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ALH14210.1177/1469787413481129Active Learning in Higher EducationThompson et al.

Article

Active Learning in Higher Education


14(2) 135­–147
‘It’s just like an extra string to © The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/1469787413481129
education students’ perceptions alh.sagepub.com

and experiences of extracurricular


activity and employability

Leanne J Thompson
Lancaster University, UK

Gordon Clark
Lancaster University, UK

Marion Walker
Lancaster University, UK

J Duncan Whyatt
Lancaster University, UK

Abstract
Students’ experience of higher education comprises not only their academic studies but also their
extracurricular activities. This article reports on the findings from a mixed-methods research project,
exploring in detail the nature and value of extracurricular activity engagement and the significance of
institutional schemes encouraging extracurricular activity engagement, from a UK student perspective. Our
findings reveal that many students are actively engaged in a variety of extracurricular activities and recognise
their value for employability. However, fewer students are strategic in their patterns of involvement, which
may be hindered by a lack of career planning. Furthermore, extracurricular activity engagement can be
detrimental to academic study, and engagement alone does not assure employability benefits. However,
structured institutional schemes encouraging extracurricular activity engagement may facilitate reflection,
enabling students to make best use of their experiences for their future careers. Our research contributes
to a growing body of research evidence on ‘life-wide learning’.

Keywords
Employability, extracurricular activity, graduate attributes, institutional award, life-wide learning,
metacognition, reflection, student careers

Corresponding author:
Leanne J Thompson, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK.
Email: l.j.thompson@lancaster.ac.uk
136 Active Learning in Higher Education 14(2)

Extracurricular activities and the ‘student experience’


To be best prepared for the workplace, higher education students not only need to maximise aca-
demic learning, but they need to take advantage of the skills, qualities and dispositions, which can
be developed through the non-academic, extracurricular activities (ECAs) and experiences afforded
by a period in higher education. The concept of ‘life-wide learning’ (Jackson, 2008) captures this
idea in suggesting that learning occurs through formal and informal experiences in different ‘learn-
ing spaces’, with academic study and ECAs representing different ‘spaces’ within the student expe-
rience (Barnett, 2010).
Definitions of ‘extracurricular’ vary; the curricular and extracurricular increasingly overlap
(Clegg et al., 2010). Some university courses include elements traditionally considered extracur-
ricular, and many universities are developing awards to promote and reward extracurricular
engagement and life-wide learning (see Jackson, 2011). We define ECAs as activities and events
that students engage in, which are not part of their formal degree classification such as hobbies,
social groups, sporting, cultural or religious activities and voluntary or paid work; these things are
part of the wider ‘student experience’. Such activities are generally of communal interest/benefit
with some structure/organisation. We include activities which are sometimes defined as co-curricular,
as they closely relate to but are not part of academic study, as well as market (e.g. employment) and
non-market activities (e.g. social/leisure activities).

Graduate attributes and employability


Because many students pursue careers outside of the area of their academic degree, generic attrib-
utes and skills will be particularly important for whatever workplace they find themselves in after
graduation. Muldoon (2009) notes that ‘there is an emerging school of thought that contends that
personal attributes and qualities transcend skills and capabilities in importance because graduates
need these to be equipped to respond to an unknown future’ (p. 238). Archer and Davison (2008)
found that personal attributes, such as communicative ability, integrity, confidence and personality,
were among the top 10 qualities that employers thought important when recruiting graduates.
Hinchliffe and Jolly (2011) question traditional models of employability suggesting that we should
focus on practice and identity, which underpin performance and skill development; employers are
generally restricted to assessing potential not performance, the latter being evident only after
employment. They suggest that potential may be assessed by examining graduate identity, specifi-
cally values, intellect, performance and social engagement.
Other formulations of employability highlight that understanding, beliefs and metacognition are
core components of employability (Knight and Yorke, 2004). Metacognition enables us to monitor,
evaluate and adjust our learning and thinking. For Hinchliffe and Jolly (2011), this is part of the
‘intellect’ aspect of identity. In discussions with employers, they found that the capacity to reflect
was fundamental, influencing an individual’s ability to work as part of a team, to assess their own
work and to identify their own training and development needs informing career choices and
development. These ideas are akin to the concept of ‘capability’, which Stephenson (1998) defines
as ‘an integration of knowledge, skills, personal qualities and understanding used appropriately
and effectively’ (p. 2). It captures the notion that the ability to act effectively depends upon learning
and reflecting upon past experiences (to deal with unpredictable and changing situations) rather
than the possession of specific skills.
Universities have vested interests in improving student employability; university performance now
includes indicators of graduate labour-market outcomes, and university employability statements are
Thompson et al. 137

