Diversity in student engagement: how students behave, feel and learn in a distance course

K C Li and Helen H K Lam
The Open University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong SAR, China

Research on how students engage in their studies provides useful information for planning and improving study programmes and courses. Student engagement plays a central role in educational quality (Kuh 2009; Hagel, Carr and Delin 2012), with strong empirical support relating it to important educational outcomes (Appleton, Christensen and Furlong 2008).

One effective way of uncovering how students engage in learning is to examine closely what they do, feel and mentally process in their course of study. This paper discusses an ongoing project which investigates in depth the experiences of distance learning students. It focuses on how six students engaged in a distance learning course with an online learning platform. Details of their behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement were collected through weekly interviews with the students over a semester. The results suggest that the students approached the course with varied motivations and engaged in learning in highly diverse ways. Most participants went about their learning in ways which differed substantially from the intended approach to study. For example, the amount of time they spent on studying the course was irregular, with their engagement appearing to be affected deeply by the workload in their full-time jobs or other study commitments, assignment deadlines and tutorial times. Also, age emerged as one key factor for engagement. Older students tended to show a learning-goal orientation (a tendency to learn the course concepts and skills) rather than a performance orientation (a tendency to focus on obtaining a pass score for the course). The students showed little interest in any online discussion of course content. They were given both a printed and an online version of the study material, but they seldom used the online version. The traditional printed version is still the main tool for self-study, with the online version just being used for convenience and higher efficiency in completing assignments. In addition, in contrast to the general belief, there was no sign that younger students had a greater tendency to use their mobile devices to study the course material. The implications of the findings for pedagogical design are also discussed.