Katie Strudwick, Lincoln University (email@example.com)
Having just finished two projects evaluating student experience, levels of engagement and perceptions of ‘excellence’ in teaching- got me thinking about the implications of TEF and how this might inform my teaching practice over the next few years!
The projects were integral to continuing our externally noted innovative best practice and institutional embedding of Student as Producer. These projects, although arguably small scale, were internally funded to evaluate such ‘topical’ teaching and learning issues and provide further guidance on strategies to meet the challenges that face us as educators in the current times.
The core findings not only offered insightful qualitative reflections of what is perceived and understood as ‘excellence’ within teaching and learning, but also some initial possible solutions to ‘understanding the gap’ in student engagement. Results from both students and academic colleagues gave a number of ways of overcoming the barriers towards student engagement which can be disseminated and worked upon in the next academic year. Results further provided room for a greater understanding of the core elements of teaching, student satisfaction and student engagement (to be introduced as part of the National Student Survey (NSS) in 2017). To gain some appreciation of perceptions of student engagement and why it is important allows us , as academics, to plan, build and start work on transforming strategies towards meeting and overcoming such barriers in the future.
Results from the project on student engagement, illustrated that there were evident similarities in perceptions of what student engagement can offer, often cited as ‘an extra sets of skills, knowledge and experience’. Interestingly, our research demonstrated that academic colleagues identified the need to have greater clarification about terminology and definitions. By addressing the importance of ‘managing expectations’ of both students and staff within the wider context of Higher Education, there were discussions of current trends shown in literature. The debate on the ambiguity of student engagement has been addressed by a number of authors (See Baron and Corbin 2012; Vuori 2014) so setting myself this task for interpretation, this discussion piece plans to highlight some suggestions and recommendations for overcoming barriers captured in the projects.
The overriding suggestion from results was for greater communication to be offered to students about the opportunities available, such as lecture shout outs and student presentations in lectures. Another noted recommendation was for greater consideration of who should be recruited for student engagement opportunities, by ensuring that the accurate information is disseminated. By making information and opportunities more ‘student friendly’, perhaps by focusing more specifically on the cohort or discipline, was suggested as potentially producing more be ‘applicable’ opportunities for student to participate in.
By considering who we should get as participating students to engage both within the curriculum, and outside of the curriculum, can be seen as going against the notion that student engagement should be based on equitable opportunities? However, it can also be seen as a way of ‘managing’ student engagement. All in all, the suggestions indicated that the perceptions are not clear, they differ and shift in accordance with both external pressures and demands on a subjective level. By highlighting trends in research focusing on what student engagement means, we can thus start to consider, whether greater focus should be made on ensuring correct levels of pastoral support are offered for the students as support. To assist with such clarification, we can look towards dissemination of wider illustrations of best practice, such as with the disciplinary resources and project findings under HEA and TSEP which go a long way to providing some reflection (see TSEP (2014) and Thomas’ (2012) Summary of ‘What Works’ in student engagement). Bulman ( 2015) raised some related wider issues addressing ‘what issues preoccupy higher education academics, particularly in their teaching and facilitating of student learning in their disciplines’ (See more at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/blog/supporting-teaching-and-learning-disciplines#sthash.SgDYgLPn.dpuf). Such forums and platforms for exploring key issues are arguably integral to pedagogically reflecting on the challenges with Higher Education. By offering invaluable guidance and support, case studies, toolkits and frameworks, have evidenced the benefits towards informing the continuation of good practice and collaborative teaching and learning approaches.
(Refer to https://www.heacademy.ac.uk for more discipline led resources)
The second project focused upon an arguably pertinent issue within Higher Education at the moment, measuring ‘standards’ and the TEF. Trying to gain some greater awareness of what is perceived as ‘excellence’, by both students and academics colleagues, findings indicated that there was a clear recognition of the associated positives, but also some awareness that the term and the concept of ‘excellence’ are also ‘broad’ terms, thus they were explained as being ‘conceived as a whole lot of things’.