available to prospective students. As a result, many universities now embed employability skills within
courses and/or offer separate skill courses, but research suggests that it is difficult to acquire employ-
ability skills in the classroom (Mason et al., 2009). They concluded that there may be little gained from
teaching skills, which are best developed, or indeed only possible to develop, during employment.
However, there are other ways to promote employability, such as through work-placement years or
work-experience modules. The number of voluntary university schemes with institutional recognition
for ECA participation is also increasing (Muldoon, 2009).

The value of ECAs


Research on the value of ECAs has shown that engagement is related to a number of valuable
workplace skills and attributes such as improved critical thinking, leadership and social skills (Tieu
et al., 2010), which are desired by employers (Harvey et al., 1997 cited in Burke et al., 2005).
Research in the United States also indicates gains from ECA engagement on academic achieve-
ment (see Nonis et al., 2006), although not all research report positive associations (Lindsay and
Paton-Saltzberg, 1993). Data from the US National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE; 2011)
identified that those participating in service learning (community service within an educational
programme) reported higher gains in several areas of learning and development. Career develop-
ment programmes were also rated extremely positively; they were perceived to facilitate the devel-
opment of career-related skills and new ways of thinking.
ECAs may also play an important role in university adjustment (Tieu et al., 2010). The transi-
tion to university is a challenging time (Harvey et al., 2006), but Tieu and Pancer (2009) found that
the quality of ECA involvement significantly predicted adjustment to university. High-quality
involvement was defined as activities perceived to be important, which elicited positive feelings
and provided a sense of connection to others. Milem and Berger (1997 cited in Tieu et al., 2010)
also found that first-year undergraduates involved in organised activities had more intentions to
continue studying than those involved in less structured, social activities. The NSSE (2011) found
that students living on-campus spent significantly more time engaged in co-curricular activities
and were more likely to engage in events of educational value and to bond with other students,
benefitting learning and development. While correlation data cannot indicate causality, such data
highlight potentially significant relationships.
Research has also explored the role of ECAs in the transition from education to employment.
Tchibozo (2007) found that ECA engagement was related to both positive outcomes (e.g. better
occupational status) and negative ones (greater unemployment risk), highlighting the importance
of strategic engagement. Such twofold outcomes highlight the need to explore the complex rela-
tionships and perceptions impacting upon ECA engagement by individuals and employers.

Student perceptions of ECAs


Studies have begun to explore students’ understandings of the value of ECAs and institutional
recognition for ECA engagement. Muldoon (2009) explored one component of an institutional
award for student development, investigating whether students developed ‘desirable’ skills and
attributes through participating in part-time work and whether institutional recognition was valued.
Results suggested that although the award provided incentive and motivation, students did not
engage in work solely to complete the award. However, they valued institutional recognition in
terms of future employability, and the award positively influenced the way students viewed the
value of their participation. These findings suggest that such schemes may help students to better
138 Active Learning in Higher Education 14(2)

