Mapping Student Engagement: Four types of engagement found in any form of course delivery

By Kenneth Nehrbass

It is time to move beyond the rivalry between synchronous and asynchronous delivery modes, as if the two are firmly bifurcated. While differences exist between online and traditional learners’ characteristics (Mattes, Nanney & Coussons-Read, 2003) expectations (Wieser, Seeler, Sixl-Daniell & Zehrer, 2017), and completion rates (Xu and Jaggers, 2013, cf. Christian, 2000), the following four propositions should describe any course, regardless of the mode of delivery:

  1. The course is responsive to students’ needs and interests;
  2. The course is structured;
  3. The course holds students accountable; and,
  4. The course encourages self-efficacy.

The recurrent confusion – and debate – about course delivery modes stems from the fact that these four propositions are in tension with each other: Asynchronous courses foster independence and  self-efficacy (Nan-Hyun Um & Ahnlee Jang, 2021) and tend to be highly structured. On the other hand, synchronous delivery allows the professor to be nimbler; and encourages student engagement – especially when a student’s absence from a seminar or group presentation is plainly obvious.

However, while these four aims seem to put synchronous and asynchronous learning at odds with each other, in reality, all modes of delivery (whether face-to-face, hybrid, hyflex, remote synchronous or asynchronous) can, and often do, achieve all four of the aims mentioned above.  

The first two aims above fall along a continuum which I call the Responsiveness/Structure Continuum. The last two aims fall along the Accountability/Self-efficacy Continuum. Below, I will describe these two continua, or axes. Then I will show how these two axes form a two-dimensional “map” with four quadrants of engagement: “Scaffolded,” “Convenient,” “Active,” and “Obliged.” I conclude that while some modes of delivery lean more toward one quadrant than another; any course – regardless of delivery – should employ learning activities from all four quadrants.

The Responsiveness/Structure Continuum

Much research on traditional learning focuses on how teachers respond to student needs and interests: Professors can break up groups by interest or by skill level; they can remediate; and they can model hands-on activities. These are all components of active learning (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Even if students consistently say they prefer passive learning, they perform better in active learning (Deslauriers, McCarty, Miller, Callaghan, & Kestin 2019). Therefore well-designed courses will incorporate learning activities that are on the “responsive” side of the continuum.

On the structured end of the continuum, the learning activities are well-designed before the course begins, so they do not allow for the level of nimbleness found in a seminar or group discussion. For example, exam questions are written well in advance, and may even be standardized. Professors may use the same textbooks – and (heavens forbid) even the same pre-recorded lectures – for several years. So, while nimbleness is important, well-designed courses also include structured learning activities.

Therefore, high quality courses must have activities from both ends of the responsive/structured spectrum. If a professor only has engaging learning activities, with no structure, she cannot guarantee that what happens in the classroom aligns with the overall program outcomes. On the other hand, if her class has only highly-structured assessments, with little flexibility to respond to the learners’ interests and learning needs, her students may not achieve the course learning outcomes.

The Accountability/Self-efficacy Continuum

Professors express that they do not want to “spoon feed” their students (Morris, 2016). This concern highlights that they believe students need to learn to study, to take notes, to plan out their reading schedule, and to organize and carry out major projects or over a semester (or longer). These skills, which foster self-efficacy, are important for success in academia and in the “real world.” Therefore, professors assign readings and exploratory activities that can be done independently. In fact, professors are increasingly concerned about assigning (and grading) too much busy work. Shouldn’t adult learners take responsibility for their own learning?

On the other hand, a university education is a partnership: Students are accountable to their peers (in group projects) and to their professors; and the professor adds value by shaping the student. So even though independence and accountability are at opposite ends of the spectrum, well-designed courses must foster both types of learning.

The four quadrants

When the Accountability/Self-efficacy continuum is placed on the horizontal axis, and the Responsiveness/Structure Continuum is placed on the vertical axis, we can create a two-dimensional model (the image below) that demonstrates the relationship between these four pedagogical aims. The two axes create four quadrants:

  1. The “Scaffolded” quadrant involves learning activities that are highly responsive and that foster self-efficacy;
  2. The “Active” quadrant involves activities that are highly responsive, and that have high accountability;
  3. The “Convenient” quadrant involves activities that are highly independent, and highly structured; and,
  4. The “Obliged” quadrant involves activities that are highly structured and have high accountability.

The model maps out 15 types of student engagement, with learning activities in each of these quadrants. Below I will further discuss each of the quadrants.

The  Active Quadrant

Some activities are highly interactive and have accountability, such as breakout groups or seminars. These are modes of active learning which promote engagement. Educationists have spent a great deal of time working out how to make classes more engaging – some strategies include the nature of the inquiry (e.g. problem-based learning). Some involve ways to demonstrate learning, other than just PowerPoints and term papers (for example, students can perform dramas, sing songs, debate, take polls, or brainstorm). Tandet (2020) has described 53 examples of engaging activities.

In the figure above, an engaging seminar (e.g. Socratic style dialog) is the most interactive, because various students interact with each other and with the professor. Other group activities may be slightly less interactive (because the professor is not involved) but may have more accountability: each member of the group must debate, sing the song, or act in the drama.

Studies from multiple data sets show that engagement is the number one predictor of success, if measured by attainment of learning outcomes (McClenney, Marti & Adkins, n.d.). Therefore courses – regardless of mode of delivery – should (and can) utilize activities from this quadrant.

The Scaffolded Quadrant

Some activities are individualized and responsive to the learner. The most common example is the feedback professors provide for individual learners. Studies show that this is one of the main criteria learners use to judge their satisfaction with a course (Richardson & Swan, 2003; Eom, Ashill & Wen, 2006).

Other highly individualized and nimble activities include sending emails and customizing weekly (or twice-weekly) announcements. The HyFlex modality involves another layer of scaffolding: the optional synchronous seminar, where students can receive additional instruction and interaction.

All courses, regardless of delivery mode, can incorporate announcements, individualized emails, and feedback on assignments.

The Convenient Quadrant

Convenience is marked by structured learning activities that can be done on the students’ own time. Learners – especially those who choose asynchronous programs – appreciate that they can watch lecture materials and read course materials at their convenience (Xu & Jaggars, 2013). 

Note that convenience may have a bad ring to it in education, but it provides tremendous advantages for the learner – allowing her to read at her own pace or remediate by re-watching lectures. However, studies have shown that for students to be successful in the midst of this convenience, they must have a high degree of self-efficacy and motivation (Joo, Lim & Kim, 2013; Lynch & Dembo, 2004). And students who are ill-prepared for college will find less value in course readings than those who are academically-prepared (Henriques & Kusse, 2011).

All delivery modes allow for self-paced activities. All courses can utilize independent readings. Homework and assignments can be done at the students’ convenience (albeit by the deadline). Students in any modality can review lecture notes at their own pace. And synchronous courses can assign students to watch (and re-watch) online videos the same way online courses do.

The Obliged Quadrant

Professors often take attendance when they deliver face-to-face lectures – a move which ensures accountability. The more points assigned, the higher the stakes. Term papers and final exams are the activities with the highest accountability and the highest structure. This mixture of structure and accountability creates a sense of obligation for the students: “Here is what you need to do to get an A in the course.” 

While the value of the compulsory classroom lecture has been debated, French and Kennedy’s (2017) meta-analysis indicates several reasons for continuing this structured and obligatory learning activity. Lectures can fill in the gaps of the readings, and can present more recent material than published works can. Additionally lectures (counterintuitively?) teach independent study skills like note-taking (Knight & McKelvie, 1986).

Of course, a major advantage of the traditional lecture is the scalability: If you pack four hundred undergraduates into an auditorium, you cannot realistically split them into group work, or have them present their projects to the class, but you can deliver an engaging lecture. And you can even use a sophisticated system to take attendance and even to synchronously quiz the students on the lecture material.

Higher education – regardless of the delivery mode – requires that students work independently on structured activities that will be assessed. These learning activities are in the Obliged quadrant. 

Implications: utilize all four quadrants, in all delivery methods

This article has challenged the notion that face-to-face instruction is not squarely located in the “Active” quadrant, with online instruction relegated far off in the “Convenient” quadrant. In reality, instructors of traditional courses assign a number of activities from the “Convenient” quadrant (i.e., the activities which require the learner to work at her own pace, such as course readings). And term papers and final exams (in the “Obliged” quadrant), which are a common way to assess learning in traditional courses, are also found in asynchronously delivered courses. Likewise, discussion boards, which are a staple in online learning, are in the “Active” quadrant because they involve a moderate degree of interactivity and immediacy. Certain asynchronous programs require learners to be engaged in fieldwork, practicums, or labs, which are highly interactive and involve a high degree of accountability.

To summarize, professors of all modalities will want to leverage activities from all four quadrants. They should scaffold the learning process by composing emails to the class (and even better, to individual learners) that integrate class material with current events on campus, in the community or in the world. They should encourage learners to digest material at their own pace (such as required and supplemental readings, and videos). They should hold students accountable with tests, quizzes, term papers. And they should engage students in active learning by designing discussions, practicums, labs, and group learning activities. 


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