A haystack of needles

Prof. Amir M. Sharif, Acting Head of Brunel Business School, discusses how to address student engagement

Successfully engaging students in the classroom is a fundamental driver for success in the education sector. Within higher education, it is even more crucial given the notable and significant contribution that universities make to the economy at large, and the rising costs and expectations of that education. Providing the global graduate talent pool with skilled and effective graduates is no mean feat either. And as the debate and initiatives relating to greater enhancements to employability skills and employment continue, we must not forget that educators in HE must continue to close the loop and engage with students so that they can achieve success academically to meet these aims.

Given the nature of the field, business schools perhaps have the greatest challenge to overcome in this regard. Whilst the subject discipline of business and management is decidedly eclectic, drawing upon various roots in the emanating from the social, economic and sometimes analytical sciences, this same variety of perspectives make it harder for academics to tether student’s engagement to core principles. It is a truism that every academic makes their subject “the most important subject to study” – and this of course is not limited to just business studies where core subjects such as marketing, human resources, finance/accounting and operations are part of the staple learning diet.

But as the saying goes, where there is a risk, there is also an opportunity. None more so than an opportunity to address student engagement and it learning more engaging.

Business schools in particular need to take those very same eclectic roots highlighted above as a plus. Within each subject taught the aim should be to not only discuss the theoretical textbook detail, but supplant this with teaching students how to take a comparative approach to evaluating consequences of each business subject perspective. How can this be achieved and how can student engagement be supported in business subjects?

We must first of all enable students to “Learn it”. At this stage of student engagement, we must identify students as consumers of knowledge. This stage is largely a one-way transaction but engagement will still begin the moment the student steps into the classroom (physical or virtual). Ensuring that learning outcomes are the focus, rather than transferring the theory is a real but necessary challenge for all academics to overcome.

Secondly, once we have transferred that knowledge, we can continue the engagement process by directing students to “Live it”. Academics need to think beyond the boundaries of their subject and show students the paths and linkages to complimentary topics – for example how finance impacts procurement and logistics decisions; how human psychology impinges upon marketing and branding strategies and so forth. This stage therefore requires student interaction – “live cases” applied projects, and experiential learning opportunities can assist here.

Thirdly, we must get students to “Love it”. The ultimate aim of any learning objective is surely to foster intellectual interest and the capability to apply knowledge to unknown and unseen challenges. This is the transformational stage of engagement. Beyond the pure transfer of knowledge and interaction with students, this final stage of student engagement should culminate in academics leading students to fully participate and co-create knowledge. Within the business and management discipline this can be easily achieved through sessions and projects relating to entrepreneurship and networking, as well as interactive business simulations (a portfolio approach which Brunel Business School has been running with for a number of years already for example).

The challenge however is to ensure that the above suggested steps are not necessarily taken in prescriptive sequential order, but can be combined and used in any order to see a visible change in engagement. However students should expect and be provided with clarity about how they may be able to get the most out of their studies – and the emergence of student and business charter programmes are powerful steps in this direction as well.

Whatever approach we seek to take, it is our duty as academics to ensure we provide the opportunities and paths to engagement to allow our students to graduate with those very same skills and graduate attributes that we joined this profession to cultivate.

The views and opinions expressed are personal and that of the author and are not those of Brunel University.

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