Category Archives: Conferences

Student engagement: the use and abuse of the student voice

On Friday 20th October I attended a national workshop looking at the use and abuse of the student voice organised by the Student Engagement, Evaluation and Research at Sheffield Hallam University. One of the great things about workshops is to share ideas with others from outside your organisation. Setting up the workshops so that we discussed each scenario with a different group of people provided the opportunity to learn about practices at a far greater number of other institutions than is often the case at conferences. Dr Neil McKay welcomed us to the day and raised the point that the student voice has evolved from something we react to and moved much more towards student engagement. Probably my take home message of the day would be is that the student voice is not something that should just be listened to but should form part of a dialogue.

Although three different scenarios were discussed there were a number of common themes. One was the use of mid-semester module evaluations. These were often quick and dirty methods such as Stop-Start-Continue using post it notes. I have already decided to do this with my students after they have returned from study week. It gives us chance to respond to student feedback before the end of the module so the student’s voice has an impact on their own student journey.

One of the challenges of responding to the student voice is that the voice is not always consistent. Students have many different learning preferences, backgrounds and interests so they will not all be saying the same things. I have seen this first hand in the past where some students liked my handouts whereas others complained about them. In that instance we had a vote and went with the majority. This highlights the issue of managing expectations so that students understand what is happening during their time as a student. This might range from why we use different types of learning activities to when they can expect replies to emails.

Another thing that got me thinking was partly relating to developing a culture of listening and ensuring students use the formal channels for the student voice so their ideas can be acted upon. This only works if students trust the institution and the staff. An issue in many universities seemed to be students were worried about providing critical feedback in case it affected their mark. The second part of this is that something needs to happen in response to the student voice. This might just be a conversation with the students and further investigation or it might be a set of actions that are taken as an outcome. Irrespective of what happens it is important that we close the loop to keep students engaged with the process.

For more information about the event and the work of STEER at Sheffield Hallam see their blog.

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Teaching and Learning Conference

The first day of the University of Essex’s Teaching and Learning Conference focused on inclusive practice. I found the case study presented by Dave Lomas and Paddy Turner from Sheffield Hallam University raised many important points and also some interesting questions. They attempted to make a level 5 module more inclusive by using initiatives like writing learning outcomes and other module material in plain English, allowing all students to have extra time in the exam, by allowing all students to record lectures, making sure resources were accessible with appropriate background colours and fonts and being more flexible around time keeping. Some great ideas many of which I am already using in practice and some new ideas for me to try out. With the new semester about to start it is a great time to be reflecting on whether my module guide is really in plain English and what new resources will I provide to ensure that the content I am delivering this semester will be truly accessible.

Not everybody in the audience seemed convinced about all the changes suggested. Some of the questions that were raised and I think need further investigation included: If you give all students extra time what do you do with those entitled to extra time? If you plan an assessment that should take an hour then give all student 1 hour and 15 minutes do those with specific learning difficulties need extra time on top of this? If you make all resources accessible in a range of formats and available before sessions is that not fairer to all students and prevents those with learning plans due to disabilities being made to feel different to the rest of their cohort? Lots of food for thought and for the modules I am responsible for I will continue to try and make them as inclusive as possible for all students irrespective of disability, background or personal circumstances.

The afternoon was looking at student engagement and was led by the SU. One of the nice things that was highlighted was the SU collaborating with the University to improve student learning. Having talked to the three SU reps I am taking a few ideas back to my own institution. My colleague Nieky is going to trial replacing the term ‘Office Hours’ with ‘Academic Support Hours’. And I also like the idea of a ‘Question of the Week’ with three possible answers that the students vote on using counters when they buy something in the shop. These questions can relate to academic matters as well as other aspects of university life. Another topic that came up is the advantage of paying student reps. The SU employs a ‘convener’ in each of the four faculties at the University. As I understood it these work as super reps but in addition are also paid to sit on working groups, committees and so on. I am not sure that paying students to do this sits well with me, I would much rather it be like when I was a student, where you engaged with these things because you felt had a stake in the university and its future. Times have changed though and maybe this is the now the way forward….

