Measuring Student Engagement in Higher Education

December 22, 2022

In higher education, it can be challenging to determine how engaged the student body is. Most educators know that simply because a student is logged in to a digital lecture, or is sitting in a classroom, does not mean they are paying attention or absorbing the information.

Passive learning techniques (such as a teacher standing in front of the classroom delivering a lecture) are more common in higher education than active, hands-on learning methods such as group discussions or lab participation. These techniques can make it even more challenging to know if students are absorbing the material or apathetically attending a course to check it off the list. Fortunately, there are ways to measure student engagement in higher education, even if it may be more challenging than at other levels. 

Why Is Student Engagement So Important in Higher Education?

Measuring student engagement in higher education is critical to ensure students are satisfied, enrollment stays up, and educators deliver content in a way that’s accessible to everyone. 

Let’s look at some of the reasons why it is so crucial for students to be engaged in higher education. 

For Schools and Administrators 

Schools and administrators need to know how engaged students are in their classes. Understanding students’ engagement levels will help the administration keep tabs on which educators connect with their students and present their class material in an engaging way. Educators who are having difficulty engaging their students can then learn from those with high student engagement. The administration can also recognize the work of engaged instructors. 

Measuring student engagement will also help the school identify what fields of study students are most interested in, which classes have high student retention rates, and what may need to be changed on an institutional level due to these factors. It will also help administrators determine what support services may be necessary for current students. 

Schools need to be able to serve their students and ensure that they are offering valuable material delivered in a way accessible to different learning styles. Strengthening student engagement will ensure that the institution provides a high educational standard and is trusted by the student body and the public. 

For Teachers 

Teachers should be able to know if their students are enjoying and absorbing the course material. A lack of attention can indicate that the course material isn’t clicking or needs to be changed to accommodate various learning styles. 

It is vital to employ active learning styles in the classroom, keep an open door of communication between an educator and their students, and implement strategies to measure student engagement. When teachers cannot measure student engagement, it quickly becomes difficult to determine if the course material resonates with their class. 

For Students 

Students attend higher learning institutions to receive the education needed to achieve their goals after college. If students are not absorbing the material because they are not engaged with the class, it will be challenging to complete their required coursework and receive their degree. 

Engaging material is instrumental in feeding a student’s love of learning and increasing the likelihood that they will retain the presented information. Engaged students tend to see an increase in motivation, focus, and interaction with peers. Students who are involved will also have a higher chance of completing their studies and graduating with their degrees. 

Why Is Student Engagement More Difficult To Measure at the College Level?

So, why is it so tough to measure student engagement in higher education, especially online education?

Class Sizes 

The size of a classroom varies greatly within the higher education landscape. There can be smaller, hands-on classes consisting of just a handful of students, where educators can get to know each student’s needs and tailor the educational approach accordingly. These smaller classes provide unique learning opportunities, and student engagement levels are often apparent to the educator. 

Still, the typical scenario in college-level courses is that an educator has too many students to keep track of at once. In lecture-style classes, there can sometimes be hundreds of students listening to one educator. 

Diverse Student Populations 

Every student is unique and while there may be institutional parameters for measuring the engagement of a classroom as a whole, measuring individual student engagement is a different challenge. Students engage in their education differently due to various factors, including personality, learning style, and comfort level.


Students’ personalities will affect their participation in a classroom environment. Some students may be more extroverted and eager to jump right into large class discussions, and their enthusiasm can give the false impression that they are more engaged with the material than their more introverted peers. Simply because a student is not voicing their opinions about a topic aloud does not mean they are not absorbing the material or interested. 

Learning Styles 

Different learning styles need to be taken into consideration when measuring student engagement. Active engagement for one student may look completely different from what it does for another. 

Some students are visual learners and may need visual aids rather than just a lecture to understand the material. Other students may be auditory learners and learn best by listening. 

You may also have kinesthetic learners in your class, and it is essential to remember that kinesthetic learners often need to do something hands-on to absorb the information. Kinesthetic learners may also be the students drawing in their notebooks or playing with something in their laps, which does not mean they are not listening. You will also likely have learners who learn best by reading and writing. 

Educators should keep these learning styles in mind when developing their courses and mix up how they deliver the required material. Students may engage more with material that is presented in their learning style. 

Comfort Levels 

Students will differ when it comes to aspects of class, including the class environment, subject matter, the instructor, and their peers. They may show differing comfort levels when participating in class or vary in how outspoken they are about the course material. 

It’s essential to be respectful of different students’ comfort levels and provide options for engaging with the environment as well as the material. For example, if students are asked to give a presentation and a student seems to have an aversion to public speaking, educators can offer other options. They may be allowed to complete a written report or record a video presentation.

When considering comfort levels in the overall environment of the class, educators can offer students options in seating, as some students may prefer to sit front and center, while others may require a more secluded seat to learn best. Educators can also check in with their students privately to see if anything can be done to improve their learning experience. 

Lack of Expectation for Participation 

Some courses, specifically those run as pass or fail classes, mainly measure whether the student attends a specific percentage of the course, either virtually or in person. With these class offerings, it can be hard to know how much the student got out of the course.

The Added Challenge of Digital and Remote Learning 

The rise in remote learning, while providing additional access and flexibility to students and teaching options for educators, comes with several challenges. This rapid shift in how information is delivered to a classroom affected all levels of learning, from kindergarten to college, and measuring student engagement is only sometimes a clear-cut process. 

With students having the ability to turn off cameras, mute themselves, and listen to lectures or discussions while multitasking, it can be challenging to know how tuned in they are. 

Virtual learning also presents challenges in large classrooms, as it isn’t always possible for an educator to see everyone on the screen at once or keep up with a digital chat on their own. Educators adjusting to this shift had to be creative and find ways to connect with their students, facilitate group discussions, and shift in-person activities to a digital format. 

Indicators of Student Engagement (Online and in the Classroom)

Now that we have discussed why measuring a student’s cognitive engagement can be challenging in higher education, let’s discuss what can be done. Here are some tools for measuring student engagement, even in large classrooms. 


Taking attendance for each class may seem simple. Still, online learning and increasingly large class sizes make recording attendance more complex and less common. Students don’t always watch lectures live in digital courses. However, there are tools for measuring who has attended each class and viewed the required material, making this an excellent first step for monitoring student engagement. 

Class Attrition

The attrition rate in a class refers to how many students drop out before completing the course. Many factors are involved in a high attrition rate, but the school’s administration can deduce that student engagement for that class is relatively low. 

School Attrition 

Potential students will often consider the school attrition rate when conducting their research. The school attrition rate refers to how many students drop out of not just one class but the school itself. School attrition can be a good indicator of how engaged the student body is. 

Administrative Task Completion

Are the students completing the assigned tasks for the class and for attending school? Do they keep up with financial aid paperwork and answer administrative emails? Keeping up with these tasks can be a good indicator of whether a student’s engagement level is related to a specific course or is part of a broader issue that needs to be addressed. 


Did the students meet the course requirements for a passing grade? How grades are measured can be different for every class, so it is vital in higher education to format grading requirements to include collaborative activities that encourage student engagement. 

Graduation Rates 

Suppose a large portion of a school’s student body is delaying graduation, taking longer to complete their coursework than expected, or not graduating at all. This can signify low student success and engagement on the institutional level. 

Continuation of Selected Major Path 

While it is common for students to change their minds about the major they are pursuing, frequent switching or dropping a field they seemed passionate about can indicate that they are not engaged with a particular subject or class. 

If multiple students are turning away from a specific major, it could be worth examining student engagement to see if there is an educator or course they have in common. 

Communication Rates Between Students and Educators 

If students are communicative with their educators, it can be a good sign that students feel comfortable in their learning environment and talking to their educators, are involved in the class, and are excited about the material. 

Survey Send and Completion Rates 

Promptly completed student surveys can be a positive sign concerning student engagement, as it shows that the students are checking their class email and are aware of assignments when they receive them. 

Depending on the subject of the survey, additional insight can be gained based on how the student answered each question. If the survey is on coursework, educators will be able to see how much of the class material students absorb.

 If the survey is on other aspects of class, such as asking for opinions on future assignments, then educators should be able to get an idea of how invested a student is based on their answers. Open-ended questions rather than yes or no questions will allow students to expand on their thoughts and provide even greater insight into their engagement level. 

End-of-course feedback  

Did the student provide feedback for the course and the instructor at the end of the period? There is no feedback more valuable to an educator than direct feedback from their students about their teaching style and the class material. This feedback can be insightful, including students’ thoughts and feelings about a class, the material, and the instructor. End-of-course feedback will help educators determine which student needs are not being met and which parts of the class are resonating. 

Ways To Start Tracking Student Engagement 

Luckily there are digital tools that are easy to implement and are a good place to start tracking student engagement, including scheduled surveys and collecting and charting key engagement metrics. 

Scheduled Surveys 

One of the best ways to determine if students are engaged is to simply ask them! You can send students surveys at the end of or throughout the course with questions aimed at understanding what they want out of class, how they learn best, and what parts of the class they enjoy or find challenging. 

Collection and Charting of Key Engagement Metrics 

Email Sends and Opens 

With online learning, it is becoming increasingly common for educators to exchange emails with their students throughout the day. Charting whether or not students open these emails is an easy way to measure engagement. At the end of the course, you can see the percentage of emails each student opened and the percentage of the entire class that opened each email.

Administrative Tasks Completed on Time 

You can measure how often each student completes assignments and administrative tasks such as financial aid paperwork, surveys, take-home assignments, or tests. Remember that if students are not completing administrative tasks that are unrelated to a specific class, there may be a bigger issue. The student should be referred to support services. 

Logged In/Course View Time 

How long was each student logged in, and how much time did they spend actively involved with the course material? This can be measured fairly easily with digital materials. If a student regularly logs in but disappears before the course is over or spends less time interacting with a digital assignment than is expected, engagement with the material may be a concern and worth addressing.

Attendance and Engagement Through Gamification 

Gamification in the education field has risen in popularity for all ages. Its increased popularity in K-12 education, as well as higher education, has given educators more tools to work with. Gamification turns participation into a game.

An example of gamification would be assigning various tasks a point value and then allowing students to earn prizes based on how many points they receive throughout the semester. These tasks could include asking questions in class, participating in a discussion, completing take-home assignments, giving a presentation, or any other activity that fits into the class material. Gamifying learning is a great way to increase student engagement! 

Where To Find Tools To Measure Student Engagement

Luckily for schools, administration teams, and educators, many tools needed to measure student engagement can be found through learning management software such as Caduceus

Educators founded Caduceus with the mission to increase learning comprehension and student retention, and they work with universities, health science centers, and professional schools. Their tools, including their coursework interface that makes assigning and submitting online coursework simple, are the perfect assets for schools looking to measure student engagement.

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