Student engagement in internationally diverse student groups: Using group work to address student engagement differences

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Abstract

Student engagement strategies have become a very important element in higher education teaching. Student engagement is directly and positively related to student performance, both in terms of increased levels of critical thinking and higher marks, but it also leads to an increase in social capital, the development of moral and ethical values and an increase in self-esteem and identity development. However, different students react differently to engagement strategies: while the effect appears to be always positive, the largest effect is conditional upon individual background factors, including national and cultural background with specific student groups, including women and those living on campus, profiting most from engagement strategies.
As students at UK universities are becoming increasingly internationally-diverse, engagement strategies have to take this diversity into consideration in order to respect the individuality of learners and learning communities. In order to address differential levels of student engagement in internationally-diverse student groups, an innovative teaching tool was developed and pilot-tested that aimed to create and improve dialogue among students from diverse backgrounds by allowing students to act as learning partners and by providing student groups with autonomy, both of which are known to increase student engagement. The teaching tool allowed students to plan, structure and implement a study project autonomously within their internationally-diverse group. In order to explore whether the teaching tool aided in and increased student engagement in internationally-diverse groups, the following research questions were explored:
(1) What are the advantages and challenges of working on a student project in an explicitly culturally diverse student group?
(2) Which factors supported and/or hindered a positive outcome of this group work?
In order to address these research questions, students were invited to respond anonymously to an open-ended questionnaire. This was done at the end of the module and after marks had been submitted and communicated to student. Out of the 24 students enrolled, six students responded to the questions: two each from Northern Ireland, continental Europe and East Asia.
Findings indicate that the teaching tool helped primarily East Asian students to integrate themselves and to learn from local respectively European peers. Asian students’ subjective level of engagement had increased as a result of the interaction with these peers. It also allowed East Asian students to improve their individual short-term performance and long-term learning outcomes. Local students reported to have profited least, at least not in the short-term, because they perceived to have been held back in their learning and their short-term achievement potential. However, local and European students valued the long-term learning outcomes associated with internationally-diverse teams and diversity. In sum, while the teaching tool increased East Asian students’ subjective level of student engagement, it did not do so among local/European students.
Limitations include the qualitative nature of the data and the small sample size. The findings are therefore not generalizable beyond the participants of this study. Further research should include quantitative student engagement scales, and should investigate the effect of the level of internationality on student engagement over time.

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Schroder, H. (2018). Student engagement in internationally diverse student groups: Using group work to address student engagement differences. Poster session presented at QUB Learning and Teaching Conference, Belfast, United Kingdom.