Co-presenting with Students at Conferences and Engaging them in the Teaching and Learning Dialogue

Dr Madeleine Davies (Department of English Literature) and Bethany Barnett-Sanders (Part 3 student, Department of English Literature)

Engaging students in academic conversations outside the classroom presents challenges but recent activity in the Department of English Literature suggests that there are several ways of creating opportunities for this engagement. DEL has worked with Part 2 and Part 3 students on a range of initiatives that has involved them in conference organisation (‘Postmodern Biofictions’), event management (‘Celebrating Forgotten Women’) and editing work (The Creative Writing Anthology and Second Sight: The Margaret Atwood Learning Journals).

In April I was finalising work on the TLDF-Funded ‘Diversifying Assessment’ project in DEL which, connecting with the Curriculum Framework, had involved convening student focus groups. These groups generated productive perspectives on our assessment and feedback practices. I decided to disseminate the results of the project at the Change Agents’ Network (CAN) conference (Winchester) and I felt that it was important that one of the students involved in the focus groups should co-present in order to express the issues from a student point of view.

The CAN Conference was extremely interesting and several papers commented on a range of student engagement projects; however, students were generally absent from the sessions. Our ‘Diversifying Assessment’ presentation, however, expressed both staff and student viewpoints. Bethany Barnett-Sanders, my co-presenter, comments here about her experience of joining me at the conference:

‘Attending the CAN conference with Maddi to help deliver a presentation on diversifying assessment was a really valuable experience. The whole process, from the initial focus groups to the presentation, was so affirming. I participated initially in the focus groups run by Maddi because assessment is an issue that I feel quite strongly about: as the situation stood at the beginning of the project, the department favoured the assessed essay + exam model which, from the student perspective, is not very popular. This model seems to be the default assessment pattern and so I relished the opportunity to find out why and to share my thoughts on what assessment could look like. As a student, being asked for my thoughts on a topic that is so integral to the university experience was both pleasantly surprising and incredibly encouraging; it allowed me to feel as though I could really shape the programme for myself and others and it enabled me to engage in my degree in a way that I never had before.

When asked to present at the conference with Maddi, it was great to know that those groups had led to a place from which real change could be generated. I agreed to present not just for the valuable public speaking experience that would be useful to have on my CV but, again, to take advantage of the opportunity to share the student’s perspective on assessment, something that affects them more than anyone else. Presenting at the conference was quite a nerve-wracking experience, but one that I’m very grateful I’ve had. I think involving students in these conferences is a fantastic idea as it allows for different perspectives on issues that would otherwise be left unchallenged and encourages collaboration between students and staff.

Having a room full of people, who were all there to learn from each other, listen to our presentation, was a big boost to my own confidence. I also really enjoyed listening to Maddi’s perspective on assessment as it allowed me to consider things that I hadn’t before. It was also lovely to spend time with one of my lecturers outside of the seminar room and I think it allowed for a very natural, open dialogue to take place about a whole range of things, which is harder to come by in formal contact hours. The conference was also a great learning opportunity, as it allowed me to listen to what other universities are doing and reflect on that from the student’s perspective; judging by the majority of the attendees and by the lack of students in the rooms, this isn’t something that happens regularly at these events.

I hope that the success of our presentation encourages other universities and other members of staff within the department to invite their students to share their opinions at these events in the future.’

I was thoroughly impressed by Bethany’s professionalism in delivering her comments at the conference – she was a credit to the university. My conversations travelling to and from the event with Bethany also helped to deepen my own understanding of the assessment issue from the students’ viewpoint: for example, I had thought that risk-aversion informed our students’ antipathy towards exams – Bethany confirmed this but allowed me to see how this is a natural consequence of a fee-paying, ‘high stakes’ environment.

I will certainly involve more students in T&L conference presentations in the future: my experience of this is entirely positive and it allows our students to engage in important conversations with us about their education. Further, within a landscape where graduate employability is key, we have here an opportunity to enable our students to build their experience and to gather skills that may not be available within formal teaching environments.

Response to Student Engagement Event: A Students’ Union perspective

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

Response to Student Engagement Event: An academic perspective

Last month I attended the first part of an afternoon conference on ‘Exploring Student Engagement at Reading and Beyond’, which took place in the Agriculture Building at Reading University. Towards the end of Cathy Bovill’s excellent keynote talk I asked the following:

“Shouldn’t we be thinking about why we want to engage students in the curriculum? There seem to be two parallel agendas here. In the first, student engagement is an end in itself: it takes some control away from academics and demystifies the profession at the same time as it increases the influence and the responsibilities of students. In the second, student engagement is a means to an end since students will learn better if they have a bigger stake in the curriculum and understand how it is constructed.”

The question was poorly timed because the discussion had moved on to practicalities and away from the rationale for student engagement. I ought to have saved it up, if I was going to ask it all, for the closing session – but I had to leave before then. But I want to suggest here that the rationale for student engagement can affect the practicalities. A key issue for me here is who exactly we mean by ‘students’ when we talk about ‘engaging students’.

If we say that student engagement is a good in itself then this goes some way to explaining the increased presence of students in the University’s committee structures, including committees that control the curriculum – for example boards of studies and periodic review panels. But these offices are available to only a minority of students; and they tend to provide opportunities for those who are already keen and articulate. There is a clear gain for the University from having a student perspective in discussions; but the wider benefit to individual students is harder to track.

If however we say that student engagement has instrumental value in the learning process then this encourages lecturers to involve all their students in the management of teaching and learning. Plenty of this already goes on. When I supervise a third-year dissertation the student chooses the topic and frames research questions; so, with guidance, the student is responsible for setting some of the criteria for a successful piece of work. Perhaps there is room to do this in taught courses too, asking students not only what topics they want to cover but how and why; making them think what the learning outcomes will be.

All of which is to oversimplify some awfully complex arguments. I do not wish to suggest that my two suggested rationales for student engagement are in any way in competition with each other; or that there is only one way to realise either of these aims; or that there is no sense of continuity between engagement in the lecture room and broader curriculum planning. But it does seem to me that at the present time we need to have a conversation on what we mean by student engagement as well as how we expect to put it into practice. I am grateful to Cathy for starting it off.

Dr David Carter