recognise the value of ECA engagement; they may increase metacognitive knowledge and in turn
develop capability. Furthermore, Goldfinch and Hughes (2007) found that students who were con-
fident in their study skills upon arrival at university did not do as well as those who recognised the
need to improve. In addition, students with more work experience had no greater confidence in
their skills. Therefore, they concluded that encouraging reflection on learning through part-time
work may benefit all students.
Yorke (2006) highlights that employability develops through learning from experience.
Therefore, institutional schemes incorporating self-reflection may enable students to make
best use of activities they engage in, to the benefit of their employability. The concept of life-
wide learning has been at the centre of research on student perceptions of the development of
creative professionalism. Ball et al. (2010) explored this in the context of work-related learn-
ing, while other studies looked more broadly at learning in different contexts. Willis (2011)
summarised data from three surveys investigating how creative arts students developed
employability skills and professional capability. She found that while life-wide experiences
offered development opportunities, these were not always recognised, despite evidence of
reflection. The research suggests that formalised programmes of reflection may be needed to
maximise the benefit of life-wide experiences but implementation costs may be prohibitive
(see Jackson, 2011).
Self-reflection could be realised through personal development planning (PDP): ‘a structured
and supported process undertaken by a learner to reflect upon their own learning, performance
and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development’ (Quality
Assurance Agency (QAA), 2009: 2). Monks et al. (2006) note that the PDP process benefits
employability by facilitating the identification of explicit transferable skills. They found that a
PDP module clarified career goals and increased student motivation for their degree. They made
more accurate assessments of their skills, engaged in more self-reflection and better evaluated
their performance. This highlights the importance of reflection not just engagement. If self-reflection
can be encouraged, it may be possible to realise the benefits of ECA participation for employabil-
ity and as a vehicle for developing the capabilities needed for successful transitions. However,
some students fail to engage at all. Some students may lack time to engage while others lack
social support and the confidence to engage. Social support from friends is essential to student
success (Wilcox et al., 2005).
ECA engagement is often assumed to be positive, but there may be pitfalls and some ECAs
may be valued more positively than others (Clegg et al., 2010). Employers can view engagement
both positively and negatively (Tchibozo, 2007), so we need to explore the dangers of ECAs and
the values surrounding engagement held by individual students. Although student-focused
research is emerging (Willis, 2011), Clegg et al. (2010) note that few studies explore ECA
engagement and students’ beliefs and perceptions of engagement in detail, leaving many ques-
tions unanswered about the student experience. Why do students engage in ECAs? Do students
recognise the value of engagement for employability? Is reflecting upon engagement a critical
part of benefitting from ECAs? What impact does institutional recognition have on perceptions
of the value of engagement? The responses to such questions add to the growing body of knowl-
edge about students’ ECA engagement and their perceptions of engagement and employability.
Research in this area has typically focused on quantitative indicators of ECA involvement (Tieu
et al., 2010), and therefore, there is a need to also look the qualitative. Recent work highlights the
importance of examining more closely the nature of ECA experiences, such as the amount of struc-
ture, organisation or frequency of participation (Mahoney and Stattin, 2000; Tieu et al., 2010).
What we can learn by better understanding the complexities of students’ ideas and experiences
Thompson et al. 139

adds to our knowledge of existing work into perceptions of engagement, both for individual stu-
dents and students collectively.