Definitions of ‘excellence’ are the subject of considerable current debate in the HE sector, in relation to the TEF (see Grove 2016; HEA 2015; 2016). Discussions emphasise the value of such research in raising issues to promote further debate in relation to teaching and supporting students. Findings from our research demonstrated that there were some identifications that ‘excellence’ is not a straightforward concept, it is particular to whom you ask and can often ‘depend on the topic’. This raises the issue of how can this be applied on an institutional, or indeed disciplinary level, under the TEF?
To understand more fully about the student experience of what is seen as ‘excellent’, in the context of teaching and learning, can indeed differ greatly from student to student, and indeed cohort to cohort. This raises the question that
before we embark on changes to programmes, delivered in responses to student comments, or work towards developments to meet the demands of the TEF, this may be observed as ‘risky’ in the pursuit of perceived ‘excellence’. Thus meaning that such developments should not be undertaken too hastily. It could be that by understanding what might contribute to ‘excellence’, maybe about explaining, through module reports, why some changes have not been made.
Developments in teaching and learning, action plans and module amendments need to be evidenced by the extensive research that has been occurring in the Higher Education agenda. Learning about best practice, innovative modes of learning strategies, and interactive developments requires both reflexivity and reflection, they need to be considered in a wider context with care and attention to their outcomes and impact. To be clear on what you want to achieve, and more importantly, why, this surely has some influence on your plans and developments.
Our research findings will impact on how we want to further develop student engagement, and how it can be enshrined in teaching and learning, in a more explicit way. Simply, seeing student engagement as broadly providing opportunities outside of the curriculum raises the problem with equitable practice. Findings from our dialogues with students, who identified themselves as ‘non engaged’ and critical academic colleagues, raised the issue that not all students can, or indeed have, the opportunity to, take part in engagement beyond the curriculum. Interestingly, this is seen as significant in current debates within higher education being understood as the ‘inclusivity’ element in the TEF (HEA 2015).
The results from our projects were testament to our commitment, at my institution, to embrace the student voice, an aspect which has been seen to be part of our ‘uniqueness’, and rightly so! Since 2010, we have led to way to initiating and progressing student engagement, through Student as Producer agenda, into engaging, co- producing, co- researching and co-designing curriculum.
From the wisdom of our alumni students in one of the aforementioned projects, findings offered us wider understanding and appreciation of what has been seen as elements of best practice, ‘positive’, indeed ’excellent’ elements of our programmes. Insights, were further provided from our current students of the benefits of student engagement opportunities, both within and outwith the curriculum. These projects have given us as social scientists a chance to see how we can progress and develop our approaches to teaching and learning plans, both on a College level, and Institutional strategies. We can therefore embark on leading the way for the future in student centred teaching. The benefits of conducting such research evidences that such (albeit small) internal funding schemes can provide the right opportunity for academics, working alongside students as the research team, to understand core priorities for the future- a world that will be dominated by the TEF, REF and other challenges.
A welcome reminder, that also came from such projects, is that as academics, we are able to benefit greatly from students co- working in a collaborative manner with us, as academics. Students from all years can develop their transferable skills, begin to embrace and understand from Student as Producer (SAP). Results from the student engagement project indicated that SAP ethos was seen positively by students and academics, as offering partnerships and collaboration between students and academic colleagues.
For students the important aspects of SAP was that it offered opportunities and choices, which were often related to choice and freedom, with both being seen to be a core part of SAP agenda. There was a realisation that the SAP aspires to create ‘an equal footing’ or a ‘partnership’. SAP was seen as representing not only the collaboration between academic colleagues and students, but also an effective means to challenge students as ‘consumers’. While being supportive and committed to SAP, there was evidence from academic colleagues of a need for greater critical reflection. With a noted recognition that the purpose of SAP, and its realisation of an agenda evidently has clear positives, also raised issues that some elements require constructive evaluation, maybe a ‘re addressing’ of what the ethos itself can achieve, in practice.
