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Keeping student engagement inclusive: reflections for 2021

08 Dec 2020 | Jess Moody Our December Connect Member Benefit theme is student engagement in teaching and learning. Jess Moody, Senior Adviser at Advance HE, reflects on lessons learned and questions raised about keeping engagement inclusive in challenging times.

In November, colleagues examined the question of student retention – the long term challenges, but also the new landscape of pandemic pedagogy, place and community. Building on this, in December we look at Engaging Learners: Any time? Any place? Anyhow?

And always the crucial question: are we leaving anyone behind?

Inclusive design; responsive delivery

Inclusive design is as important as ever – more so perhaps in a world where we have rapidly changed our modes of delivery, session designs, course structures, and perhaps how we approach group or peer interactions. We might ask questions such as:

  • Who is this activity, session or programme designed for? (what assumptions might be made about who will succeed?)
  • Which students may be privileged by our structures, platforms, ways of working, or approach? Which students may be marginalised or excluded?
  • What does the educator bring to the space (positionality, privilege, bias, experience)?
  • Who will we see, hear, listen to or engage with?
  • What needs do we anticipate? How do we minimise or mitigate labour in requesting individual adjustments?
  • What are our values? Who will feel safe here?

When needs are still changing, and programme leads and teachers are faced with their own challenges and disruptions, this ‘inclusive design’ may be hard to ‘get right’ for everyone, every time. So how do we stay listening to students? How to we keep up a dialogue to understand whether they are continuing to connect to their material, appreciate new ways of learning, and feel confident in seeking support from peers and staff alike?

What do students want?

Students are of course not homogenous, and engagement in learning or activities may not always ‘look’ the same for different people. On top of questions of mode, discipline and level of study we also have the lens of different and intersecting identities, backgrounds, and experiences of marginalisation or exclusion, on top of pandemic-related questions of anxiety, risk, shielding and self-isolation.

That’s all tricky for an educator to balance, whether we’re talking about questions such as ‘camera on or off’, whether to use humour and games, how much to support group work, or how creative to get with our different platforms. But we can listen, and understand, and adapt.

Here’s just a small range of some recent learnings from students sharing their own experiences of engaging learning experiences this year.

  • Students in our November Connect Benefit strand on student retention praised: variety and careful ‘packaging’ of activity and learning; tutor responsiveness; and providing a framework as a reference point for a session. Discussions highlighted that crucial element: when things are tough, what is the implication of not enjoying – and connecting – meaningfully with content?
  • In collaboration with sparqs (Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland), students shared their Top Tips for student engagement in an online environment. Themes include building a sense of belonging and community, and practical suggestions around ensuring student reps are empowered.
  • The Disabled Students Commission Roundtables in England contributed to guidance about priorities for term start.
  • Students and staff alike continue to explore how to enhance belonging, meaning and engagement (as well as social and epistemic justice) through efforts to decolonise institutions and disciplines. Hear from PhD student and Doctoral tutor Daniel Akinbosede on decolonising Science; university alumna Fezile Sibanda on Afrocentric perspectives, and many other student and SU voices in Advance HE blogs during Black History Month.
  • Tens of thousands of students responded to our engagement surveys. UKES found increased partnership and staff interactions for some undergraduates during lockdown, and high engagement amongst students living at home. Perhaps a ‘decentring’ of the campus experience benefited commuter students, who have often felt more isolated and less engaged. The UKES 2020 findings also reinforce previous trends that students from UK ethnic minority backgrounds report greater levels of engagement overall. For PG Taught and PG Research there were mixed pictures, for example, with improvements for some disabled students, but not others.
  • The UK National Union of Students surveys in summer demonstrated key demographic differences still around students’ day-to-day realities, such as getting enough sleep, being in safe accommodation, and generally concerns about their own wellbeing or those around them.
  • Back in the Spring, students at Nankai University shared an early platform with their professors to discuss the challenge of being on screen, the digital divide, and connecting with others. 


What have we learnt?

The pandemic exposed and exacerbated a range of inequalities in higher education, not least the ‘digital divide’ and its impact on how a student connects, engages, and learns digitally and at distance. For educators, learning and technology developers, library staff, disability services, student support, student unions, guilds and representatives, this has been the year where we all became students again.

For many, the shifts of 2020 have been seen as proof that change and pedagogy that centres community and compassion can happen at scale, and fast. For others, the optimism is cautious, for the labour that has gone into this was enormous and exhausting, raising the question of sustainability and sufficient resource going forward to 2021 unknown.

Feedback loops and ‘students as partners’ approaches to understanding levels of belonging and engagement in their learning are helping staff to navigate these difficult times, and hopefully build educators’ confidence: either in trialling new ways of teaching where these might be needed, or protecting those values and methods which they know are precious and vital to student success.

We hope that some of the conversations this month and continuing support from Advance HE around inclusive learning and teaching will be useful in helping your own institution continue to support students in this most challenging year. Stay…engaged.


Jess Moody is a Senior Adviser at Advance HE focusing on inclusion across the staff and student lifecycles. She works with institutions on issues such as inclusive curricula and teaching, equality policy and analysis, and tackling structural inequalities.

Advance HE Member Benefit

Join us at 09:30 (GMT) on 9 December in a webinar where we will explore a variety of practical solutions to promote active learning and engagement for all students through the use of #52etc, our 52 Engaging Toolkit Cards. Find out more and book your place

Find out more about the December Connect Member Benefit Series


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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