Croissants and Coffee: Engaging students and building a sense of community in the Department of Politics by Emma Mayhew

Last year I wrote all about the pedagogical value of cake in my seminars. This year I want to extend this notion and talk about the value of croissants and coffee as a means to encourage student engagement and develop further a sense of community in the department.

I knew from my experience with cake breaks that most students have a view on all aspects of their university experience-how their degree programme works, module choice, content, assessment, feedback, teaching and resources. I wanted to find more ways to get to these views because I wanted to understand the student experience more deeply from part 1 all the way through to the postgraduate level.

Politics Breakfast JanuarySo, together with part 3 student Florian Marcus, I decided to run a series of ‘breakfast liaison clubs’ within the department. Of course they weren’t really ‘breakfast’ clubs- they started at either ten or eleven in the morning- but we did provide free croissants, Danish pastries and orange juice. Because this was a joint staff-student initiative focused on finding out what students thought and engaging them in curriculum design, we were able to attract funding from the CQSD/RUSU Partnerships in Learning and Teaching Projects Scheme (PLanT).

We quickly learnt a number of key lessons-mini chocolate croissants are far more popular than plain croissants or jam Danish pastries but more importantly than that, even when you provide free food and drink not all students will turn up and those that do are typically highly engaged, high achieving and satisfied with their programme anyway.

The students who came did give us some great feedback that we could work with, mainly on contact hours, the nature and amount of assessment, e-submission and assignment feedback. These students did report that breakfast clubs were a great opportunity to talk to lecturers in a more informal setting, to get more advice on dissertations, on postgraduate studies and future careers. Florian and I were able to report all of our experiences at the first RUSU sponsored Partnership in Teaching and Learning Conference in March while Florian took the lead presenting at a PLanT T&L showcase in June.

Great, we thought, but there was something else that we needed to reflect on. We had identified early in the project design process that a useful offshoot might be that these kinds of events would be feeding into a sense of community within the department but actually, what was initially an accidental consequence, grew in importance as we moved through the project. By the end the importance of community building became as, if not more important than the idea of listening to students and engaging them in curriculum design. So as a result of this project we started to think about more natural, organic community building and the benefits that a stronger sense of community brings to all students, particularly those who need stronger support systems around them.

We had a few ideas on this but the introduction of Enhancement Week gave us the space in the academic calendar to actually do something. We’re delighted that we have been able to fully fund a number of trips next year to Parliament, the National Portrait Gallery and to the Imperial War Museum. In addition our new Part 1 students will enjoy six hours of team-building events, three of which will be run by a former military figure in the grounds surrounding HUMSS. And we’ve had lots more ideas. These, together with the continuation of our now famous seminar cake breaks, should all feed into an environment of student engagement and an even greater sense of supportive community within the department in the new academic year.

Institute of Education promotes student-staff partnerships in learning and teaching by Dr Eileen Hyder

The academic year 2012-13 has been a dynamic time for the SSLC of the BA Ed programme. In response to results on the NSS and internal evaluations, two sub-committees were set up to focus on specific areas for development within the course: Organisation/communication and Assessment/feedback. This student input has resulted in many changes. For example, the timing of assignments has been reviewed; use of Blackboard has improved; processes for school placements have been revised and students have had input into timetabling and planning for next year.

In addition the Year 4 student reps have taken part in the PLANT (Partnerships in Learning and Teaching) project linked to the University’s Teaching and Learning Enhancement Priority Area of engaging students in research and enquiry, specifically within the areas of engaging students in curriculum and pedagogic developments and expanding opportunities for students to engage in research.

The focus of the project was to allow final year students to evaluate the programme and make recommendations for future developments. Reps engaged with Year 4 students in a variety of ways. Firstly they asked students to use post-it notes to write words which represented the positive aspects of the course. This was used to develop a Wordle. Secondly they carried out a focus group with a randomly selected group of students. Results were fed back to all Year 4 students for validation.

The PLANT project has been underpinned by the idea of legacy (Year 4 feeding back to make positive changes for other students). Funding from the PLANT project has allowed students to develop resources which will be beneficial for the programme. The Wordle will be used on Open Day presentations; flyers are being developed which will be emailed to Freshers before they join the course and a sheet of ‘Top tips for surviving Year 4’ is being developed for next year’s finalists. In addition, the results have been disseminated to programme tutors with Year 4 reps attending the termly tutor meeting and they have also met the IoE Director of Teaching and Learning.

This year has shown that students can be active partners in curriculum design and development as their input has been vital in driving forward change. We are now considering the transition from this year’s reps to next year’s so that momentum is not lost and so that we can continue to work with our students to continue improving the student experience on our programme.