Laura Gutierrez Vite
Student engagement has been regarded as a vehicle for success in higher education. Extensive research in the field has revealed the unequivocal effect of student engagement in academic outcomes and persistence (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, & Kinzie, 2008), because “the more actively engaged students are — with college faculty and staff, with other students, and with the subject matter they study — the more likely they are to learn, to stick with their studies, and to attain their academic goals” (McClenney, Marti, & Adkins, n.d., p.1).
In Mexico, the lack of success evidenced by high dropout rates or grade repetition in public universities, depends on both institutional factors (teaching quality, administration issues, etc.) and personal characteristics of students (socioeconomic situation, motivation, etc.) (De Vries, León-Arenas, Romero-Muñoz, & Hernández-Saldaña, 2011). Accordingly, international literature suggests that an effective higher education system depends on a successful link between universities and individual students. Such relationship is precisely conceived as ‘student engagement’ (Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2006).
The present study is conducted at the Faculty of Chemistry of a Mexican public university (named as Mexican University). In such unit, three main issues have been identified in terms of student engagement. First, a large body of student engagement practices have been implemented aiming at increasing persistence and retention, as well as improving the student experience. The list of practices ranges from first-year interventions, remedial courses, financial strategies to counselling and well-being events. Unfortunately, little is known the extent of success of such academic and non-academic practices from the student’s perspective.
Second, a weak students’ voice on university matters prevails at this institution. De Garay-Sánchez (2013) believes that undergraduates in Mexico remain ‘an unexplored territory”. According to the author (2004), Mexican institutions will successfully integrate students to the university system as long as institutions deeply understand students’ social, cultural and academic practices. Consequently, the student engagement initiatives offered at this university appear to be underdeveloped or disconnected from students’ factual needs.
Third, a strong orientation towards non-regular students or first-year students neglects the attention to the rest of the student body, throughout the whole academic program. On this matter, Cinobau (2013) argues that “supporting and enhancing the student experience (academic, social, welfare and support) from first contact through to becoming alumni is critical to success in higher education today for both the student and the institution” (p.169).
Therefore, as an area worthy to study, the overall purpose of this research is to advance student’s perspectives concerning the impact of engagement practices on the undergraduate experience, with a view to identifying successful practices and recommendations for improvement.
Based on the research problems and gaps discussed above, this study attempts to answer the following central research question:
From the student’s perspective, to what extent are the student engagement practices successful at the Faculty of Chemistry of the Mexican University?
In order to answer the central research question, four research sub-questions have been formulated:
A wide variety of conceptions of student engagement have emerged across the world. Back in time, the conception is rooted in the importance of social and academic integration of students into universities (Tinto 1975; 2009). Today, one of the most influential definitions, originated in the United Sates, defines student engagement as the time and effort devoted by students to educationally effective practices and what institutions do to induce students to participate in these activities (Kuh, 2009). Therefore, student engagement involves both student’s behaviours and institutional conditions in order to produce multiple and desirable university outcomes, such as retention, attainment, learning and satisfaction (Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J.A., Bridges, B.C., & Hayek, J.C., 2006).
Given the multidimensional nature of student engagement, Zepke & Leach (2010) have proposed a ‘holistic’ conceptual organizer based on a synthesis of 93 studies on student engagement from ten countries: USA (38), Australia (29), UK (11), New Zealand (7), South Africa (2), China (2), Spain (1), South Korea (1), Israel (1) and France (1).
Furthermore, the conceptual organizer has been refined through student interviews in the same context (Leach, & Zepke, 2011), which has been identified as the most suitable reference to elaborate a conceptual framework for this dissertation. Accordingly, the adapted conceptual framework for the Mexican context consists of four lenses of engagement (Fig. 1):
Fig. 1. Conceptual framework (Created by the Author, 2016)
In order to answer the research questions, two main research paths are undertaken: an in-depth literature review and a data collection allowed by the development of a measurement instrument of student engagement practices. The following elements are considered for the construction of such instrument.
The measurement instrument comprises a quantitative section which collects student’s views through a 5-point Likert scale, followed by three qualitative open-ended questions which explore more in-depth on student experiences. In this respect, data collection involves a transformative mixed methods approach, meaning “those in which the researcher uses a theoretical lens as an overarching perspective within a design that contains both qualitative and quantitative data” (Creswell, 2009, p. 15) in a single study or a program of interest. This combination allows a comprehensive analysis of the unit from different perspectives rather than using separately either quantitative or qualitative and helps reduce gaps on findings (Bulsara, n.d.).
Data is collected by using a web-based tool provided by Fountain Park Oy from Finland. Such instrument allows a participatory method where students express their experiences in their own words through a virtual brainstorming. Furthermore, respondents can read and evaluate other participant’s responses over a virtual dartboard. It is noteworthy to mention that such tool has been successfully applied for strategic development of higher education in Finland (Fountain Park Oy, 2015).
Concerning the sample selection, a random sampling has been applied. The target population are students from all academic years (1st to 9th semester). The survey has been administered to 683 undergraduates in Spanish language by the Student Affair’s Office.
Since the research design, variables, methods and measurement procedures are developed by the author, validity and reliability tests are performed, using the statistics package IBM SPSS Statistics 23.0. Similarly, Likert-scale data is analysed by using descriptive statistics with SPSS, and summarized by comparing the frequency of responses, as suggested by Hall (n.d.).
In addition, qualitative data is analysed through a Text Miner application. The frequency of themes mentioned by students are enumerated and classified. For the last open-ended question, the web-based tool categorizes the evaluations provided by students on a virtual dartboard; the correspondent results are displayed by the web-based tool comparing responses in terms of relevance vs disagreement.