Methodology
This article focuses primarily on qualitative interview data from a mixed-methods research project
investigating students’ engagement with ECAs and their perceived value. Quantitative question-
naire data are presented prior to the interview data, to give an overview of ECA engagement for
contextual purposes. The study was conducted over one academic year at Lancaster University.
Lancaster University is ranked in the top 10 of UK universities with a rising global reputation. It is
part of the 1994 group of universities, which was established to promote excellence in teaching and
research. In 2009, the ‘Lancaster Award’ was developed to recognise and reward formally the
achievements of students engaged in and reflecting upon the understanding and skills developed
through their ECAs.
In phase 1 of the study (October/November, 2010), in-depth, semi-structured interviews were
conducted with seven recent graduates and Lancaster Award–holders by an experienced senior
research associate. These interviews provided a perspective on ECA engagement from students
who were highly engaged and incentivised to engage in ECAs. Interview questions asked students
about their experiences and perceptions of the Lancaster Award and the things that they engaged in
outside of academic study. The interview data informed the design of a questionnaire targeting cur-
rent third-year and fourth-year students. The questionnaire was designed by the project team and
was administered in December 2010. It investigated the types of ECAs engaged in and the factors
that might impact these experiences, such as demographic characteristics, access to transport, ECA
location, academic study characteristics and career plans; many of these were highlighted as rele-
vant by the Award-holder interview data. Questions also asked about levels of engagement and
motivations for engagement, including skill development for future career. The questionnaire was
piloted (n = 19) prior to its administration. Minor changes to question wording and format were
made following the pilot study.
In phase 2 of the study (February, 2011), 30 in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted
with undergraduates recruited via the questionnaire. Data from the Award-holder interviews and
questionnaires informed the choice of questions for the undergraduate interviews, which were
designed by the project team. Questions focused on gaining a more in-depth insight into topics
included in the questionnaire, such as why they engage in particular activities, what is the value of
ECA engagement and what are the barriers to engagement. Questions about opportunities for self-
reflection were also included as the significance of self-reflection was raised in the Award-holder
interviews. Questions about future career plans were included as few students indicated plans in
the questionnaire data. Those undertaking the Lancaster Award were asked about its value and
importance. Interviewees were selected to give a balanced group of 30 with respect to gender,
faculty and the diversity of ECA involvement shown in the questionnaire results. The interviews
were carried out individually (face-to-face or by telephone), lasting 30–50 minutes each. They
were recorded, fully transcribed and analysed using a grounded-theory approach by the senior
research associate who also conducted all the interviews. Respondents are referred to by pseudo-
nyms and quotations are verbatim.
In phase 3, findings from the interviews and questionnaire were used to design a workshop in
May 2011 for first-year undergraduates, designed and run by the project team. Activities included
the following: a discussion and video about the graduate job market and the use of ECAs to improve
employability, including what employers want; a curriculum vitae (CV) assessment task where
140 Active Learning in Higher Education 14(2)

Table 1.  Percentage of student engagements in various categories of ECA.

ECA Percentage of students


Sports 39
Paid work or specific work experience 15
Student society post 15
Voluntary work 14
Watching/participating in the arts or watching sport  8
University-based employment  5
Official college post  4
ECA: extracurricular activity.

students adopted an employer’s perspective; a CV planning task where students reflected upon
their employability and ECA engagement and planned how to best spend their remaining time at
university.
As the research focuses on student perceptions of ECAs, it was the students who determined the
activities defined as ECAs, although guided by a broad initial definition. For the questionnaires,
ECAs were defined as ‘activities, hobbies and work which are not part of your academic studies
and which may or may not be associated with the University’. Examples provided were ‘working
in a shop, attending a place of worship, volunteering at a school, engaging in sports or membership
of local or University clubs and societies’. In the interviews this definition was reiterated.

Results
What students do – the questionnaires
Analysis of the questionnaires (n = 67) revealed that respondents were predominantly female
(76%), but there were few significant gender differences in ECA activities. Students studied on a
variety of degree schemes across three faculties at Lancaster University (48%, 27% and 25% from
Science and Technology, Arts and Social Sciences and Management School, respectively).
Respondents were mostly final-year students (82%), few of whom were well engaged with career
activities (only 52% had any career plan). The majority engaged in at least one ECA (87%), while
13% said they had none; lack of time was the most common reason cited for lack of engagement.
Only 21% were enrolled on the Lancaster Award but 93% had heard of it.
Students were very active in terms of ECAs (average of three ECAs each) over a wide range of
categories (see Table 1). Engaging in sports was the most common form of ECA, while approxi-
mately one-third of students were employed (paid or voluntary). Approximately one-fifth had a
role of responsibility within their college or a student-society post.
Participation in at least one ECA was described as ‘often’ or ‘very often’, with a spectrum of
activity ranging from a single ECA pursued in great depth to participation in several different
ECAs. University-related ECAs totalled 61% (e.g. on-campus or university society/club). In rank
order, motives for pursuing ECAs were personal interest, meeting people and making friends, ben-
efit to career and financial. Most students (80%) recognised that their ECAs could have career
benefits but the skills they listed were general (e.g. communication skills or team work). Over half
held a position of responsibility in one of their ECAs; compared to women, twice as many men
held positions of responsibility or leadership, and such positions were twice as common among
Thompson et al. 141

