Currencies for engagement

graphic representing currencies

“How do I engage my students in an activity if I can’t award them marks?”

This question about engaging students in formative activities determines the strategies of many academics and consequently the experience of their students. Some academics say, “If I need my students turn up and take part I will need to ensure that the activity is part of their summative assessment.” While this response by academics to the challenge of engaging students is quite understandable, it is fraught with problems – especially when there is a move in the University to reduce the amount of summative assessments students have to take in response to the problems of assessment bunching and overload that both students and staff report. If we can’t lever students into the classroom by using the currency of marks, we need to find other ways of assigning value to their learning experience. Further, we need to reconceptualise the experience of learning in University and shift the discourse for them, making clear the value of deep learning as opposed to the paucity of learning experience found in surface learning strategies. This dilemma is at the heart of the Learner Engagement Toolkit.

First, it is essential to address this with your students. They need to be clear about what you expect from them. They need to be clear that your course requires their attention, and this includes the need for their commitment to study in-between class as described in your course and module descriptors. It is up to every academic to challenge surface learning habits and to work with students in a supportive, if challenging, way to develop their expectations for learning at university level.

Second, the ‘mark’ is not the only currency they should value.

Other valuable learning currencies

The following lists other viable and valuable currencies that undergraduate students need to understand. Their comprehension of these currencies will contribute to their success at and beyond university.

  • Experience – employability is often described or understood in terms of skills and how to get a job, but another, perhaps better, way to understand employability is to see it as the outcome of experiences that affect the way a student interacts with the world and which develop their dispositions and identity. You could paraphrase this in terms of thinking about how a student grows into their professional skin. Some even talk about how students transition into a critical adulthood (Mezirow, 2000). University is a place, a course, a social network, and a fun time but, more than anything, it is a significant space in a student’s life to absorb experience and knowledge that lead a student to redefine themselves. Experience requires a student to take part and take risks in and out of the curriculum.
  • Rare opportunities – the theories of situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Brown, 2006) and authentic learning (Herrington, 2012) are well-established and, in their own ways, are about engaging students as people with aspirations and futures in which learning knowledge is no longer a simple transaction but, in itself, a meaningful activity. The currency here is the rare opportunity a university education provides students to, for example,
    • learn knowledge through practice;
    • learn with and from peers, and other significant people;
    • learn from failing safely;
    • learn as a process of changing your mind (Mezirow, 2000);
    • perform and discover your performing self;
    • develop confidence and fluency;
    • discover complexity and one’s growing capability to address complexity;
    • apply knowledge to real-world practice.

Learner engagement involves engaging students in their learning and developing (not simply managing) their expectations of a university experience. The conversation about knowledge, aspirations and success needs to be focused on the individual student and there is an urgency to ensure that each student appreciates the space (whatever other commitments they may have) that a university course gives them. They cannot afford to miss the rare opportunity for deep engagement.

See ideas about authentic learning described as ‘applied learning’ in the Applied Learning in Practice toolkit.



Brown, J.S. (2006). New learning environments for the 21st century: exploring the edge. Change, September/October, 18-24

Herrington, J. (2012). Authentic learning and authentic e-learning. Interactive website exploring the dimensions of authentic learning. Available online:

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge

Mezirow, J. & Associates (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass.

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