Supporting engagement or engaging support?

Leanne J. Rylands, Don Shearman


The need for learning support in first year mathematics subjects in universities in Australia is increasing as student diversity increases. We studied the use of two modes of learning support in a first year mathematics subject for which there is no assumed mathematics knowledge. Many students in this subject have a poor mathematics background, noticeably worse than five years previously. Students were offered both online support and face-to-face workshops. Student use of support was tracked for a semester, along with some measures of engagement: tutorial attendance and use of the learning management system. The interplay between learning support and engagement was found to be significant and the use of support can be used as a measure of engagement. The success of support is intertwined with the success of engagement, making it difficult to measure the success of learning support. Hence, if we want to measure the success of support we somehow have to disentangle the effect of learning support from that of student engagement. However, student outcomes appear to be substantially improved through engagement with any learning activities.

Engagement with both online support and face-to-face support was generally very poor, however the groups that utilised each mode were largely distinct. This indicates that a variety of support mechanisms, both face-to-face and online, are necessary to maximise the engagement with support. The poor engagement with learning support presents us with a huge challenge for the future, a challenge seen by many others: getting more students engaged in learning support. Though support is generally seen to be successful, few students engage with the support available and so many students are performing far worse than they could be. This has a serious effect on pass rates and can be detrimental to mathematics departments as mathematics academics could be seen poor teachers who are unable to motivate their students.

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