particularly relevant in my teaching experience with BAME students. Some techniques were directly related to culture such as using ‘live’ situations to challenge and adjust students’ viewpoints and perspectives. As well as the culture of care and collaboration which is positive towards cultural integration and development. Nonetheless, it is not clear how effective we can be as lecturers in some of these techniques – in that we see students once a week or even once a fortnight between 1-3 hours usually. Therefore, to develop meaningful relationships might be a challenge. The new Personal tutor (PT) structure can probably be a space for those meaningful relations to develop and the PT actually gets more involved with the student than is currently expected. This of course has resource implications, also, the learning and teaching model within higher education can make it difficult for a single teacher to build strong relations which can increase BAME students’ engagement outputs and quality of outputs.

Another literature (Ross, et, al., 2018), suggest that teachers’ approach to learning and teaching is a key component to students’ engagement. According to Ross, et, al., (2018), talks about race, unconscious bias and concerns about using wrong terms while teaching should be included in teachers’ training. Also, workshops and staff development meetings should be a safe space for staff to consider issues such as accessibility of curriculum, how students are represented in the curriculum and if the curriculum equips the students to work in a diverse world (Ross, et, al., 2018).

Further, Pickford (2016) argues the importance of identifying useful support and opportunities that could be provided to BAME students from the start of their HE experiences. For example: supporting staff networks for BAME, diversity and inclusion – these can help some BAME students to increase a sense of belonging to the university, something increasingly recognised as a major factor for reduced level of engagement in HE. Arguably, there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to fostering engagement with BAME students, rather teachers must be mindful of whom they are teaching, noting the range of needs that students will bring into the classroom. Definitely, the nature of students’ needs varies from classroom-classroom, from school-school, and from year-year.

As became apparent in the discussion above, reasons for non-engagement by BAME students are complex one, and several factors – cultural, attitudinal, organisational, structural and financial (Smith, 2017).  However, in relation to the groups I teach, the issue of a reduced sense of belonging and lower self-esteem are primary factors. Discussion (Ross, et, al., 2018; Milner, 2011) above however reveal that issues of reduced sense of belonging and lower self-esteem can be tackled with diversity, inclusion and techniques that are directly related to culture such as using ‘live’ situations to challenge and adjust students’ viewpoints and perspectives. Some of these strategies were employed to foster engagement with some of the BAME undergraduate groups I teach. The next section outlines the engagement technique used.

The intervention

As highlighted above, a reduced sense of belonging and lower self-esteem are primary factors for non-engagement by some of the BAME undergraduate students I teach. The ‘Tree of Me’ activity and some other teaching strategies (demonstrated below) were considered suitable to foster engagement amongst undergraduate BAME students. ‘Tree of Me’ is a type of activity that can be used to help students to identify their personal strengths, increase their sense of belonging and self-esteem (Weller, 2019).  The use of ‘Tree of Me’ activity is underpinned by Milner’s argument (2011) which recognises that students engage in activities based on their interpretation of the lesson and perspectives of themselves.  Milner recommend the use of ‘live’ situations/activities to challenge and adjust students’ viewpoints and perspectives of themselves. Arguably, a high self-esteem and sense of belonging can motivate students’ participation in Higher Education (HE) learning.

To this end, a peer observation of me conducting a ‘Tree of Me’ activity and some other teaching strategies to foster engagement in a group of BAME undergraduate students was planned. The peer observation of me carrying out this activity and other teaching strategies was needed to help me to understand better if the activity and my teaching strategies works and what can be done if it is not working successfully. The peer observation was also needed to understand if there is any aspect of my teaching that needs a change or development.

To ensure all relevant areas are covered, there was a 30-minute pre-observation meeting, this preparation was suitable to help clarify the learning goals for the process and to ensure my observer has key information of what to observe. The pre-observation was followed by a 2-hour peer observation, there were with 22 students in the class and the primary observation focus was student engagement. The peer observation ended with a post-observation which involved a discussion and written feedback from my observer. Learning gained from this peer observation is being put into practice. The following illustrates the ‘Tree of Me’ activity and other engagement strategies that were used during my observation.

Each student was given a handout of the ‘Tree of Me/Self Esteem Tree’ (see Figure 1), pencils and rubbers.