Finally, quantitative and qualitative data are merged and discussed. One advantage of this approach is that qualitative data might be useful to interpret quantitative responses (Driscoll, Appiah-Yeboah, Salib, & Rupert, 2007), as well as to identify signals not anticipated in the survey design.
The following figure synthetizes the research methods.
Fig. 2. Research methods (Created by the Author, 2016)
This study has revealed the impact of a wide range of engagement practices on the undergraduate experience. From the students’ perspective, successful engagement practices take place both inside and beyond the classroom, in line with engagement literature. Tinto (1997) emphasizes the importance of classrooms or labs as gateways to engage students in curriculum. Moreover, out-of-class practices are purposeful educational experiences (Kuh, et al, 2006). Both aspects foster interactions among students and faculty and provide meaningful learning experiences.
The closed-ended questions have been responded by 213 undergraduates: 55.9% are female and 44.1% male undergraduates, from all academic semesters. Reliability and validity tests have proved to be favourable allowing the quantitative data analysis. The following section summarizes the most relevant findings based on the conceptual framework.
Motivation towards studies is another key element for engagement in universities. To the statement “I feel motivated towards my studies” almost 30% of Chemistry students strongly agree, plus 44.1% who agree with the statement. The rest of the sample population indicates a neutral perspective (15.0%); a smaller percentage disagree (6.1%) or strongly disagree (5.2%).
77.5% students indicate that family help them continue with their university studies. To the question: What is your main financial support that allows you studying at the university level? 62.7% says family, 18.8% of support comes from scholarships, 9.6% from a job, 8.3% are savings and 0.6% mentioned partners as main financial support.
High levels of satisfaction are reported: 21% students are very satisfied and 60% are satisfied; only 11% students are neutral, 7% are dissatisfied and 1% very dissatisfied with the overall student experience at the Faculty of Chemistry. This study also asked students to evaluate a set of engagement aspects which have provide them with a meaningful experience: the two most important elements determining a meaningful educational experience are quality of teachers and experimental work in laboratories. Interestingly, the less popular factor is the first-year experiences (tutoring program, academic advising and remedial mathematics).
Within the lens of institutional support, academic conferences (extracurricular activity) delivered by eminent scholars is one of the most successful engagement practices organized at the Faculty of Chemistry. Students value academic conferences as learning spaces to discover current scientific research and real-life applications of Chemistry “[...] because in class, such specific applications are not taught”. In addition, conferences act as orientation mechanisms to decide the course of student’s careers and future orientations. As a matter of fact, students are learning crucial aspects of the field mainly out of the classroom.
Likewise, mentored research is another successful engagement practice in the sense that undergraduates can collaborate in faculty-initiated research during break periods, gain experimental skills in the laboratory, define career paths and develop motivation towards graduation.
Regarding first-year experiences, personal tutoring shows a weak impact among first and second year students. International literature points out tutoring programs as solid supporters of transition, engagement and academic performance in universities, particularly for first-year students (Rhoden & Dowling, 2006).
On other hand, from student’s views, academic advising offered by professors and advanced students inside and out of class, is prominent to their experience, not only during the first year but throughout their whole study program.
In terms of transactional engagement, both quantitative and qualitative data has proved that quality of teachers and teaching practices are fundamental factors for students. Indeed, such aspects has been ranked as factors for a meaningful educational experience. The research has also revealed important deficiencies pedagogy and teacher evaluation.
In addition, the empirical part evidences a low peer interaction, especially with student representatives. In this regard, students claim for “closer interaction with teachers, administration staff and student representatives.” Regrettably, the Mexican education system is characterized by a poor student involvement in university development, at least compared to other higher education systems in the world.
As a matter of fact, this study has provided an overview of the impact of student engagement practices at a Mexican university. Despite a vast number of recommendations can be drawn from this research, four practical recommendations are formulated. Primarily, the unit should focus on the revealed strengths: prioritize support and visibility of both academic conferences and mentored research program. Concerning the areas for improvement, the main priorities should be: a strategic focus on teacher professional development as well as strengthening first-year experiences, particularly the personal tutoring program which has been promoted by the rectorate at institutional level.
In summary, this dissertation has added value to the field of Mexican higher education in multiple ways. First, it has provided a holistic perspective of the student engagement as a strategic focus for university development. Second, it has produced evidence-based information for decision-making and improvement of the undergraduate experience, and third, it emphasizes the value of students’ views.
As final words, as long as higher education institutions shift their focus towards strengthening engagement, assessing its impact and understanding deeply the whole undergraduate experience from the student’s perspective, it will be possible to focus on those areas worth to invest, enhance or innovate.
This investigation provides various insights for further research. First, the Faculty of Chemistry should measure the impact of student engagement practices over time with a more representative sample population. Second, involvement of other key stakeholders is highly recommended; particularly, collecting academic managers’ and teaching staff’s perspectives on the findings of this research is indispensable, through qualitative interviews or the use of innovative IT tools (such as Fountain Park’s tool). Lastly, the impact of student engagement practices on specific outcomes such as dropout, persistence and graduation rates should be investigated.
Special thanks to all individuals that anyhow contributed to this dissertation, especially to my main supervisor, Profr. Dr. Frank Ziegele, my second supervisor Mr. Bastian Thiebach, to Fountain Park Oy in Finland, to all members of the MARIHE consortium, and last but not least to the principals and students in Mexico who collaborated in this research.
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