What helps students to engage with the academic environment?

  • Samantha Rhianne Linton University of California, Davis
  • Jessica Baily the University of Sheffield
  • Emma Nagouse the University of Sheffield
  • Helen Williams the University of Sheffield


This paper brings together concerns about student engagement and widening participation in higher education, to explore what helps students to engage with the academic environment at a research intensive university in England. It is based on a joint research project between the University and Students’ Union, which explored students’ experiences of, and perceptions about, their engagement with the academic environment. We aimed to get beyond the idea of student ‘apathy’ to get a deeper understanding of why students do or do not participate in particular activities, and to identify potential barriers to engagement. Instead of defining student engagement, we tried to find out how students themselves understood the term.


We interviewed a diverse sample of students about their life at University and their perception of their engagement with the academic environment, their interactions with other students and staff, their sense of community, and their interaction with the Students’ Union and student representation structures. We analysed the data using a qualitative thematic approach.


Drawing on the interview data, this paper highlights potential barriers to engagement and factors that facilitate engagement, and examines how these interact with students’ backgrounds and lives beyond the University. It considers how we can enable student engagement in the academic environment, through considering themes such as community building, learning and teaching, student support, and student social life. Importantly, it reflects on how to ensure that student engagement opportunities are inclusive.

Author Biographies

Samantha Rhianne Linton, University of California, Davis

PhD Researcher,

Department of Psychology

Jessica Baily, the University of Sheffield

Projects and Student Partnerships Manager,

Learning and Teaching Services, Academic Programmes and Student Engagement

Emma Nagouse, the University of Sheffield

Previously the Academic Life Coordinator,

the University of Sheffield Students’ Union

Helen Williams, the University of Sheffield
Previously the Projects and Development assistant, Learning and Teaching Services


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How to Cite
Linton, S. R., Baily, J., Nagouse, E., & Williams, H. (2019). What helps students to engage with the academic environment?. Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal, 3(1), 7-31. Retrieved from https://sehej.raise-network.com/raise/article/view/970