Tree of Me

Figure 1: Example of a ‘Tree of Me/Self Esteem Tree’

The students were divided into 5 groups and I started the activity by introducing the concept of positive qualities and personal strengths. The students were asked to list qualities that they value in a good friend. Since each group leader was chosen by the group members, each group was asked to provide ideas of positive characteristics found in their leader. Each leader’s name was written on his/her activity sheet (see Figure 1 above) and the sheet was passed around for group members to fill in with positive qualities. Students were encouraged to fill in one of the circles (see fig. 1) with a trait they like about themselves, for example, caring, resilient, creative, assertive and good sense of humour. The trees were completed one by one for each person in the group. After which, the students were encouraged to take the completed activity sheets to hang in their rooms at home as reminders of their positive qualities.

Whilst the ‘Tree of Me’ activity was going on, the students were also engaged intellectually, emotionally, behaviourally, socially and culturally. These forms of engagement strategies are in line with studies (Kumar, et, al., 2018; Milner, 2011) which recommend classroom practices, such as showing interest in students’ lives beyond the classes, and inclusion of curricular material that acknowledges the cultures of minority or disenfranchised students, as effective for engaging students. During the activity, we used ‘live’ situations to challenge and adjust students’ viewpoints and perspectives of themselves. We also examined the culture of care and collaboration which is positive towards cultural integration and development.

Intellectual engagement: In addition to the ‘Tree of Me’ activity, the day’s lesson was created to stimulate students’ curiosity. The students were asked to investigate and discuss a social issue of their choice. Some students chose to write their findings on a paper, while others produced a short audio documentary, and presentation. It was observed that these activities sparked students’ curiosity and increased engagement in the learning process.

Emotional engagement: A few strategies were used during the day’s lesson to promote positive emotions in students. These strategies further facilitated the learning process and minimized negative behaviours. For example, the classroom was re-arranged to make it more conducive to learning. I maintained good eye contact throughout the session, monitoring their progress and moods effectively, asking them how they were feeling. This was done to help the students feel supported and optimistic about their learning. Advisories were also given when needed to build strong teacher-student relationships. The theory behind doing this is that students will be more likely to succeed if the tutor is concerned about their academic and non-academic issues.

Behavioural engagement: The use of variation in a classroom routine can help to reduce potential disengagement and the monotony that may occur when students sit in the same for extended periods of time, doing similar work. Therefore, a consistent routine was established to ensure students remain engaged during the class, for example, each group was seated in circles during the ‘Tree of Me’ activity and group members had to move in circles whilst filling the activity handout.

Social engagement: Student engagement was also stimulated through social interactions. For example, the students were grouped to work collaboratively on investigating social issues of their choice and each group presented their findings to the class in a friendly competition.

Cultural engagement: The students’ investigation into different social issues promoted discussions from diverse cultural groups. Some students spoke about their cultural views and beliefs. I particularly modified the day’s lesson to incorporate the history and perspectives of the BAME students’ ethnicities represented in the class. It was observed that the students were particularly interested in the discussion, reflecting cultural diversity. The general goal of this strategies was to reduce the feelings of alienation, exclusion, or disconnection that some students may experience.

In addition to my observer’s feedback which shows that the students engaged actively in the day’s lesson, following Milner’s recommended classroom practices (2011) on how to foster engagement with diverse cohorts was productive. For example, all the students engaged actively in the online activity that was related to the lesson and there has been an improvement in their classwork.

This is not to deny that there were no issues with the ‘Tree of Me’ activity and other engagement strategies used. Feedback from my peer observer shows that some students were reluctant to openly discuss their cultural views. While the reason for this is not clear, I encouraged students to ask questions while the class was going on. I also planned the lesson in such a way that the students had some time to ask and answer questions related to the day’s lesson. The question time was used to encourage participation from non-contributing learners, drawing together contributions from various students. Also, my observer’s feedback shows that some of the students were discreet when asked to fill the ‘Tree of Me’ with positive qualities about their group members while a few others appeared to list qualities of their team mates based on what was listed for them. The implication of this is that some of completed ‘Tree of Me’ activity sheets which were given to the students as reminders of their positive qualities in order to help build their self-esteem might not be effective.

