Principles of Engagement: A Student Engagement Conversation

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On the 27th November, I attended a ‘Student Engagement Conversation’ event hosted by The Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP). TSEP are a joint venture, funded predominantly by the National Union of Students and Higher Education Funding Council for England, as well as the QAA and GuildHE amongst others. The third of a roadshow series of conversation events, I was participated in a ‘World Cafe’-style discussions around TSEPs 10 principles (which can be found here) and listen to three distinct perspectives on student engagement from Chris Shelley (Director of Student Services, KCL), Gwen van der Weld (Director of Learning and Teaching, University of Bath) and Derfel Owen (Director of Academic Services, UCL).

Rather than defining student engagement, TSEP have opted to describe its underpinning principles:

 Learning and Teaching:

1. Students are active members of a learning community

2. Students engage in setting the direction of their learning

3. Students engage in curricula content, design, delivery & organisation

4. Students engage in the enhancement of teaching, feedback and assessment practices

5. Students engage in and with their learning

Quality Assurance & Enhancement Processes

6. Students are supported to fully engage in internal quality processes

7. Students effect change in a continual process of enhancement

Decision Making, Governance & Strategy

8. Students engage in the process of making decisions that affect them

9. Students’ engagement is given strategic leadership

10. Students engage through effective student leaders and governors

Partnership is seen as the core approach to enabling student engagement, and was suggested to be applicable across regulatory, conceptual, academic, practical and strategic contexts. What didn’t take any importance throughout the day was student agency. I have previously blogged about the importance of placing the student at the centre of their own development through higher education, and an issue throughout the day was talking about students in the collective sense, not as a collection of interacting individuals.

One key issue arising from the Q&A panel was that there is perceived to be ‘too much’ to take in to have a single definition of student engagement. To see the range of views, check out #TSEPConvo on twitter for more information, however here were some of the views shared (paraphrased):

  • Owens, UCL: Does a respect for partnership mean that we need to consider students will be more or less interested in some decisions we take?
  • Weld, Bath: When you can get student expectation and lecturer delivery balancing and touching, then learning happens and then there is equality in the classroom
  • Shelley, KCL: Students have been engagement has been happening for years…let’s not think that purely by sitting in a room and talking about it we can improve it

These were the points I took away to think about, but there was a lot more. The trouble was, without a working definition, we were in danger of philosophising about student engagement without really addressing what it means to our institutions, or even our sector. Which is what we did.

The world café session in the afternoon allowed us to consider several of the principles, and I focused on curriculum co-design and culture and community. Co-design was seen to have a varied meaning, some considering involvement in periodic programme review and module evaluation survey and appraisal to be the peak, some talking to students regarding the subject matter covered in lectures, but all negated to look at how this affects a Masters-level student. With a 15-month turnaround, how can we engage those students on in curricular co-design and directing their own (not the following cohorts’) study.

One example I can give is during my second year, my lecturer (now National Teaching Fellow) Dr Chris Wiley allowed students to vote on from 15 subjects as to what would be featured in the 10 lectures that term for the module. This enabled student buy-in, but further the coursework element of the module allowed students to investigate the 5 areas not lectured in as Chris provided the resources for those lectures not included in the taught-element of the module.

The conversation regarding culture and community, somehow predictably led to discussions around adversarial academic vs student tropes, consumerist mind-sets, knowing who to speak to, but most importantly mutual support through thick and thin, where students are struggling in their studies or lecturers are struggling to engage a class. This intervention could be beneficial for both parties.

I appreciated being at the event. Being given the opportunity to further synthesise the principles and debate these issues is important and I look forward to staying involved in ‘the conversation’. But what did become clear is that we can’t let defining student partnership become the elephant in the room. It’s already present, and the more worried we become about addressing and developing it the more risk we run of letting the momentum built over the last few years to fizzle out.

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