Networks and communities

I have a found a common theme coming out of work I have been doing over the last few weeks and that is networks. I think it started at the SEDA conference in Brighton. I attended the excellent workshop called ‘From Conundrum to Collaboration, Conversation to Connection: Using Networks to Innovate’. It was run by Andrew Middleton and Sue Moron-Garcia and Andrew has produced a Storify of the #SEDA_NETS tweetchat that was embedded into the workshop. I thought I was good at multi-tasking until I tried to participate in a tweetchat and face to face workshop simultaneously… This session naturally brought to mind two of the networks I value – the informal #LTHEchat and the more formal membership of a professional association such as SEDA, the latter going hand in hand with the SEDA JISCmail list. If I have time to follow some of the debates on the mail-list they can be quite thought provoking but I have also found it a fountain of information when I have been researching strategies, procedures and policies. And sometimes it is just nice to know others are having some of the same problems as me and sharing our different approaches to the current issues facing HE.

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These are examples of external networks to my institution but I had also recently been asked to reflect on a Leadership and Management course that institution had put on. I was part of the first cohort that undertook the course that included managing yourself, managing teams and managing institutional strategy. We took part in 4 days of workshops as well as project work. When I thought about it one of the most useful aspects of the course was working with other managers from both academic and professional departments and the way a network had developed between us. I had a much better idea of who I needed to go and see to solve problems within the institution and we have actively sort each other out to share ideas. Of course there are also networks within departments and for many of us the important one is the network between staff and students.

I thought the title of Sue and Andrew’s workshop was great. To me developing networks is about connecting with people, once you have connected you have opportunity to collaborate and to form a community. I realised that where I have a well developed network it makes me feel part of a community. It got me to thinking about how the two are inter-related – so I looked it up in the dictionary.

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1995)

Network: ‘A group of people who exchange information, contacts and experience for professional or social purposes

Community: ‘A body of people having a religion, a profession etc. in common‘ or ‘a fellowship of interest

It raises some interesting questions, can you have one without the other, is a community a more established or bonded group than a network? How do we encourage students to form networks and communities that will help them learn content, skills and gain employment. I think that is important from the prospective of promoting learning but for those of us expected to pay attention to student satisfaction it is also going to be topical with the community question within the NSS. All I know is that I will continue to work towards expanding my network and hopefully I will continue to feel part of a community, form some exciting collaborations and develop my practice along the way.

Whose module is it anyway?

Last week I attended the Universities UK / HEA conference ‘Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning’ – #IETL16. A really insightful and inspiring day. One of the sessions I attended was ‘Developing an institutional approach to student engagement in curriculum design’ by Prof Mary Stuart and Dan Derricott. Both the case study of what they have been doing at the University of Lincoln and the discussion during the workshop were thought provoking. One thought related to why don’t we use students more when interviewing for academic appointments? Another related to engagement at module level. One experience shared in the workshop was starting talking about ‘our module’ rather than ‘my module’ and it got me thinking! As a course manager I was often frustrated that lecturers were so protective of their modules and thought solely at the module level rather than reflecting on how the module fits into the course. Not taking into account the cognitivism and constructivism theories of learning to build on prior learning from other modules and making relationships between what the student is learning in other modules. I have always previously blamed this on the modular system and so spent time trying to encourage the teaching team to think holistically about what the student learnt.

Programme for IETL16

The workshop at #IETL16 made me question ‘whose module is it anyway?’ My module suggests ownership but does the module leader own it or do the students? Some of the ideas coming out of the workshop was including students in a module management team. Getting students involved in planning the content delivery. In the particular case discussed it was weak and less engaged students that were encouraged to become part of the management team and the module leader found that this did improve engagement. My personal experience of studying would definitely lead me to think that where I have felt ownership of something – so in particular my dissertations and PhD thesis where I was responsible for selecting the focus and direction – not only made me more engaged during the process but also very proud and self-satisfied with the result. This leaves me with the question – how can we encourage students to take more ownership of the module? Firstly, stop referring to it as ‘my’ module and start calling it ‘our’ module. Encourage students to take more of a management role – making decisions about assignments, what is on the Moodle page, what topics are covered when. I have previously used students to write the assessment criteria for assignments for the purpose of helping them to understand the criteria and hadn’t really considered how this could encourage engagement. I have responded when students have asked me to change how I have designed the Moodle page or to add or change content but I have not been proactive in asking students what they want from a Moodle page. Obviously this will need to be a dialogue and in some cases explanations will need to be given why certain things are not possible but in my experience students are not unrealistic and I think we could improve their learning, their experience and their engagement by getting them more involved and remembering it is not ‘my’ module but theirs.