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Nurturing student agency: Session abstracts

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Fostering student agency to learning – Dr Sheila Amici-Dargan (Associate Professor in Biological Sciences)

We have been using the ‘EAT framework’ (Evans, 2016) to foster agency and self-regulation in our undergraduate Biological Science students, to support them to work towards co-owning their programmes and becoming active contributors in assessment and feedback processes. Empowering some of our final year undergraduate biological science students to conduct educational research projects, by providing them with training in qualitative research methods, has given them the confidence to work with academic staff as co-researchers and curriculum co-developers.  Our student co-researchers have led focus groups and interviews with cohorts of BSc/MSci Biology, Zoology and Plant Science students to promote honest and open discussion to explore their backgrounds, interests and needs to nurture student agency. Thematic analysis of anonymised transcripts from student-led focus groups and interviews has enabled us to work collaboratively to re-design elements of existing units, to create opportunities for students to explore individual and collective interests, which is more likely to engage them in deep learning.  A good example of staff-student collaboration was our recent co-development of a new authentic ‘graphical abstract’ assignment that provided students with a broad choice of topics, and also with collaborative learning and peer-marking opportunities to increase assessment literacy. 

Other educational projects we have recently run to empower student agency include the co-design of a new placement year unit (which will start in 2023-24) and the re-design of our core year 2 employability unit ‘Science and Success’. Students were supported to engage in planning meetings with academics, alumni and employers to co-design teaching and co-create authentic assessments to drive student engagement and skills development.  During the pandemic, we changed the way we run our staff student liaison committee to meet with our student reps more regularly (every two weeks) to build and nurture a more compassionate staff-student community of staff and students in our school.  Supporting our students to understand the concepts and potential uses of assessment and providing them with guidance that encourages self-regulation and independence has nurtured student agency to co-design research informed, student-centered, and inclusive assessments. Working with our Biological Science students to co-develop authentic assessment practices that support student engagement with employability will also to support their own progression within and beyond higher education.  Educational research has clearly identified the critical role that educators’ pedagogical understanding has on the design and delivery of assessments (Farley-Ripple et al. 2018) but a gap still remains between the pedagogic theories and educational practice in higher education. As part of our ‘EAT Erasmus’ project we have been developing a range of resources to support teacher understanding and implementation of high impact self-regulatory assessment practices to help close this gap. Our approach promotes learner self-regulation of assessment, combining understanding of cognitive, emotional and metacognitive dimensions of learning.

Get in touch if you want some support with you own challenges in assessment and feedback. We (the EAT Erasmus team) are able to organise bespoke training sessions at all levels, from individual assessments to units/programme design.

Nurturing agency through choice in Study Skills peer-support groups – Dr Tim Worth (University Academic Study Skills Coordinator in Library Services)

This paper explores the idea of student agency within Study Skills by comparing and contrasting three different study groups (Wordsmiths, the Coding Club and the Thesis Writing Circle). Each has seen student agency manifest in different forms and at varying levels. In some, the students took the lead role in creating and developing the event with assistance and support from staff. In others, students were nurtured more gradually into positions of leadership as the event developed and evolved.

We will discuss ways in which staff can respond to the different levels of agency which we often encounter in students, and explore how students and staff can best collaborate in the creation of new events and projects by drawing on the principle of Students as Partners (Healy, Flint and Harrington, 2014). In particular we explore the idea of choice within agency, and how to balance students’ freedom of choice in organizing and leading these events with the nurturing from staff which is often required for true student empowerment.

Filling our study skills gaps: students’ perspectives on working collaboratively with staff – Bristol Futures Student Advocates – Jago Sherred (MEng student in Mathematics and Computer Sciences), Carol Huang (MSci student in Plant Sciences) and Michelle Kafe (LLB student in Law)

This paper explores how we as students developed agency in order to create and run study skills workshops covering topics important to us and our fellow students. Whilst supporting students to develop their study skills in our role as Bristol Futures Advocates we identified certain gaps in our own experience of learning which we ourselves wanted to fill. Through discussions with staff this then led to the creation of three new student-led events: a report-writing workshop for first years in Life Sciences; a group-work workshop for first years in Engineering; and a case-report writing workshop for students in Law.

In particular we discuss the process of working in collaboration with both academic and study skills staff, and how working at a level of equal partnership empowered us to take these events from ideas through to completion. We hope that our experience can provide useful insights for staff seeking to nurture agency among their students: how to create an environment which encourages the sharing of ideas, how to best support students to grow these ideas, and how staff/student collaboration can enhance the learning and teaching experience at the University.

Encouraging autonomy and agency through student research – Dan Anthony and Tasha Suresh (BILT Student Fellows working on the project theme, Students as co-creators and researchers)

Traditionally, taught undergraduates and postgraduates are not inclined to see their coursework and dissertation materials as valuable research. Even when encouraged to develop independent insights into topics or pursue novel lines of research, there are still significant barriers in getting students to connect research activities with similar work performed by scholars in higher academic communities.

However, our experiences managing the BILT Student Research Festival and the Student Research Journal have shown that given the opportunities and support, students not only relish the chance to present their research activities in a formal capacity, but also feel empowered by such activities. Altogether, these practices highlight the range of student-led initiatives that can be developed in order to reverse traditional preconceptions about student research and the potential impact these initiatives can have on both student agency and the growth of new scholarship in universities.

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