Student Engagement



About the Group

Our research in Student Engagement feeds directly into our practice as educators. We are interested in the following areas:

  • Gender differences in engagement
  • Engaging non-traditional students
  • Engagement and retention
  • Engagement and wellbeing
We also work collaboratively with colleagues in Cardiff Met’s School of Education, and with colleagues with similar interests in the student experience in the University of the West England, Edinburgh University and the London College of Fashion.

We conduct internationally recognised research and publish in a range of journals such as: Studies in Higher Education, Psychology Teaching Review, the International Journal of Wellbeing, and Widening Participation and Life Long Learning.

Recent Research Grants

  • British Academy: Detecting Uncertainty, Improving Retention: A psychometric approach to reducing attrition in Higher Education. Lalage Sanders with Dr Carolyn Mair, London College of Fashion.
  • ESCalate Themed funding: Student Well-being Grant: Trainee teachers' physical and mental wellbeing: a study of university and school experience. Lalage Sanders with Dr Jan Huyton, (Cardiff School of Education)
  • Higher, Education Academy Mini Project: Exploring the roots of male (dis)engagement in Psychology (Mercer,J. & Sander,P. (UWIC) Williamson, S. (Newman College) & Jones, T (University of Worcester)
  • Higher Education Academy Wales, Wales Learning and Teaching Enhancement Fund for Wales: “Does it do what it says on the tin? The effectiveness of Foundation courses as measured by students’ reflections and progression.” Lalage Sanders & Annette Daly
  • Welsh Assembly Government New Ideas Social Research Fund: Foundation Students’ Expectations and Engagement

Group Members

PhD Students

  • Rachel Dodge

Engaging Non-traditional Students

The European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) supports students to pursue temporary periods of study in other European universities. Although much research exists about the experiences of international students less attention has been given to the specific disciplines of study and the ways this might mediate the experience. It is with this in mind that Jenny Mercer has sought to explore the differences in psychology curriculums between Polish and UK universities, and the way in which Erasmus students from Poland have adjusted to study in a British university.

This study explored accounts of Polish Erasmus students who had taken part in a study abroad year in a British university. The objective was to investigate if prior knowledge of studying psychology in one country mediates the experience in another and to discuss how participants found the process of integration in relation to studying in a different country. Focus group interviews were analysed using a thematic analysis technique. Some challenging contrasting pedagogical and epistemological differences between the two systems emerged and integration between home and ERASMUS students was reported as being low level. Discussions about how these findings can be related to the aims of Erasmus and the wider remit of internationalisation are offered.

The work has been disseminated in both British and Polish journals, and presented at a EUROPLAT symposium about internationalisation.

Adult Returners
Interest in this topic stemmed from Jenny Mercer’s doctoral work looking at access students’ transitions into and through higher education. This sought to examine the social psychological processes involved in re-engaging in study. Employing a cross-sectional longitudinal design 31 participants’ accounts were gathered at different stages of their educational career: further education (FE), higher education (HE) and six to eight months after graduation. Using both open ended questionnaire booklets and semi-structured interviews, participants were required to reflect on their experiences whilst negotiating these transitions. The data was analysed using grounded theory.

The findings revealed that many changes took place during this period on both an academic and personal level. However, change involved the negotiation of numerous conflicts over time – thus re-engaging with education was viewed as a process of growth and development. Theories of self and identity were drawn upon to illustrate the way in which self both regulates and motivates change. It was suggested that participants assimilated and accommodated the self schema of mature student whilst engaged in study, which became a salient part of their working self concept. The process as a whole was viewed as an example of a non-normative developmental task.

Findings from this research have been published in various journals and presented at conferences with both an educational and psychological focus. Jenny was also invited to discuss her work at a symposium on widening participation run by the Division of Teachers and Researchers at a British Psychological Society’s annual conference.

Engagement and Retention

Student Expectations and EngagemenT (SEET) Project
The focus of this project has been students undertaking a Foundation Year course prior to entering degree level study. Building a successful foundation? The role of Foundation Year courses in preparing students for their degree. We have undertaken three projects so far.

A study of Level 4 students who completed a Foundation Year was funded by the Higher Education Academy Wales. This study sought reflections from current Level 4 students who had completed one of four Foundation courses across two universities, and collected Examining Board data to assess whether the performance of Foundation graduates is comparable to that of their peers. We also surveyed the number of Foundation courses available according to the UK’s University and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) and found a confusing lack of consistency in the way these courses are described. The results of this study are published in Widening Participation and Life Long Learning under the title Building a successful foundation? The role of Foundation Year courses in preparing students for their degree.

A study of the expectations, experiences and performance of Foundation Year Students was partially funded by the Welsh Assembly Government New Ideas in Social Research Fund. This study recruited students from four Foundation Year courses across two universities, collecting both quantitative and qualitative data through surveys and focus groups and collected Examining Board outcomes for the four courses. This paper is in preparation.

