Skip to main content

Engaging with hard to reach, hard to teach students in HE

13 Mar 2020 | Ann Marie Mealey Dr Ann Marie Mealey, Senior Teaching Fellow at Leeds Trinity University, shares a brief summary of some of the key approaches introduced at the recent ‘Hard to Reach, Hard to Teach’ Innovation in Teaching Practice workshop, and gives her thoughts on how the techniques and strategies discussed on the day could work with her student cohorts.

When we think of good models of programme and module design, we often begin by articulating the Learning Outcomes – aligning them against assessment - and teaching students from there. We accommodate ‘settling down’ and shuffling of bags etc before we introduce our session and articulate the learning outcomes and rarely think of the need to really engage students from the moment they arrive at our lecture/seminar.

Kathy Wright and Dr Warren Kidd, leaders of the ‘Hard to Reach, Hard to Teach’ workshop, however, contend that a ‘do now’ exercise can often prompt engagement from the moment students arrive in the learning environment as it gets them thinking and working immediately. After attending the workshop, I tried a ‘do now’ exercise with my students and even they were surprised at the results!

One student commented: ‘Wow, Ann Marie, you’re really on it today!’

A quick online questionnaire, group activity, leading question, or ‘warm up’ activity can foster engagement instantly and get the learning going as quickly as possible in any session.

Keep the Golden Thread

This is just one example. A further technique highlighted on the programme was the need to keep the ‘Golden Thread’ - or the key ideas that underpin the module - clear to the students at all times as an imperative to fostering good student engagement. When students no longer know why a lecturer is doing things in this way or that, they lose interest and often think, ‘I just cannot understand what this module is about or what this lecturer is trying to do. I give up!’. 

Lecturers need to take these considerations seriously: we need to make the links between sessions and our curriculum design strategies clear to our learners.  If we don’t, we will lose them along the way.

The sequence of learning in a module might make sense to us as the experts in our subject discipline but we need to ensure that the ‘Golden Thread’ of ideas that runs through the module design is clear to our students. Otherwise their success will be hindered, rather than enabled, by our presumption that it is obvious why one session is followed by another.

Importance of vocabulary

Furthermore, for new learners, there is a need to introduce them to the vocabulary of our disciplines. A good introductory exercise that introduces students to the subject specific language of a discipline can really help with engagement and places a good foundation for learning in place for the rest of an academic programme. 

When I heard about this technique, I was really challenged to re-think the content of ‘INTRO Week’ for the programme that I co-ordinate (Philosophy, Ethics and Religion) at Leeds Trinity.  Engagement might well improve if students are introduced to the key terminology used in these disciplines from the outset rather than feeling overwhelmed or out of touch with the language being used by their lecturers as the programme progresses. This is something that I plan to address from the outset for my students next year.

Kathy and Warren also underlined the need to scaffold learning with a view to eventually taking learners to the point where they are ready to engage in lifelong learning by themselves.

In concrete terms, this means that our assessments, classroom tasks, and learning activities need to be explained in a coherent and logical way so that students are supported in their learning but also empowered to think and learn for themselves.

Pose, pause, pounce, bounce

Other useful techniques that were discussed on the day included using the ‘pose-pause-pounce-bounce’ style of questioning in seminars. Students are then learning from each other and participating in active learning as they have to listen to each other’s responses and questions in order to follow the thread of the discussion. Bloom’s taxonomy of question stems is helpful as it enables lecturers to pose questions at the right level of learning for each cohort of learners.

Digital curation, jig-sawing and mini plenaries - where students summarise the learning at the end of a session - were also among the techniques for fostering engagement discussed at the workshop.

Given that student progression, engagement and the attainment gap are key issues that every university is currently trying to engage with, this seminar provides a much-needed opportunity for academic staff to refresh their pedagogical approaches to student engagement and to share thoughts, techniques and ideas on how to attempt to address these issues pedagogically. 

I recommend this session to anyone who wishes to do an intensive course on the pedagogy underpinning student engagement and to meet and exchange ideas with other academics who are faced with the same challenges in a demanding and complex HE environment.

There is lots to learn, for those who are new to teaching in HE, and for the more experienced academic who would benefit from some ‘time-out’ to re-engage with some key teaching principles geared towards improving student engagement.


Find out more about Advance HE's Innovation in Teaching Practice workshops.

Our next workshop is on ‘Interdisciplinarity’ and takes place in Birmingham on 28 April. Find out more and book your place here.


Dr Ann Marie Mealey has taught ethics at Leeds Trinity University for 14 years. She leads the Philosophy, Ethics and Religion programme and is very interested in issues around student engagement.

She is the author of The Identity of Christian Morality (2009) and editor-in-chief of Perspectives in Social Justice (2018). She has also written on the ethics of stem cells, environmental ethics, Catholic Social Teaching and social justice from a faith perspective.

More recently, Ann Marie has been promoted to Senior Teaching Fellow and is the programme co-ordinator for the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at Leeds Trinity.  She is also the institutional lead for Fellowship applications.


Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter