The 2nd May saw CDoTL host an exciting event billed as ‘Exploring Student Engagement at Reading and Beyond’. Attending as a students’ union staff member with a passion for student engagement on a local and national level, I was excited to get the chance to hear about different viewpoints and approaches – especially from Scotland, where I feel the funding climate means the pressures & priorities within Higher Education are slightly different.

Karl Hobley, the President of RUSU opened the event with a frank statement about the impending threats to quality engagement with students for the UK HE sector and passionately requesting that Reading lead the way in national debate on the matter. He stressed that discussions about ‘engagement’ can frequently focus on methods rather than results & stressed the importance of reacting to student input and ‘closing the feedback loop’.

The main speakers of the event (Dr. Catherine Bovill from University of Glasgow and Prof Peter Kruschwitz, Helen Bilton & Dr. Richard Mitchell from University of Reading) provided some varied and interesting perspectives on and methods of engaging with students in relation to curriculum design, student representation & red-flagging of issues. I particularly enjoyed Prof Kruschwitz’s light-hearted yet frank approach to the bureaucratic barriers to effective engagement (such as new module approval delays) and his statement that ‘working towards the equality of opportunity to participate is better than chasing the unrealistic goal of total participation’.

Dr. Bovill’s interactive session involved the audience discussing and ranking examples of curriculum design on her ‘ladder’ of student engagement. It was clear that Dr. Bovill had done (and published) extensive research on the matter, but I felt that there were few conclusions – the session led to further questions for most attendees. These included questions such as: ‘should students be able to design their own learning outcomes?’ The ensuing discussions failed to arrive at a consensus, but I believe this was Dr. Bovill’s intention.

A shining example of excellent representation work came from Helen Bilton of the Institution of Education, who provided logistical and evidence-based accounts of the way her Staff Student Liaison Committee functions. What was most apparent about Ms. Bilton’s departmental success was the amount of tangible changes that had been made as a result of student input – something that echoed Mr. Hobley’s comments on ‘closing the feedback loop’.

Dr. Mitchell presented some very interesting examples of the systematic tracking of individual engagement which has huge potential in being integrated with the RISIS database. Dr. Bovill voiced my own concerns at the binary nature of the system (students were either ‘engaged’ or not) but with some tweaks I am excited to see what this type of system might mean for an institution’s ability to correlate engagement with academic success.

Overall, the event raised very interesting questions as well as suggesting innovative answers to some existing ones. The audience was a refreshing mix of academics, administrative staff & students and the discussions brought to light some important ideas, questions and concerns for the future. The finest quote of the session was, in my opinion, from Prof Kruschwitz: ‘we need to empower students to take ownership of their brains and invest that power as they see fit’.

Emily Collins – RUSU