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.