students whose ECAs were on-campus compared with those off-campus. However, small sample
size requires that this intriguing result be treated with caution.

What students think – the interviews


ECAs and having fun.  When asked about their ECAs, it was clear that for most students, enjoyment
and the social elements of ECAs were imperative. As Maggie explained about being part of the
netball team, ‘we do take it seriously with training … but it’s just always fun’. A lack of fun often
led to disengaging. Graduate and Lancaster Award–holder Ruth joined several clubs in her first
year, but a lack of social connection with other members led her to seek alternative activities. ECAs
also provided a sense of belonging. Jo said of the Women’s University Rugby Club that she ‘imme-
diately felt like one of the team … and now I’m Captain, so it’s always been a massive part of my
university life’. In contrast, those less engaged in ECAs felt the impact on their whole university
experience and well-being. Third-year undergraduate Louise ‘didn’t really make very good friends
with the people I live with because I was shy’, which prevented her from joining club/societies.

ECAs as a way of coping.  Several students used ECAs to cope with stressful times. For some, the
social elements of ECAs provided a support mechanism, but for others sporting ECAs provided an
escape, as Maggie explained about running: ‘the other week I was getting stressed out with my
coursework so I went for a run … it’s just half an hour, where you can forget about everything
else’. Nathan used swimming in the same way, while Peter turned to badminton. During times of
stress, he reported that he ‘let go on the court’, and at times when he struggled to progress academi-
cally, he could progress in sport.

ECAs as contributing to society.  For some, the enjoyment of ECAs came from doing something
meaningful and valuable for the community, even if it was hard work and impacted on academic
study. This was particularly evident among those with positions of responsibility in clubs or socie-
ties. Third-year undergraduate and captain of the University Water Polo team Maisie said ‘it’s hard
work but I really enjoy it, making a team and doing bits of training and encouraging people’. Simi-
larly, despite the work involved, Maggie ‘absolutely loved’ her role as College Social Secretary,
saying ‘it was quite stressful, but it was definitely worth it’. Nathan, President of the Scuba Diving
Club, said, ‘Obviously there was the aspect that this would look great on my CV but more than
anything I just wanted to help the Club continue’.

ECAs, skill development and learning.  Others pursued ECAs offering specific experiences and skill
development useful for future employment goals. Anya volunteered in a school because she wanted
to become a teacher and valued the specific experience it would bring. Sarah explained how a
variety of voluntary positions had benefitted her, not only with experiences relevant to her career
but in developing generally useful skills: ‘all of those things have really helped me, obviously with
my career. But saying that, I think it would be good anyway … benefit you for the skills that you’ve
gained’. She said ECAs had enabled her to develop skills and attributes, which were not well
developed through her academic studies; voluntary school work developed her creativity.
In contrast, Nina found that skills developed through ECAs helped her academic study. She described
her experience working in retail, saying ‘it really chivvied me along to realise what I’m capable of …
it’s so fast pace … taking that and then applying it to this [academic study] was really helping’. Suzanne
also invested a great deal of time working weekends and holidays because she saw this as a way of
competing with more experienced people and levelling the playing field in the job market:
142 Active Learning in Higher Education 14(2)

I just think it sounds better that I’ve been able to manage my time well and been able to get all this work
experience whilst getting a 2-1…and I hope it sets me up with the people that have obviously done a lot
more than I have.

