Student attendance has long polarized the higher education sector with reports of no to little effect on student success to positive relationships between attendance frequency at face to face and synchronous online lectures and better student engagement and achievement. This study investigates the impact of embedded online activities during lecture time on student learning by utilizing students’ portable devices to divert undesirable study behaviors such as gaming and social media activity during class. The aim of the learning intervention is to improve attendance at undergraduate engineering lectures as well as providing better connection to the subject content. Study participants were third year Bachelor of Engineering students enrolled in a mandatory “Digital System Design” course as part of their degree at a major research university in New Zealand. To explore the student experience of embedded active learning tasks on engagement and academic achievement, both qualitative and quantitative data were collected from N = 75 students over a three-year period when the course underwent a re-design utilizing a participatory action research approach. Student focus group discussions and learning analytics data revealed that the completion of online activities during lectures can lead to cognitive overload negatively affecting engagement. However, real-time feedback on learning via synchronization of learning tasks with the lecture content improved student–student and student–teacher connections and thereby contributed to a more positive overall learning experience. The role of stimulating learner motivation and attendance is discussed against Keller’s ARCS model and recommendations for teaching practice are given.

Practitioner Notes

  1. The embedding of active learning tasks in large undergraduate engineering lectures can improve the overall learning experience by connecting students with the lecture content, the teachers, and each other and therefore attendance for those who participated in the in-class activities.
  2. Allowing students to complete activities synchronized with the lecture at a later stage asynchronously increased motivation to learn as online activity regularly exceeded attendance, but awarding marks for completion (either in-class or asynchronous) improved participation greatly.
  3. The design of learning tasks to be completed by students during class time need to allow cognitive learning processes to take place to avoid multitasking resulting in distraction and cognitive overload.
  4. The use of students’ personal devices during class time for the completion of academic tasks can be an effective way of countering boredom and disengagement, breaking down content-dense subjects commonly taught in engineering.

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