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Student engagement with learning: A sociomaterial conceptualisation

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Kevin Ardron
Publication date14/05/2024
Number of pages323
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Student engagement in Higher Education (HE) is a complex and well documented notion but there is a relative scarcity of work that focuses on understanding how students’ social, digital and material world interact to affect their engagement. This research addresses the gap and develops an approach that is situated in the emerging field of relational and multimodal studies of Higher Education (Lackovic, 2020; Lackovic and Olteanu, 2023). There is a growing body of research (Adams & Thompson, 2016; Fenwick, et al., 2011; Gravett, et al., 2021; Lackovic and Olteanu, 2023) and compelling evidence that materiality in educational environments impacts social and therefore student experiences. These sociomaterial perspectives encourage us to think beyond the human position (Braidotti, 2016; Gourlay, 2021) offering new and interesting ways
to examine the notion of student engagement. The study is a response to calls for a more holistic understanding of student engagement (Kahu, 2013; Tight, 2020; Zepke, 2015) amidst the dominance of highly marketised approaches in the HE sector that continue to foreground the centrality of participation
and reinforce normative views of engagement (Brown, 2015; Gourlay, 2022; Selwyn & Gašević, 2020). This puts students in a compromising position and there are questions of power and agency extending beyond a solely human perspective, to consider the role of technology, things and places in student lives. The study adds to the recent work that examines engagement from qualitative, sociomaterial perspectives (Gourlay, 2021) and asks:

In what ways do students understand engagement with learning at the
intersection of the material world and their individual experience?
• What kind of sociomaterial conditions and phenomena are connected to
student engagement with learning?
• How are the sociomaterial forces that influence their engagement with
learning characterised and assimilated into their experience of being a
• What are the implications of the research for understanding and
conceptualising student engagement?

To answer these questions, the research design uses student experiences as the basis for truth in an exploration of sociomaterial forces that influence how they engage in learning. Inquiry Graphics Analysis (IGA) (Lackovic, 2020) was deployed, as a robust multimodal and relational theoretical approach and analytical tool to examine the complexity of student experiences leading to a close-up view of engagement with learning as sociomaterial and digital phenomenon. It involved students providing photographs of the key places, things and symbols of their engagement. It develops a two-phase approach to the use of IGA and multimodal diaries to create a platform for a detailed interpretative dialogue with students. The data across both phases is deeply
rooted in and shaped by the individual experiences of students and sheds light on a complex entanglement of social, material and digital phenomena. Reflexive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) is part of IGA in a process through which a new model of student engagement evolves.

Thesis findings capture the messy reality beyond metrics and data dashboards to show that engagement with learning is not an either/or state but one that is in flux, a continuum of strategically negotiated states influenced by the complex
interrelationship of inhibiting and enabling sociomaterial conditions. The thesis
develops a contemporary conceptualisation of student engagement as a sociomaterial, relational and multimodal phenomenon. It shows how engagement is situated in the everydayness of student experiences, extends the engagement discourse and offers a posthuman vantage point as the basis for a more holistic understanding to inform new teaching and research opportunities.