She also made a conscious decision to stop dancing during her third year because of her future
career and study priorities: ‘I thought “something’s got to give” … and dance wasn’t a career that
I was going into. I thought if I’m doing it at uni it’s something that’s more of a hobby …’.

The importance of being strategic


Several students demonstrated the importance of being strategic in choosing ECAs. Adam turned
down opportunities to teach science in schools because he already had experience teaching with
the Cadets: ‘to the point where I know that I don’t want to be a teacher’; teaching experience was
no longer relevant to his future. He also joined the Debating Society but said, ‘I kind of dropped
that when I prioritised things … it wasn’t really giving me anything’. Adam is a good example of
someone being strategic in their ECAs and mindful of the importance of skill development and
subsequent relevance to career aspirations.
Sarah also chose volunteering because ‘although it’s fun, it’s going to benefit my career as well
… whereas some other things possibly not’. Others showed how values surrounding ECAs can
interact with other strategic choices such as which to mention on a CV. Nathan explained how
initially he listed all ECAs on his CV but later only those demonstrating certain skills or
qualities.

Tensions between the curricular and the extracurricular


Some students are strategic, mentioning tensions between ECAs and academic work. Suzanne
explained these tensions regarding the University Dance Society:

… in second year, it ended up that dance became more important than my work … but you don’t realise at
the time because you get all caught up in it and that’s why my marks weren’t as high as I wanted. So I
thought I have to pick a role that I can give enough to but it’s not taking my priorities away from my work.

Lauren experienced similar issues as Hockey Captain and College Sports Representative. ‘I
found it far too much and couldn’t do all my work, so I dropped the Sports Rep. and it was a lot
easier just being Captain and my [academic] work, quite a nice balance’.
Julian reflected on the impact of his ECAs on his degree classification, saying,

If I hadn’t done all these things, I think there would have been a good chance I would have got a First. But
having said that … I would rather get a 2-1 and do all those things … I think it’s very important for the
development of the person and making friends, just growing as an individual really.

Others regretted not engaging more in ECAs, as Peter explained, ‘I think I got the balance a
bit wrong and I studied a lot more than socialised’. Some students actively pursued ECAs as
they thought that they could not achieve high academic grades, again demonstrating strategic
thinking. Jo said ‘in my opinion, if I’m not going to get a 2-1, I need to work on other things
that are going to make me stand out’. So while ECAs are not regarded as a substitute for a good
degree, their value is nevertheless recognised as an alternative way for some to demonstrate
their capabilities.
Thompson et al. 143

The value of an institutional award


The Lancaster Award–holder graduates provided an insight into the value of institutional recogni-
tion for ECA engagement and the significance of self-reflection, central to the award. All Award-
holders wanted the award to enhance their CVs and were aware of its potential in applications for
employment or future study. Today Award-holders may stand out, but as more universities adopt
such awards, they will become less distinctive. However, their value may be more in individual
development and the opportunity for self-reflection. This view was evident among the Award-
holders we interviewed, most of whom valued their ECAs irrespective of the award; most stated
that they would have undertaken them without the award. As Julian said,

if there was no Lancaster Award and, it wasn’t imperative for your CV, I would have done all these things
anyway … it’s not so much just saying you’ve got an award and putting it on your CV, … it’s the
development of the person that’s the most important.

It is interesting that students recognise that the processes involved in the Award facilitate devel-
opment and this cannot always be evidenced on job applications or CVs, but such development still
has value in terms of employability. Lancaster Award–holder Hannah explained how having an
‘Exec’ position in a club helped her confidence:

I was really quite reluctant because I was worried that I wasn’t capable of it. But I was so glad I did because
… it gave me a lot of confidence in what I didn’t think I was really capable of.

