Getting and Keeping Language Learners Engaged

This month we published Student Engagement in the Language Classroom edited by Phil Hiver, Ali H. Al-Hoorie and Sarah Mercer. In this post the editors explain how the book came about and why it’s important.

All three of us share an interest in the practicalities of getting learners engaged and keeping them engaged. As educators and researchers, we recognized for some years how this has become increasingly difficult in the face of the multitude of distractions competing for learners’ attention. In 2018, we met at the PLL3 conference in Japan. Sarah had already begun work with Zoltán Dörnyei exploring the notion of engagement in depth with a book aimed at educators concentrating on practical issues based on an underlying theoretical frame (Mercer & Dörnyei, 2020). However, all of us felt there was still a need for a greater research commitment to the construct of engagement in SLA. At PLL3, the inspiring relevant plenary by Richard Ryan sealed our resolve to bring such a collection of research papers together. Given its heritage, we are especially honored to have an introduction from Richard Ryan to preface the collection.

In our previous work, we had all seen that although learners may be motivated and want to learn, at the critical moment, their attention could be hijacked leaving them disengaged with the objectives of their learning despite their initial good intentions and motives. Clearly, motivation still has a role to play in understanding learning processes, but learner engagement seems to provide a critical link between learners’ intentions and their actions. What is the nature of engagement, how can it be fostered, and how does it connect with other key variables in language learning – these were some of the key questions driving our interest in compiling this exciting collection of papers.

To date, engagement in language learning has remained relatively unexplored apart from some notable pioneers who have conducted key studies in SLA. This book is intended to chart some of the territory of language learner engagement, pointing out the key areas that can be connected to and built upon but also new directions and avenues yet to be investigated. Engagement is a core foundation for successful learning. While motivation represents an intention to engage, engagement itself is the action state driving learning. Engagement is a complex, multifaceted construct comprised of affective, cognitive, social, and behavioural elements. It is closely interconnected with motivation but differs in its temporal and actional frame. It is a hugely important construct to comprehend, as without engagement, there will be no learning. We are excited to share this collection with you. We expect to continue to learn much more about engagement of different forms in the context of language learning and teaching in the years to come – our hope is that this collection can provide the impetus for that next wave of engagement research.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Contemporary Language Motivation Theory edited by Ali H. Al-Hoorie and Peter D. MacIntyre.

The Three As: Defining Engagement in Higher Education

This month we published International Student Engagement in Higher Education by Margaret Kettle. In this post, the author introduces her “three As” model for defining the concept of engagement and explains what inspired her to write the book.

Engagement is everywhere. When I go to meetings and presentations, and read policy documents, the word is pervasive. We have student engagement, community engagement, the importance of engaging with industry partners, and so on.  It is clear to me that the word has become a catch-all and that the concept is in danger of being washed out, and then possibly thrown out. My book International Student Engagement in Higher Education is an attempt to identify the components of what is a complex and elusive concept. To this end, I foreground international students’ experiences and utilise social practice to explain the multiple, interrelated dimensions of engagement. My model comprises three ‘A’s: antecedents to engagement, actions of engaging, and achievements and accomplishments flowing from engagement.

Antecedents to engagement include dominant forms of academic English as well as facilitative teaching and assessment practices. Actions refer to students’ strategic acts in the moment of engaging. Finally, accomplishments draw attention to the benefits students derive from engagement such as academic achievement and personal change. The power of my model is that it disentangles the various dimensions of engagement while retaining their interrelationship.

By understanding the complexity of engagement, I believe that university leaders, managers and academics are better equipped to make decisions about policy and teaching approaches as well as academic support. Clearer conceptualisation of engagement will benefit international students and domestic/home students. Indeed, the model could also be used in other educational settings such as schools.

My interest in international student engagement began with my own experiences as an international student in Germany. It continued with work at an Australian university and being privy to international students’ strategic campaigns to assert themselves in their postgraduate courses. The opportunity to research engagement arose through my study with a university academic who had a reputation among colleagues and students for being an excellent teacher. The research involved a case study of the academic’s course over a semester – a rich and transformative experience for all, including myself as researcher.

At a time when the focus on engagement is increasing, the best way for institutions to learn about international student engagement is by listening to the students themselves. Teachers are integral to the student experience and have a vital role to play in providing the conditions for engagement. This book explicates these relationships and will hopefully be of benefit to people interested in promoting engagement for all students undertaking higher education.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Desiring TESOL and International Education by Raqib Chowdhury and Phan Le Ha.