We recently undertook a study of Foundation Year Programme Tutors to explore their views of this provision, and their experience of teaching on these programmes. This paper is in preparation.

Supporting Students in Transition to Higher Education
Working in collaboration with Dr Carolyn Mair of London College, we are looking at ways of developing flexible support for students during the transition to studying at undergraduate level. The focus of the project is to help students develop metacognition, learning how to learn, and improving their confidence in themselves as independent learners.

Engagement and Wellbeing

Mood disorders
Mood disorders typically materialise in young adulthood, a life-stage when many begin a higher education course. Starting university can be a challenging time for young people who either enter with, or develop a mood disorder whilst studying. The culture of drinking within universities can contribute to symptoms; whilst issues relating to stigma can deter individuals from accessing support.

Few studies have examined the experiences of students with a mood disorder. This study reported a thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews with five university students who had personal experience of such a disorder. Participants described how symptoms affected their academic and social experiences of university based around the themes of: Social and family support, Powerful symptoms, Stigma and labelling, and Inter-professional dynamic. It was concluded that stigma and lack of information prevented students from obtaining sufficient support, whilst the addition of key staff such as a university-wide mental health trainer is identified as a potential way forward to help such students negotiate the higher education environment.

The paper was published in the journal Disability and Society

Wellbeing of students in FE
The project aims to investigate levels of wellbeing in Further Education students. The project will involve designing a wellbeing measure suitable for this age group. A pastoral intervention programme will be designed in an attempt to increase levels of wellbeing in students. Focus groups will be undertaken throughout the research as a way to ascertain participants' attitudes towards wellbeing.

Well being of Trainee Teachers
A study of trainee teachers was funded by ESCalate, the Education Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy. This study focused on wellbeing of PGCE/PGDE students, the provision of support and the impact of Fitness to Teach guidelines. It involves three cases studies, exploring institutional policy and the perceptions of staff and students to elicit key issues to stimulate debate across the sector.

Gender Differences in Engagement

This three-year longitudinal study explored the approach to study and academic performance of a group of male psychology undergraduates. In induction week, 112 new psychology students completed the survey. Later in the year, some of the males were interviewed in small groups. Performance was measured from marks at the end of Years 1 and 3. In Year 1, compared with their female contemporaries, male respondents had higher self-esteem (p<.01), expected higher marks (p<.001) and anticipated performing better than their peers (p<.05). In interviews, males described themselves as being less motivated and less organised than females, but did not consider this a problem. The only difference in marks showed males doing worse in coursework at Year 1 (p<.05). However, significantly more males failed to complete the course. These findings are set in the context of concerns about under achievement of males and discussed in relation to research into transition to university.

This study which was discussed in the Psychologist was published in Psychology Teaching Review: Rogue males? Approaches to study and academic performance of male psychology students

Exploring the roots of male (dis)engagement in Psychology
It is well established that there is a disproportionate number of males to females studying psychology in the UK, both at A level and on degree courses. The purpose of this Higher Education Academy funded project was to discover males’ perceptions of psychology and how this might have influenced their subject choices at A2 or of university course. A qualitative design was employed utilising focus groups which were selected in order to offer an environment for individuals to discuss experiences with presumed peers likely to share some common frame of reference. Thirty five males in pre-tertiary education, (18 studying Psychology ‘A’ level, 17 not) were purposively selected from three centres in South Wales, the Midlands and West of England. An inductive thematic analysis was conducted.

Five overarching themes emerged: ‘Why would I want to study psychology? revealed that participants viewed psychology as less important when compared to other discipline areas, and for the majority, not a subject they wished to pursue at university; ‘Psychology was not what I expected’ described how those who had elected to study the discipline found a mis-match between expectations and realities; ‘Psychology as ‘a sort’ of science’ indicated that psychology was viewed as a second rate subject with a ‘sort of’ scientific basis, but not on a par with the ‘hard’ sciences; ‘Representations of psychologists’ seemed to be constrained by stereotypes around analysis, therapy and profiling and media figures, whilst ‘Gendered accounts of discipline areas’ saw participants largely defining the content of psychology as more appropriate for women.

The idea that psychology was not positioned as a serious academic discipline, the highly gendered nature of participants’ conceptions of the content and the lack of clarity about the purpose of a psychology degree were all concerning findings. The ways in which psychology is represented by these males provided some insight into possible reasons why males may not be drawn to psychology. However, it also illustrates that a big challenge exists for those wishing to re-address the gender balance. If more males are to be attracted to psychology, it might be time for some radical changes. Suggestions for such changes have been discussed in the subsequent dissemination of this research.

Findings were presented at the inaugural conference of the Division for Academics, Researchers and Teachers in Psychology at the Annual BPS conference. A paper entitled ‘Emotions or Science? Pre-tertiary males’ accounts of psychology as a subject choice’ is published in Psychology Teaching Review .

The full report of the research can be accessed at: