The ‘E3 student’ and their learning journey: Interactive textbook as route map
By stephencase, Dec 7 2017 04:17PM
As lecturers, we are acutely aware that higher education (HE) in the UK is an intensely competitive field. Increasing numbers of universities offer increasing numbers of courses to a limited base of students – all of whom pay significant tuition fees and demand value for money in return. Universities face mounting pressures to improve teaching provision - student numbers, contact hours, programme diversity, teaching quality, learning resources, employability, student satisfaction and so on. These pressures are made increasingly visible and significant to lecturers and other key stakeholders (e.g. university management, students, parents, employers, media, politicians) through a plethora of league tables and REF/TEF exercises. At the same time, our universities face mounting pressures to reduce expenditure in the face of deep-rooted economic austerity and exponential political uncertainty. Consequently, the modern-day HE paradox is one of universities needing to do more with less. These paradoxical pressures are inevitably passed down to us – lecturing staff – as the university’s agents of teaching quality
Student engagement as a way of travel
So how do we continue to enhance our students’ learning experience with less time, less money, fewer resources and fewer colleagues? A contemporary solution lies in student engagement – strategies, mechanisms and activities to encourage students’ involvement in/commitment to their studies along their learning journey, inside and outside of the classroom. In HE, we’ve has placed too much emphasis on staff-led measures for improving student engagement during face-to-face contact sessions (e.g. lectures, seminars, tutorials), including increasing the diversity of our learning/teaching/assessment methods and student feedback mechanisms. These measures are hugely important, of course, particularly in such a competitive climate, inhabited by students more demanding of choice, quality and enhanced employability. However, the insidious emphasis on commodifying HE and pleasing the student ‘customer’ puts the cart before the horse. Valid, sustainable student engagement is driven by students - working closely, openly and responsibly with us (supportive teaching staff) and their course materials, immersing themselves in their studies. Student engagement means engagement by students, not simply the engagement of students by staff.
The E3 student: Effective, Engaged and Employable
When planning and writing the new ‘Criminology’ textbook with Oxford University Press (Case et al 2017), we developed the analogy of student engagement as a journey. On this journey, teaching staff guide students in their discovery of effective learning strategies and engagement mechanisms that ultimately enhance their student experience. This is the journey to becoming and being an E3 student:
• Effective: fully informed and aware of the information, traits, skills, experiences and support mechanisms required for academic success;
• Engaged: willing and committed to maximise the student experience through participation in and dedication to studies;
• Employable: developing and possessing personal transferable skills, experiences and a CV that enhance job prospects.
We conceived of the E3 student as (striving to be) a proactive, critical, strategic and independent learner - a dynamic manipulator and constructor of knowledge, rather than a passive recipient and regurgitator of information. These are the students who make full use of the teaching capacity of staff and departmental resources; who maximise their learning experiences. Crucially, we as lecturers empower our students to take responsibility for their own engagement. However, many of us know the dangers of student engagement diminishing during independent study hours. Students can complain of insufficient guidance in the effective utilisation of their significant periods of independent study time. They may feel cut adrift from their programmes and teaching staff; they may feel directionless when engaging with course materials without the supervision of an experienced and knowledgeable lecturer. Their learning journey may stall or deviate off course as a result. Students should be made responsible for their learning journey outside of the classroom of course, but they must also be supported and empowered by us to exercise this responsibility. A key issue, therefore, is how to bridge or ‘scaffold’ the gulf between engaging with students in the classroom and encouraging their engagement independently?
The interactive textbook as route map
One solution to this dilemma is glaringly obvious – make textbooks more engaging! The academic textbook can be the cornerstone of learning in HE. However, these same textbooks can be dry, non-engaging storage facilities for information, failing to consistently interact and engage with the student reader. So are we missing a trick? Why not use textbooks as route maps to guide the learning journey, speaking directly to students in accessible ways and empowering them to become E3 learners? The textbook is a vital travel partner for students as they progress through a subject, so why not maximise its impact on independent study time and on the student experience? During production of the ‘Criminology’ textbook, we interacted intensively regarding content, structure and style with our intended audience: students (31 reviewers - 6 consultation stages) and lecturers (74 reviewers - 8 consultation stages). Consequently, planning and execution of the learning material was interactive throughout. The textbook itself is similarly interactive, containing a series of invented and adapted ‘key features’ that engage and interact with the reader, whilst encouraging the reader to engage and interact with the course material within (and beyond) the textbook. In addition to the standard chapter review and multiple choice questions, further readings and online resources, we attempt to animate and personalise discussion with (inter) activities including:
• What do you think? scenarios encouraging students to reflect on and challenge their own perspectives and preconceptions around key issues;
• Controversy and debate activities stimulating critical discussion and critique regarding contentious areas of the subject;
• Telling it like it is testimonies from academics, professionals and students offering personalised insight, experience and advice to stimulate understanding and analysis;
• Conversations with key stakeholders in our field (including students) providing personal accounts and unique perspectives to foster engagement with the application of academic knowledge and skills in the ‘real world’;
• New frontiers boxes motivating students to explore and progress their knowledge of cutting-edge ideas, concepts and initiatives at the forefront of a dynamic discipline.
Each of these key features work in combination with a through-going writing style that has been developed and refined (following student and lecturer feedback) to be student-friendly and accessible, demystifying complex ideas in accessible ways. The over-arching aim throughout is to engender an ABC (Always Be Critical) mind-set that students can carry with them as a way of travel on their journey to deeper engagement with their studies. The underpinning objective is to narrow the space between ourselves, our students and their course materials by challenging students to take ownership of their academic learning journey and to learn in an active and dynamic way. The key message from our textbook production process has been that student engagement can be harnessed as a way of travel on the learning journey – with the interactive textbook serving as a guide on this journey to becoming and being an E3 student.
The ‘Criminology’ textbook, authored by Case, Johnson, Manlow, Smith and Williams (2017) is available from Oxford University Press.
An associated short podcast, ‘Studying criminology: why and how’ is available at: