Designing for student engagement, wellbeing and success

By Catherine Gall, Vice President Education Business at Steelcase

Across the educational spectrum, there is a growing demand amongst students, educators, parents, administrators and the government to bolster the return on investment in education. At university level, that demand is even greater, with students now paying as much as £9,000 per year in fees to attend. Despite the costs, university applications haven’t fallen amongst 18 year olds, as many expected. But there is a much greater expectation, and need, for graduates to leave university ready to walk into well-paid careers.

Unfortunately, that still isn’t happening for many, with the latest official graduate labour market statistics, showing that almost one in three (31%), of all graduates are not doing graduate jobs. Furthermore, year after year employers complain that graduates don’t boast the ‘soft skills’ they’re looking for, such as self-awareness, problem-solving, interpersonal skills and teamwork, not to mention the technical and creative abilities required by more and more organisations.

There is also evidence of engagement and motivation issues within higher education, with a report by the Social Market Foundation finding that nearly one in ten students drop out of university in their first year, while Liverpool John Moors University identified an engagement and performance crisis amongst second year students. Reports also abound of mental health struggles, with YouGov finding as many as one in four students could be affected.

It’s become clear that traditional purely academic teaching methods, whereby students effectively memorise and regurgitate information, are no longer meeting the demands of modern students, in a variety of ways. Universities are not only under pressure to develop graduates with the skills that employers are crying out for, they also have a growing role in preparing students with the broad knowledge, skills, personal and emotional qualities they need to succeed in life, wherever it may take them.

That means placing a greater focus on student engagement and wellbeing, alongside academic endeavour. A Department of Education study found that students with higher levels of emotional, behavioural and social wellbeing have higher levels of academic achievement and are more engaged in learning. Meanwhile, McKinsey and Texas A&M University went even further, revealing that mindset and engagement account for around 50% of a student’s likelihood to graduate.

These developments mean many thought leaders are now championing a whole-learner strategy, involving a deeper, broader and more individualised approach to student success, focusing on personal development, alongside knowledge acquisition and practical, creative skills. Proponents advocate the importance of motivation, engagement and wellbeing in teaching, ensuring students are in the right mindset to learn, while also setting them up for a productive and satisfying life after graduation.

This shift requires a rethink of teaching methods, including enhanced curricula, support services and technology. Many forward-thinking universities are already moving in this direction, incorporating coaching, counselling services and predictive data analytics to identify high-risk students and head off disengagement before it starts. They realise that taking a more expansive view of student success doesn’t just benefit their students, it also boosts their brand, helping them to stand out from the crowd and offer something different in a competitive marketplace.

Another aspect to consider is the physical learning space itself, which must adapt and evolve to suit a more holistic approach to learning. That means introducing a connected system of innovative and active learning spaces to cater for those three core areas: building knowledge, acquiring skills and helping students develop personally and emotionally.

·         Building knowledge: Many classrooms are still designed for old-fashioned teaching methods, with row by row seating and the teacher lecturing at the front. Instead, universities need spaces for active and engaging learning experiences, with moveable furniture that can flex to the needs of each class and maximise the scope for person-to-person interactions. Technology should also be incorporated in a natural way so that teachers and professors can focus on richer interactions and higher-level cognitive learning.

·         Acquiring skills: Creativity is one of the most sought-after skills amongst innovative employers, yet it is side-lined by too many universities and courses. Practical experimentation is essential to teaching creativity and that requires space to make a mess. Makerspaces, hacker spaces, project rooms, collaboration hubs, innovation labs, virtual reality environments – whatever you want to call them, they enable students to solve problems, develop solutions and share their ideas, without fear of failure.

·         Personal development: The third type of space should facilitate informal and social interactions where students can expand their thinking with teachers and their peers, while also seeking mentoring, coaching, counselling or simply develop friendships. For this, universities must provide relaxed common rooms, hubs, cafes and lounges, alongside more formal teaching areas.

Space is just one part of the puzzle and a holistic approach to education must be just that, incorporating every aspect of the curricula, environment, and support services. But space can play a big part in shaping behaviours, breaking down barriers and fostering wellbeing, building a sense of community, belonging and boosting engagement. With engagement found to be one of the leading factors in student success, it’s not a bad place to start.

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