These views were reiterated by the interviewees who were not undertaking the Award.
Several perceived that there was nothing to gain from the Award. Adam said ‘I don’t think it
gives me anything that I haven’t already got’. Although Sarah recognised the value of anything
‘extra’ in a highly competitive workplace, she qualified this by saying ‘the skills aren’t going
to be enhanced by your Lancaster Award, as long as you can communicate them in an interview
…’. These students clearly see the value of ECAs as being in undertaking the ECAs and the
skills that come from that. The value that comes from the requirement for self-reflection to gain
the Award might not be evident to those not undertaking it but was clearly perceived by
Award-holders.

The value of reflection


Both the paperwork required and final interview, which form part of the Lancaster Award, neces-
sitate that students reflect upon the skills and attributes developed through ECAs. Ruth was ini-
tially sceptical of self-reflection, saying ‘at the time they said it will be very useful and I thought
“oh yes, whatever”’, but she then found in doing so ‘it does make you stop and think about your
skills’. She explained the paperwork element as ‘you do it and you come back to it and you do a
little bit more, because you do have to think about what’s on it’. So the process of reflection is
ongoing and requires careful thought. Award-holder Zoe explained that even though she consid-
ered herself to be self-aware, with a good understanding of her strengths and weaknesses, the
Lancaster Award ‘made me even more self-aware, after filling out the forms’. She valued the inter-
view for the same reasons, saying ‘it really helps your self-awareness for future interviews and the
whole process … it’s just like an extra string to your bow’.
She also explained how her Lancaster Award experience was used to improve her CV, saying,
144 Active Learning in Higher Education 14(2)

it was great having done the Award because then afterwards I went back and thought, ‘oh look, you’re
really not selling yourself enough at all because you haven’t listed all of these things that you can do from
the Award’.

Hannah summarises the value of the reflective component of the Lancaster Award even though
reflection can be undertaken independently:

you put a lot of thought into what you’ve done and what you’ve got out of what you’ve done and how that
all comes together to create the person you are at the end of your university experience. And unless
someone made you put your mind to it, or you’ve made yourself put your mind to it, you wouldn’t think
about that … I mean you could do that yourself but with the Lancaster Award you are doing that, it’s giving
you those benefits.

Discussion and conclusion


The study showed that many students are actively engaged in ECAs, with choice strongly aligned
with identity. Engagement seems central to happiness and well-being; ECAs are pursued primar-
ily for interest and enjoyment, which is enhanced because they provide social support. This may
facilitate adjustment to university, as suggested by Tieu et al. (2010). Enjoyment is critical for
unstinting and persistent involvement. Nevertheless, many students are willing to engage in
ECAs, which is hard work, in order to do something worthwhile or to develop skills. As Hinchliffe
and Jolly (2011) found, employers want evidence of students making the most of their university
experience beyond academia, with a willingness to step outside comfortable and familiar situa-
tions. In taking on demanding roles within clubs and societies and undertaking challenging
voluntary work, many students in our study demonstrated these qualities. Such roles are charac-
teristic of ‘high-quality’ ECAs, which may contribute further to university adjustment (Tieu and
Pancer, 2009).
Students are aware of the value of ECAs for employability, developing confidence, character,
social skills, planning and organisation. Strategic behaviour was evident in choice of ECAs and
level of involvement, although this is likely hindered by poorly defined career plans; as such it may
be difficult to tailor ECA choice to specific jobs or sectors. So ECAs that are of general value may
be particularly useful. There is considerable scope for university departments to establish proce-
dures to help students think more strategically about their ECAs. Nevertheless, in making ECA
choices on the basis of existing experiences, strengths and weaknesses, our students showed evi-
dence of metacognition, a key component of employability. Some students actively pursued ECAs
because they expected not to be able to get a high degree classification, although ECAs were not
generally regarded as a substitute for a ‘good’ degree.
ECA engagement can negatively affect academic study, making strategic thinking and metacog-
nition important. The extent of impact may be determined by individual characteristics and circum-
stances; ECAs can be an employability booster if a good class of degree is unobtainable or a
reinforcement of high academic achievement. Their effect is strongly contextual, which may
explain the conflicting results of previous studies. In the study described here, ECAs facilitated the
management and organisation of academic study for some while others traded higher grades for
specific skills and the personal development afforded by ECAs, highlighting the high value placed
on ECAs by some. Achieving a good balance between study and ECAs is challenging, and some
students are unsure how best to prioritise their time.
Institutional recognition was regarded as a welcome but not prerequisite condition for ECA
engagement. Like Muldoon (2009), we found that students recognised the value of engagement
Thompson et al. 145