Perhaps, what was being argued here was more about the need to constantly reflect on what SAP can offer both academics and students, does it need to be reinvented or re imagined to ensure it meets the challenging and dynamic demands of the Higher education sector. One way to re-develop SAP may be to re-engage students in different roles alongside academics, through collaboration, or partnerships, but ones which are more than being core participant of knowledge, but re-producers of research ‘Student as researcher’. Such reflections were shown within our project teams, these gave us an opportunity see the importance and understand what our students ‘got out’ of being part of the project.
So what did we learn? Students were clear to tell us that they all identified with the benefits for them to work alongside their academic tutors. They were arguably ‘engaged’ students and quite explicitly saw the links with skill acquisition and employability benefits from their involvement. They were able to apply their experiences learnt from research methods modules and adapt to this ‘hands on’ experience of conducting focus groups, in their words to ‘actually ‘do’ research’, which was explained as ‘invaluable’ by one student. Using skills alongside the knowledge for degree was also seen as giving students more confidence for their further studies and completing their dissertations.
Offering such opportunities for students to suggest their reflections reaffirmed to us the benefits for student engagement. To be able to hear and witness the evident positives was a rewarding experience for us, as academics, who enabled such opportunities. Drawing on the students’ feedback has led to us, as the fore leaders in ‘student as researcher’, to consider how we can move forward with this? How do we proceed in more demanding and challenging times?
We have come up with a strategy to ensure there is equitability in student engagement opportunities , both within and outside of the curriculum. Allowing more focus on widening participation and parity of opportunities. In an adverse way by formalising the process through informal planning and organisation we can offer students mechanisms to ‘move forward’ and learn from our experiences. Students who participate as co- researchers in the future will have greater guidance and support through research skills workshops ( designed to refresh their skills and knowledge); More formalised regular supervision/ team meetings ( to work through issues that invariably arise over the course of a project). As academics we will look towards possible elements of greater recognition, this may be through securing external funding to pay students as researchers or a continuation of a thank you gesture of vouchers’ . To move forward with ‘student as researchers’ we have started the debate about whether students should be financially rewarded as a formal recognition of their time and efforts.
To conclude, this reflective piece hopes to disseminate our initial ‘lessons learnt’ through practice and summarise some research findings. Discussing our experiences of two projects we hope to inspire others to embark on student engagement through such partnerships and collaboration. Our projects have given us a greater understanding about the student experience, their perceptions of what they get from ‘being engaged’ and alumni and current students’ views on what they perceive as ‘excellence’ within teaching and learning. We know that student engagement is arguably broad and complex, thus the experiences of students will inevitably be subjective. However, by highlighting the need for greater clarification enables us, as academics, some comprehension of how we can share practice to meet the challenges ahead.
Baron, P and Corbin, L (2012) Student engagement: rhetoric and reality, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:6, 759-772
Bulman 2015 ‘ ‘Higher Education academy https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/blog/supporting-teaching-and-learning-disciplines#sthash.SgDYgLPn.dpuf October 210
Grove, J (2016) ‘TEF is about much more than teaching’. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/teaching-excellence-framework-is-about-much-more-than-teaching
HEA (2015) Are you TEF ready? https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/services/consultancy/tef?utm_source=Google&utm_medium=PPC&utm_campaign=Consultancy&gclid=CIjojcud-M4CFecW0wodu0cJDQ
Higher Education Academy (2016) https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resource/dimensions-student-engagement
Student Engagement Partnership’s (TSEP’s) (2014) ‘Conversation on The Principles of Student Engagement’ http://www.tsep.org.uk
Thomas, L (2012) ‘Building Student Engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: A summary of findings and recommendations from the What Works? Student Retention and Success programme’ Paul Hamlyn Foundation; HEFCE; HEA and Action on Access https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/what-works-student-retention/What_Works_Summary_Report
Vuori, J (2014) ‘Student engagement: buzzword of fuzzword?’ In Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management Vol. 36, No. 5, 509–516