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All Students Matter, Every Student Counts

Student engagement, progression, and success – an institutional approach

Marese Bermingham
Head, AnSEO: The Student Engagement Office, and Head, Teaching and Learning Unit, Cork Institute of Technology

This article looks at student engagement and success in the current higher education context. What drives an increasing focus on student progression? Who benefits? How did we at Cork Institute of Technology set about taking up the challenge?

Cork Institute of Technology continues to invest in improving student engagement, progression, and success. This cross-institute commitment is evidenced by the proactive establishment and resourcing of AnSEO: The Student Engagement Office. AnSEO actions this commitment through relationship-building, consultation, partnership, and collaboration across the entire student and staff community. We have placed both AnSEO and our Teaching and Learning Enhancement Unit side by side to maximise the synergies and to reflect our belief that the educational environment created by CIT, our actions and attitudes have a very substantial impact on student learning and engagement.

—Dr Barry O Connor,
President, Cork Institute of Technology


Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) has gained recognition both nationally and internationally for its leading work in student engagement, progression, and success. It hosted the European First Year Experience conference (EFYE) in June 2019, attracting over 400 delegates from 22 countries. After the conference it hosted Ireland’s first National Think Tank on Student Success, in partnership with the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.

CIT has twice won the Student Engagement and Communications award at the Irish Education Awards, and AnSEO has been shortlisted as Outstanding First Year Champions by the International Centre for First-Year Experience and Transitions in the US and named as an exemplar in this space by the Higher Education Authority of Ireland (HEA).

What is student engagement?

At Cork Institute of Technology, we use Trowler and Trowler’s 2011 definition of student engagement, reflecting both student and institutional responsibility: ‘The investment of time, effort and other relevant resources by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students, and the performance and reputation of the institution’. Expecting student engagement to happen of its own accord has been described as ‘magical thinking’ by Chang et al. (2005).

Why is CIT committed to enhancing student engagement, progression, and success?

  • Our mission statement commits us to deliver on our ethical and moral responsibilities to help all students to succeed.
  • Taking a proactive and purposeful approach to enhancing student engagement will improve student learning and outcomes, resulting in more confident and employable graduates.
  • Student engagement can facilitate a more responsive institution, leading to better collaborative relationships. Engaging students as partners and co-creators creates real buy-in when leading change.
  • With greater numbers and diversity of students in higher education, the probability of non-completion is increased. This is often at a huge personal cost to students and their families.
  • Failure to engage students carries potential significant financial impact for the student, the higher education institution (HEI), the government, and the taxpayer.
  • Student engagement is a matter of national and international attention, according to the Department of Education and Skills, the HEA, and QQI policy. There is increasing strategic focus on student success by the National Forum for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, the Irish Survey of Student Engagement, HEA Compacts, and NStEP (National Student Engagement Programme).
  • In a globalised education setting, with increased competition for both home and international applicants, students rightly expect high-quality learning experiences in a multicultural campus.

So while student success does not happen by wishful thinking, we know that enhancing student engagement is good for both our students and our institute. We also know that student success is not always a straight line from first year to graduation. Students have complex lives. Sometimes their ability to progress may be hindered by situations outside our control. However, we can provide knowledgeable assistance to students to make prudent decisions when faced with challenges.

But how then do we move from ‘knowing’ to effective, intentional policies and action? What are the best thinkers on student engagement, progression, and success telling us, and how are we applying this research? At CIT we study the best international research through the lens of respected thinkers in the field.

John N. Gardner and Betsy Barefoot were among our keynotes at EFYE and active contributors to the National Think Tank on Student Success. They spoke with conviction of a whole-of-institute approach to student success, recognising that enhancing student engagement, progression, and success is our core mission as educators.

Vincent Tinto (2012) also speaks to the need for an institutional approach and effective action. He writes: ‘Too often, institutes invest in a laundry list of actions, one disconnected from another. The result is an uncoordinated patchwork of actions whose sum impact on student retention (progression) is less than it could be or should be’. Tinto’s ‘Conditions for Student Success’ are: expectations, support, assessment and feedback, and involvement.

These converge comfortably with the six core commitments espoused by Gardner and Barefoot that matter most in HEIs that are ‘successfully navigating the challenges facing higher education’:

  1. Learning Matters

Effective HEIs ‘foster learning by everyone on campus, recognising that faculty and staff must continually learn so that they can help students to learn’ (Felten et al., 2016).

  • At CIT we are actively developing AnSEO’s activities alongside our Teaching and Learning Unit (TLU), with a view of maximising synergies and working in partnership with both students and colleagues to enhance learning and teaching.