Discussion

Many studies (Tsay, et al., 2018; Kumar, et al., 2018; Smith, 2017; Kent Union, 2016; Pickford, 2016; Ross, at, al., 2014; NUS, 2016; Milner, 2011) have informed the techniques and strategies employed in the present study to foster student engagement. While some (for example: Ross, at, al., 2014; Milner, 2011) of the strategies were particularly recommended for BAME students, all of the techniques may actually be applicable to all students.  As demonstrated in this study, engagement is more than participation or involvement – it requires activity, sense making and feelings. These were achieved in this study with the use of ‘Tree of Me’ activity and other engagement strategies demonstrated above.  According to Trowler, (2010), feeling engaged without acting is dissociation and acting without feeling engaged can be described as compliance or involvement. The present case study demonstrated three dimensions to student engagement: Behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement (Trowler, 2010). Firstly, the present study suggests that students who are behaviourally engaged would typically comply with behavioural norms, such as involvement, attendance, and would demonstrate the absence of negative or disruptive behaviour. Secondly, students who engaged emotionally in the activity (Tree of Me) expressed affective reactions such as a sense of belonging, enjoyment and interest. As highlighted above, some of these students have since been actively engaged in on-line activities and attend classes regularly. Thirdly, most of the students were cognitively engaged, and Trowler (2010) points out that such students would relish challenge and seek to go beyond the requirements. This was demonstrated when each group presented their findings to the class in a healthy rivalry and student engagement in the biweekly groupwork has since improved.

This is not to deny that, there were no issues with the ‘Tree of Me’ activity and other engagement strategies used, feedback from my peer observation shows that some students were reluctant to openly discuss their cultural views. While the reason for this is not clear, I encouraged students to ask questions while the class was going on, I also planned the lesson in such a way that the students get some time to ask and answer questions related to the day’s lesson. The question time was used to encourage participation from non-contributing learners; drawing together contributions from various students. Also, my observer’s feedback shows that some of the students were discreet when asked to fill the ‘Tree of Me’ with positive qualities about their group members while a few others appeared to list qualities of their team mates based on what was listed for them. The implication of this is that some of completed ‘Tree of Me’ activity sheets which were given to the students as reminders of their positive qualities in order to help build their self-esteem might not be effective.

Further, it is acknowledged that there are evident limitations in this case study owing to the brief period of the intervention. For an effective and in-depth result, the strategies used would need to be applied and results observed for a significant period of time.  Also, caution must be applied as the present study lack first-hand data from the students involved.

Nevertheless, the present case study is significant in that the strategies and techniques used incorporated academic tasks that have significance and personal meanings for the students involved. Some of the students appeared very excited investigating and discussing different social issues in relation to their everyday sociocultural realities. Kumar (2018) points out that students are highly motivated to engage when their teachers acknowledge the legitimacy of their cultural heritage. The present study raises an interesting point with the notion of creating a positive learning environment to all cultures in a diverse setting.

Recommendations and plan for future studies

There are a number of important changes which need to be made to effectively improve student engagement (particularly BAME students) in HEI.  The following recommendations are offered as a starting point to assist institutions in reviewing their approach to student engagement.

  • Frequent communication with students to remind/persuade/encourage them to complete online activities is vital.
  • Lecturers should ensure that there is clarity of expectations of student responsibilities in terms of their engagement.
  • Group work should be utilised to promote integration between BAME and white students. Also, students should be discouraged from clustering along ethnic lines for seating arrangements in classes.
  • Reflect diversity in the curriculum, input should include Western and non-Western perspectives.
  • The Personal Tutor role should be improved – make processes less formal and more personal.
  • Lecturers should be welcoming, encouraging, and use every opportunity to address the negative perceptions of BAME students.

As highlighted in above, there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to fostering engagement with BAME students, rather teachers must be mindful of whom they are teaching, noting the range of needs that students will bring into the classroom. In some ways this case study has raised more questions than it has answered. Despite the extensive studies conducted on the issue of student engagement in universities across the UK, there is a need for more information from the perspectives of those involved. For example, few studies have focused on the welfare of undergraduate BAME students who have reduced sense of belonging without limiting discussion to attainment gap, this would also aid understanding of non-engagement by BAME students. Further, the present study was a relatively short term one, its findings cannot, therefore, be assumed to be generalisable. Further research needs to be done if many issues are to be clarified

In summary, it is apparent that factors that contribute to non-engagement are not limited to BAME student. The issue however is that some BAME students arrive already disadvantaged by a poorer learning experience than that of their peers, and are hence more likely to have a reduced sense of belonging or lower self-esteem. In addition to the recommendations mentioned above, support should be provided to BAME students from the start of their HE experience. For example, supporting staff networks for BAME can help some BAME students to increase a sense of belonging to the university, something increasingly recognised as a major factor for reduced levels of engagement.

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