without any additional ‘award’, but the Award influenced views of the value of participation. It
was noticeable that Lancaster Award graduates often explicitly discussed the value of reflec-
tion, while those not undertaking the Award regarded the value of the Award to be in ‘doing’
rather than the reflection. Our findings support research at the University of Surrey (UK) on
professional creativity; although Willis (2011) found evidence of reflection upon life-wide
experiences, she highlighted scope for increased learning from such experiences, which could
be achieved through participation in institutional schemes encouraging engagement and
reflection.
The findings should be considered with respect to the methodological limitations. As students
were self- reporting behaviours, there are opportunities for inaccuracies or bias (e.g. from question
format or social desirability). Misunderstandings cannot be clarified in questionnaires. Resources
limited the depth and number of interviews that may have restricted the dimensions of ECAs
explored. Furthermore, what was considered to be an ECA was determined by students guided by
a definition we provided, so there is scope for variation across students in the types of ECAs cho-
sen for discussion. In addition, the interview sample was drawn from questionnaire respondents, so
we should be mindful of potential response bias; the study may have attracted more ECA-active
than non-active students.
Our data illustrate the complexities of ECA engagement and perceptions surrounding engage-
ment and employability both for individual students and among students collectively. Students’
definitions of ECAs vary, although most have elements of value, communality, structure and
organisation. For some students, these clearly link to employability skills (e.g. social and organi-
sational skills), while for others, ECAs were important for general personal development and
growth. ECAs clearly present a range of opportunities for personal development, but engage-
ment does not guarantee employability benefits and there are pitfalls to engagement. Structured
programmes of reflection, such as those involved in institutional awards, may be needed for
students to fully realise the benefits of ECAs and life-wide learning, which come with self-
reflection and increased metacognitive thought. Universities should explore ways of promoting
self-reflection and life-wide learning with larger numbers of students than can be accommodated
through costly and generally size-limited award-type schemes. The challenge will be to support
ECA engagement on a large scale, given the highly contextual and individualised nature of
engagement and perceptions surrounding engagement, as our research demonstrates. Further
work exploring student experiences of self-reflection would be valuable – an in-depth longitudi-
nal study would be useful. Research work with a larger sample of students from a variety of
universities would enable exploration of these issues on a larger scale, thereby providing a more
generalisable picture of ECA engagement. Work with employers and employed graduates would
also help to understand further the value of ECA engagement, self-reflection and metacognition
for employability.

Acknowledgements
Our thanks go to student participants for their generosity and enthusiasm in helping us conduct the research.

Declaration of conflicting interests


The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

Funding
This work was supported by a grant from Lancaster University Friends Programme.
146 Active Learning in Higher Education 14(2)

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Author biographies
Leanne J Thompson is a Lecturer in cognitive psychology and the psychology of education in the Department
of Educational Research, Lancaster University. Address: Department of Educational Research, Lancaster
University, Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK. [email: l.j.thompson@lancaster.ac.uk]
Gordon Clark is a Senior Lecturer in the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University. Address:
Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YQ. [email: g.clark@lancaster.ac.uk.]
Marion Walker is a social science researcher in the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University.
Address: Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YQ. [email: marion.walker@
lancaster.ac.uk]
J Duncan Whyatt is a Senior Lecturer in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in the Lancaster
Environment Centre, Lancaster University. Address: Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University,
Lancaster LA1 4YQ. [email: d.whyatt@lancaster.ac.uk]