SEKE projects often run for several weeks. So, we need to think about how we can help students maintain interest and motivation in the project. Sometimes the project is very exciting and interesting in its own right, but not every project will always be exciting all the time. Student engagement is a complex topic, and at the heart of it is students feeling a sense of belonging to the project, their team and to the class. This is often a matter of personal style for each tutor in how they teach the module. This tool provides practical ways for you to maintain and build interest in the project, and hence greater fulfilment and achievement by your students.
Sometimes, a whole term or semester or teaching block of several weeks can be quite challenging for students working on a SEKE project. Especially if the project focus is narrow, and has less variety than or less demanding than other projects.
At the design stage, keep modules short (e.g. 5 weeks). That way students can keep the end in mind easily, and this will help students to focus, and reduce the feeling of things dragging on.
If modules run across entire semester, term or teaching block (e.g. typically 10-12 weeks):
- Break down the project into different phases. This can lead to small wins or achievements, and will lead to bigger gains overall. This might give the opportunity to adjust the team dynamic, such as giving a different student a chance to be the team leader.
- Have distinct feedback sessions, where progress can be fully reviewed, and the students consider how they can adjust their approach for the next phase.
- Talk to the external client about the need for variety, and ask for their suggestions as to how the interest can be maintained. For example, a business trip or field visit or creative performance at a key facility or organisation. This will give students something to look forward to, other than a final presentation or demonstration/performance of their work.
Consider holding events where students, external organisation and university staff can network. At the beginning of a module, this can help reduce anxieties and concerns by all involved, especially students and clients. The opportunity to freely discuss and socialise breaks down barriers, and can help build confidence in students about the work ahead.
These events can be held during the module. An example at the University of Portsmouth is a module which ran for 12 weeks, where there are 8 seminar groups, and 3 teams per group. At weeks 4 and 8, there was a lunchtime networking event. It was a chance to informally chat about progress, and to hear one or two minute success stories from clients and students. The events were an affirmation of students' progress with a real sense of celebration.
Other options are for students to arrange and run events, with help as needed from tutors. These events might be a mid module sharing of artefacts such as designs, prototypes or posters. These can be open to a wider set of staff, clients and students and be a form of sharing the SEKE learning experiences across a department, school or faculty.
We are finding that many students are increasingly not using email, and prefer other means. However, even with email, there are ways to make it more engaging:
Set up WhatsApp groups for each team or the whole class. Students will often do this anyway for themselves. However, set up a WhatsApp group that includes the tutor and/or client. You can adjust the settings to ensure you are not overloaded. You can have a different WhatsApp group for the team and client.
WhatsApp is about instant conversation, and overcomes the problem of emails being delayed, or going into spam, and not knowing who has read it.
Google/MS Team chat. On a phone, one can see new chats, without having to open up a whole page (typically on a laptop, users see the chat alongside their email).
The informal conversational nature of chat encourages ideas and trust, leads to good collaboration.
Just bear in mind that you need a Google or Microsoft account for this.
Focus on frequent and consistent communication. Let students and clients know what systems are being used.
Keep it short and sharp.
Mailouts to students from your Module VLE site. Again keep it short, because most emails will be seen on a phone, and if a student has to scroll down a lot, the core message may be lost.
Set up weekly/bi-weekly meetings, with the client and/or tutor at the start of the project, at the same time and place to give the project some structure. This can be done in seminar time, or outside the timetable.
These don’t always have to be face to face but it would help every now and then to connect in person as often this can allow more free flowing ideas.
Get away from usual workspaces when at a roadblock to encourage creativity.
Safe and productive spaces. Students are learning, and need physical, virtual and emotional spaces to try things out, and be allowed to make mistakes and feel they are not being judged.
Client meetings face to face. Attend the first meeting to help shape and set the tone. Ask if there can be a meeting room where there are whiteboards and paper. Clients will often rely on verbal communications, and may not be as aware as tutors, of the diversity of the students in the way they learn, and the different range of abilities. For example, a student whose first language is not English, may struggle to understand verbally only. If the client can write up key points on a flipchart, or use handouts, or use powerpoint sldes, this gives that student another way to absorb the information.
Client meetings online. The issue of language skills and having more than one way of communicating applies here too. If clients are not accustomed to using the screen to present slides, or show a whiteboard, maybe the tutor can do this. Or at the least, encourage clients and students to ask questions in the chat, as a backup to verbal communications.
Student team meetings. Students are of course encouraged to meet outside the timetabled lectures/seminars, but try to facilitate where they can meet, or suggest spaces which are suitable for group work. When they design the module, request/organise teaching rooms which will support SEKE learning, and if needed, the client can access if they are meeting the team on campus.
Meetings on site. Students will learn lots from being off campus, say visiting a facility (a school, a factory, an office), but it can be a lot to take in even in a short visit. Encourage students to take photos (check for permission) and a small notebook - that way, students will have things to share and discuss afterwards, and even post a picture to social media.
Meetings in public spaces (e.g. pubs, and cafes). It is best to avoid clients asking to meet students in such places. Students may feel they are being watched, and less inclined to ask questions of the client. Some clients prefer informality, but this comes at the cost of providing a safe space. Students may feel pressure to buy a drink, and this is prevalent in some cultures where students may fear losing face if they do not. Also, the cafe owner may not be happy hosting a meeting, where the participants are not buying any food or drink.
Prepare students in lessons leading up to the start of engaging with the client on the project. Focus on teaching frameworks that will prepare students - students that aren't sufficiently prepared before they meet the client, may get stuck and disengage from the module.
Allow students to explore and consider all the tools within the toolkit, to ensure they have the knowledge and skills required to help tackle their external project.
Consider simulation or role-play of the above skills and situations before students meet the client.
Certificates and accreditations
Your module may be contributing towards an industry accreditation that students are seeking alongside their degree qualification. If your module does not have an accreditations associated with it, consider a digital badge or paper certificate - it would be awarded at the end of the module of course, but it may be a good motivator; especially if students can gain the certificate for participation, irrespective of their grade achieved.
Digital badges demonstrate participation in the SEKE module, and a commitment to professional development. Consider awarding a digital badge for completing the module. Make the badge downloadable at the end of the module, and encourage students to share it on social media, including their LinkedIn profile.
Student engagement is absolutely fundamental in order for any SEKE based module to be truly impactful for all parties involved. Furthermore, there is a magnitude of differing ways that this can be achieved, which will all lead to the same optimal outcome. No matter what type of engagement is used, the key thing to remember is that consistency is key. Thus, communicating with and encouraging students on a consistent basis will help ensure high levels of student engagement and enjoyment throughout the SEKE module.