Student Engagement and Student Success: It’s all about belonging

Universities have long contended that what students take from their time with us is more than just what they get on the course. It’s the opportunity they have for personal development and the life experiences they get from the opportunity to broaden their horizons, meet new people, try new things.

The research, much from the USA and Australia, backs up this contention. Vicki Trowler (2010) in a review of student engagement research presents a significant body of literature showing the correlation between student involvement in certain types of ‘educationally purposive activities’ and ‘positive outcomes of student success’.

Fig 1. Student involvement and student success
Fig 1. Student involvement and student success

What is so interesting is that the mix described above is almost all best served via the student’s own academic department. Of course a wider university, with its exciting opportunities for co and extra-curricular activities and its excellent systems of support and advice is crucial in our large and complex institution. But, a look at the crucial types of engagement suggests that it is to the academic home where we need to focus if student engagement, and hence student success, is to be fostered.

Is it good for everybody?

…engagement increases the odds that any student – educational and social background notwithstanding – will attain his or her educational and personal objectives, acquire the skills and competencies demanded by the challenges of the twenty-first century, and enjoy the intellectual and monetary advantages associated with the completion of the baccalaureate degree. Kuh (2009: 698)

How do we foster engagement at department level?

Although the National Student Survey is much maligned, most people would agree that the best departments do come to the top. So, what are their students actually saying about their department? Taken from the free text comments of students from one high-scoring Liverpool department where 40 written responses were made:

Fig 2. Examples of positive NSS free text comments from one UoL Department
Fig 2. Examples of positive NSS free text comments from one UoL Department

The comments are uncannily reflective of the list drawn up by Coates given above. Of course, it’s more difficult to achieve in a very large department. But not impossible. Where these students had complaints (13 of them) about resources, organisation or timely feedback, they were matched by plaudits for staff (39 positive comments) . 

Students do well when they feel a sense of belonging to a department, where they can engage with staff and with the discipline, where they can broaden their horizons and develop as individuals. Although any student engagement survey is flawed it is clear that getting the atmosphere and culture of the department right will go a very long way to ensuring that students will do well. What is also interesting is how important this ‘belonging’ seems to be for graduates:

When graduates are emotionally attached to their college or university, they are two times more likely to be thriving in all elements of well-being, and they are two times more likely to be engaged with their jobs. These interconnections make it important to look at the strength of the existing emotional bonds between graduates and their alma maters and what may contribute to them (Gallup, 2014, p.17).

The role of the institution

The institution, from the Head of Department up, has a role to play; academics need the time and the support to do the job well. Pascarell et al (2010) go as far as to suggest that, if an institution were to only focus on the processes (in supporting engagement) student outcomes would look after themselves. Foster (2012) and colleagues developed a useful model to describe the institution’s role. As Liverpool takes forward the new strategic plan, this model might help to guide a key element of our education strategy. According to the model we will need to consider how our academic, social and other services combine to support a sense of belonging in our students. This will require the university to offer support and training for staff as well as development for students, for example in team working, or in making use of extra curricula activities to build their skills.

Fig 3. A Framework for Developing Social Integration and Student Belonging (Foster et al 2012)
Fig 3. A Framework for Developing Social Integration and Student Belonging (Foster et al 2012)


Anne Qualter



Coates, H. (2009) Engaging Students for Success – 2008 Australasian Survey of Student Engagement. Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research

Foster, E., Lawther, C., Keenan, S., Bates, N., Coley, C., & Lefever, R (2012) ‘The HERE Project Toolkit’ , Nottingham Trent University

Gallup (2014) Great Jobs, Great Lives; The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report: A study of more than 30.000 college graduates across the US: Purdue University

Kuh, G.D. (2009) What Student Affairs Professionals Need to Know about Student Engagement. Journal of College Student Development. 50 (6), pp. 683–706.

Pascarella, E.T., Seifert, T.A. and Blaich, C. (2010) How Effective Are the NSSE Benchmarks in Predicting Important Educational Outcomes? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. 42 (1), pp. 16–22.

Trowler, V. (2010) Student Engagement Literature Review; Higher Education Academy

Trowler , V. and Trowler, P. (2010) ‘Student Engagement Evidence Summary’ Higher Education Academy Student Engagement Project June 2010; Higher Education Academy