Introducing Academic “Desirability” to Models of Student Engagement

In our 2019-2020 study SERT asked Ryerson students to define student engagement and when we introduced an idea about academic “desirability” we came to understand more about students’ experiences, their barriers to engagement, and what bringing research “to” participants can look like.

In what ways might a student’s sense of their academic “desirability” impact their engagement experiences?

There’s an obvious path here towards narrative analysis, a preference for stories as the unit of scrutiny, stories in all their context and complexity, not reduced to codes or themes. That is the path we chose.


First, a survey to investigate how students define “student engagement” and “desirability”

The design of our survey questions was based on our interest in gauging how students not only define student engagement, but also how they perceive as well as experience barriers (or not) to engagement. While our main focus in analysis of this survey was on the topic of student engagement, a few of our questions presented the topic of “desirability” to students by prompting further self-reflection on whether they feel like they have characteristics of the “model student”.

Bringing Research “To” Participants

At our research “activations”, when we set-up in various locations on campus, participants also had the opportunity to participate in the survey on-the-spot including via our Survey Audio-Recording Booth. These activations, as opposed to simply sending the survey link, served a few unique purposes. We generated interest in the survey and our research questions, which demystified the research process for our potential participants.

Responding to a pandemic: A shift to virtual “walking” interviews

After our survey closed, we invited participants who opted-in to a followup invitation to join us for an interview to focus on our second set of research questions. We were in the midst of our research design when Toronto and Ryerson University reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic – the university closed and shifted to an online-only model to protect public health and safety. Instead of hosting walking interviews on campus as we had intended, our interviews involved one SERT research assistant calling one participant on Zoom at a time. At the beginning of the interview, the participant was asked to think of a place “on” campus they would like to begin on Google Maps. As the interview continued, participants took us “around” campus and its surrounding downtown Toronto streets and we engaged in a loose conversation about belonging, student engagement, desirability, and anything else that came up for participants and research assistants during their time together.

A team that pivots: Conducing research amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Part of the recruitment process for SERT research assistants includes asking candidates to describe their comfort with ambiguity. The events of March 2020, on a global scale, tested our adaptability, amongst other things, in a very real way. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 13, 2020, Ryerson University announced all classes and exams would shift to an alternative/online format. All in-person events and gatherings at the university were cancelled indefinitely. On March 17, the university announced a shift to an essential services model, resulting in the complete closure of nearly all campus buildings and services. Students, faculty, and staff had to adjust to a new learning, teaching, and community reality, overnight. We understood given the global crisis at hand that our participants may not be able to separate their current reality from what would have been their “regular” routine at Ryerson. And why should they? So, we allowed space for participants to reflect on and share their current experiences in recognition of the magnitude of what was happening for all of us.

Our approach to analyzing student stories

SERT sees narrative as a fundamental aspect of the human experience. People tell stories to make meaning of their experiences and of the phenomena they encounter. We see our participants as narrators of their experience. So, our method coincided with that understanding, as we generated stories through unstructured interviews. We acknowledge further the nature of our interpretations that follow as a kind of subjective truth, not an objective truth. We are interested in deepening our understanding of students’ experience, their perceptions, their lives – rather than what is necessarily objectively true or what causes things to be true (Hendry, 2007). It is with this perspective that we interpreted our participants’ stories and responses and later situated them within the broader context of current discourses about student engagement.