  1. Relationships Matter

All relationships count and are purposefully cultivated and nurtured. ‘Strong institutions value strong relationships, and they do not leave these to chance’ (Felten et al., 2016)

  • At CIT, AnSEO and TLU have an enacted policy of working in partnership with academic faculties and departments, other central services, and students. For example, AnSEO funded and supported over forty department-led Transitions to CIT projects in 2018–19.
  • AnSEO has an Academic Success Coaching programme for students. Here we develop a sense of purpose and agency that encourages students to connect and interact with staff and peers in ways that are beneficial to their academic progress.
  • Our Teaching and Learning Unit established a staff mentoring project in 2015. Forty-three staff participated in a European Mentoring Coaching Council–accredited foundation certificate in coaching skills in 2018–19. All new lecturing colleagues are offered the opportunity to pair up with a trained induction mentor.
  1. Expectations Matter

‘Clear and high expectations are central to the value and impact of an institution,’ write Felten et al. (2016). Student engagement and success do not happen by chance. We need to communicate explicitly what our expectations are and ensure our actions align accordingly.

  • CIT’s new academic plan, strategic development plan, and explicit commitment in HEA compacts set out a vision and commitment to the ongoing development of our CIT student experience, with student engagement, progression, and success at their core.
  • Our investment in enhancing our academic induction programmes through Good Start (for students) and Tús Maith (for staff), Transitions to CIT projects, academic success coaching, and messaging campaigns show our continuing commitment to setting out clear expectations.
  1. Alignment Matters

Felten et al. (2016) write, ‘Thriving institutions transform silos into systems by supporting cross-unit coordination and by paying more attention to the student experience.’ Collaboration is a key element and needs facilitation, encouragement, and support.

  • CIT has a tradition of working collaboratively across functions. Recent programmes from AnSEO and TLU have benefitted from this culture. All academic departments and central student services collaborate with our initiatives.
  • Fifteen new discipline-based Learning Communities were established in 2018–19. Twenty-four Teaching and Learning Development Projects were completed in 2018–19, led by academic department and central services colleagues.
  1. Improvement Matters

‘Excellent institutions critically assess student progress and their own effectiveness on specific, relevant measures, and use the results to help students deepen their learning and faculty and staff to make improvement in their programmes’ (Felten et al., 2016).

  • Our Students as Partners in Quality (sparq at CIT) programme enables our students to work with faculty teams to have meaningful discussions about issues of concern, with agreed action plans emerging.
  • Our new Learning Communities enable groups of colleagues to identify and assess what matters most to them and to work together to improve these areas. It is envisaged that these communities will use sparq events to build student–staff partnership projects that will lead to co-created solutions.
  • This evolving infrastructure enables cross-unit collaboration, contributes to stronger relationships, and involves everyone in the process of change-making.
  1. Leadership Matters

According to Felten et al. (2016), ‘In strong institutions, leaders at all levels share a sense of vision and purpose. […] People throughout the organisation need to see themselves as part of the leadership team. This requires everyone to work together to nurture an institutional culture of inclusion, intentionality, and purpose.’

  • CIT has articulated ambitious goals as part of its HEA compact on student progression and success.
  • We are working with a clear understanding that student engagement, progression, and success are the business of everyone in our institute, as described in our academic plan.
  • We work to build cohesive, sustainable change by empowering staff and students to shape their teaching and learning experiences.
  • CIT’s continued resourcing and support of AnSEO and TLU activities gives voice to an explicit intention to follow some of the best thinking, as illustrated above.

Students have the most important role to play as engaged learners, and we want them to really recognise this. At the same time, we also seek to develop and support the critical role staff have to play in cultivating an effective partnership approach to student communications and engagement.

 —Dr Áine Ní Shé,
Registrar and VP for Academic Affairs, Cork Institute of Technology

Risam Uile: Let us all achieve!


Bovill, C. and Bulley, C.J. (2011) ‘A model of active student participation in curriculum design: Exploring desirability and possibility’.

Bryson, C. (ed.) (2014) Understanding and Developing Student Engagement. Routledge.

Chang, M.J., Chang, J.C., and Ledesma, M.C. (2005) ‘Beyond magical thinking: Doing the real work of diversifying our institutions’, About Campus, 10(2), 9–16. doi: 10.1002/abc.124

Felten, P., Gardner, J.N., Schroeder, C., Lambert, L., Barefoot, B., and Hrabowski, F. (2016) The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. Jossey-Bass.

Morgan, M. (ed.) (2011) Improving the Student Experience: A Practical Guide. Abingdon: Routledge.

National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning Strategy (2019) Strategy 2019–2021: Leading Enhancement and Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

Student Partnerships in Quality Scotland (sparqs) (2019)

The Student Engagement Partnership (2019)

Thomas, L. (2013) ‘What works? Facilitating an effective transition into higher education’, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(1), 4–24.

Tinto, V. (2012) Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action. University of Chicago Press.

Trowler, P. and Trowler, V. (2011) Student engagement: Toolkit for leaders.

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