Student success and student experience at university

For many decades one of the most important tasks for both higher education researchers and teaching staff has been to understand how to maximize students’ success at university. A great deal of attention has been directed towards the following questions: Which design of the learning environment fosters students’ learning? What kind of interventions can increase the likelihood of obtaining high grades by students? What practices can help students form skills that will advance their career and help them succeed in personal life?

The literature that dominates in the context of higher education in the United States highlights the concept of student engagement as one of the main factors of students’ success. This concept started gaining popularity since the 1990s when in the US, and later also in other countries. Since then, the volume of empirical evidence postulating that educational outcomes, such as skills development and degree completion are associated with student engagement, began to accumulate.

The conceptual model of student engagement was developed by Astin (see Student involvement: a developmental theory for higher education) and later extended by other researchers (just to name a few: Terenzini, Pascarella, Kuh, Coates, etc). According to this concept, students acquire knowledge and develop skills from what they do at university, and the university influences what students can do through the activities and experiences they make available to students. Therefore, student experience at university becomes highly important in fostering students’ success.

Criticism and further development of the concept

Despite the fact that the concept of student engagement is actively used by many researchers, it is not devoid of criticism. For example, not all students are prone to be highly engaged by nature. As Macfarlane (2015) points out, evaluating students for their activity in the classroom, willingness to participate in group work, possibly against their wishes, can violate the right of students to free studying. Taking into account student engagement concept has been developed in the US higher education context, some researchers question the relevance of this theory to other educational systems (Hsieh, 2014; Choi & Rhee, 2014). Other researchers suggest that this concept worked well when the majority of the student body in the USA was white middle-class young people (Quaye & Harper, 2014).

However, as the student environment has become more heterogeneous, the possibilities of universal engagement theory become more limited. Although the literature provides solid evidence of the positive association between student engagement and learning outcomes, the results of studies show that the majority of students are disengaged. Students pay little attention to their studies and express little interest in activities at university (Arum & Roksa, 2011; Brint & Cantwell, 2012; Mayhew et al., 2016).

Despite the criticism this concept takes upon itself, it can be helpful in explaining the learning outcomes of students, as well as contribute to their development at the university. If you are interested in applying the ideas of this concept, you might want to start from the literature mentioned above and the additional resources below.

If you are working on the concept of student engagement or you are investigating how experiences of students can be improved, feel free to approach me for collaboration.

Suggested literature

Arum, R. & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. University of Chicago Press.

Astin, A. (1984). Student involvement: a developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(4), 297–308.

Astin, A.W. (1993). What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited. Vol. 1. Jossey-Bass.

Brint, S. & Cantwell, A.M. (2012). Portrait of the disengaged. Research & Occasional Paper Series: CSHE. 9.12. Center for Studies in Higher Education. Berkeley.

Choi, B. K., & Rhee, B. S. (2014). The influences of student engagement, institutional mission, and cooperative learning climate on the generic competency development of Korean undergraduate students. Higher Education, 67(1), 1–18.

Hsieh, T-L. (2014). Motivation matters? The relationship among different types of learning motivation, engagement behaviors and learning outcomes of undergraduate students in Taiwan. Higher Education, 68(3), 417–433.

Krause, K.L., Coates, H. (2008). Students’ Engagement in First-Year University. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(5), 493–505.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, G. D. (2009). What student affairs professionals need to know about student engagement. Journal of College Student Development, 50(6), 683–706.

Macfarlane, B. (2015). Student performativity in higher education: converting learning as a private space into a public performance. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(2), 338–350.

Mayhew, M.J., Pascarella, E.T., Bowman, N.A., Rockenbach, A.N., Seifert, T.A., Terenzini, P.T. & Wolniak, G.C. (2016). How College Affects Students: 21st century evidence that higher education works, Vol. 3. Wiley.

Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E. T., Nora, A. (1995). Influences affecting the development of students’ critical thinking skills. Research in Higher Education, 36(1), 23–39.

Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E. T., Nora, A. (1995). Academic and out-of-class influences on students’ intellectual orientations. The Review of Higher Education, 19(1), 23–44.

Quaye, S.J., & Harper, S.R. (2014). Making Engagement Equitable for Students in U.S. Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches for Diverse Populations (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Irina Shcheglova is a research fellow at the Centre of Sociology of Higher Education, Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia. E-mail: irina.shcheglova [at]; Facebook:

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