Female student stood in front of other students discussing information on flipchart
Student Voice

Utilising Student Voice in Learning Support and Transition

The following post was written by BILT Associate and Senior Teaching Fellow in Bristol Law School, Imogen Moore. 

Sometimes we might wonder how much of the guidance we give to students to support transition and learning is heard and absorbed. Despite our efforts and best intentions, we may find the same mistakes being made, the same confusion continuing – and the same lack of satisfaction voiced in student surveys.

It can be tempting to apportion blame – if only students would just listen. But we can’t ignore our own responsibility for providing effective guidance and support. How can we help our students hear? Critical educational messages may be missed even when clearly delivered due to overload, anxiety, unfamiliarity, perceived irrelevance, and various other factors. There is much to be discussed in all those areas, but the focus of this blog post is the role student voice might play in overcoming obstacles to communication, particularly during transition.

Why consider utilising student voice to support learning and transition? In short, students typically respond well to guidance from their peers. Even within peer assessment and feedback, where students sometimes question the value of advice given by a peer rather than a tutor (Mulder et al, 164-5; Cartney 2010, 554), students typically engage well and have positive perceptions of the process (Nicol et al, 2013, 108-9). So even in a context where a contrast might be drawn between an ‘expert’ tutor and an inexperienced peer, students recognise and value peer advice.

Such positive perceptions are likely to be all the stronger in relation to more general guidance on studying and the student experience. That is because in this context the student is undoubtedly the expert: expert in the modern student experience; expert in what works for them; expert in understanding the concerns and confusions of a student in transition. A lecturer will inevitably be (at least) one step removed from the student experience, and probably perceived to be a great deal further away than that. Furthermore the lecturer may be viewed as having their own (possibly unrealistic) agenda, rather than genuinely understanding a student’s concerns.

Utilising student voice may thus enable the provision of expertise and understanding in areas a lecturer is less equipped to comment upon. Even those directly engaged in transition may not fully recognise what new students need to know, as our own experiences and recollections might be misremembered or reflect a different era. It has been observed that what may be “obvious to those of us indoctrinated into university life … is information that is very difficult for someone on the outside of the institution to obtain without inside assistance”, particularly “those coming from backgrounds without a tradition of university attendance” (Clapham, 2018, 373). We may fail to identify ‘unknown unknowns’.

Even in respect of ‘known unknowns’, we may be perceived to be inexpert. Our distance from the listener may significantly reduce the perceived value of our guidance to the student. Even a new lecturer has by definition already cracked the code and is now on ‘the other side’. A student is inherently more relatable, a fellow traveller who is learning the route, has spotted some of the dead-ends (and shortcuts), and whose experience is directly relevant to the listener. It is probably for this reason that student reviewers of ‘The Successful Law Student: An Insider’s Guide to Studying Law’ (Moore & Newbery-Jones, 2018) responded so positively to the inclusion of authentic student comments. One anonymous student reviewer remarked that their own experiences were similar to many of those mentioned, while another stated that they were more likely to listen to advice from a fellow student than from a lecturer. This tallies with observations within the context of peer-assisted learning: students often found it easier to relate to a peer than an authority figure (Zacharopoulou et al, 2013, 202).

The relatability of the messenger has particular significance in transition. Pre-transfer students may have difficulty envisaging university life and accurately predicting their student experience, which can cause difficulties in adapting to higher education (Briggs et al, 2012, 5). The ability to picture ‘someone like me’ (Briggs et al, 2012, 14) in the voices of real students may therefore have particular value in that context.

Student experience and student voice might then be utilised more fully in transition and learning support. Much good work has already been done in this area for example through PASS mentors, at least when the system works well. But there may be further scope for utilising student voice within programmes, whether in welcome lectures, transition events or skills development (although care must be taken to ensure students are not perceived as a cheap substitute for ‘expert’ advice in this area), and even within individual units. For example unit leaders might ask past students to give tips and reassurance to new students, in place of more typical top-down lecturer advice. In my own unit that takes the form of short video clips on Blackboard from a small, diverse group of high-achieving students from the previous year (“The Survivors”), to demystify the subject and build trust. (With thanks and acknowledgements to Dr Lana Ashby of the University of Durham, who originated the ‘Survivors’ tag.)

Incorporating student voice within programmes and units – rather than leaving it entirely outside the classroom – ensures we do not appear to be delegating our educational responsibilities to the student body, enables us to check any advice given is genuinely helpful, and provides reassurance to the recipient. My experience within units and programmes and in writing ‘The Successful Law Student’ has shown that authenticity is essential (hence the importance where possible of using attributed comments and materials), but this cannot remove our responsibility for ensuring advice is appropriate and accurate. Student voice as learning support is therefore a potentially powerful tool that should neither be neglected nor manipulated, but nonetheless requires oversight.

References:

Briggs, A.R.J., Clark, J., & Hall, I., (2012) ‘Building bridges: understanding student transition to university’, Quality in Higher Education 18(1), 3-21
Cartney, P., (2010) ‘Exploring the use of peer feedback as a vehicle for closing the gap between feedback given and feedback used’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35(5), 551-564
Clapham, N., (2018) ‘Book review: The Successful Law Student: An Insider’s Guide to Studying Law’, The Law Teacher, 52(3), 372-374
Moore, I.K., & Newbery-Jones, C., (2018) ‘The Successful Law Student: An Insider’s Guide to Studying Law’, Oxford University Press
Mulder, R., Pearce, J. & Baik, C., (2014) ‘Peer Review in higher education: student perceptions before and after participation’, Active Learning in Higher Education 15(2), 157-171
Nicol, D., Thomson, A., & Breslin, C., (2013) Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: a peer review perspective’ Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 39(1), 102-122
Zacharopoulou, A., & Turner, C., (2013) ‘Peer assisted learning and the creation of a “learning community” for first year law students’, The Law Teacher 47(2), 192-214

This blog post is published with thanks and acknowledgements to the University of Bristol Law School Blog (https://legalresearch.blogs.bris.ac.uk/) where a version of this piece first appeared.

News

More Good News For Education And Pedagogy Researchers In SSL!

BILT Fellow Jenny Lloyd updates us on the latest from the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law. 

For those in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law who have an interest in education and pedagogy, it’s been a pretty good couple of years.  For the last two years the Faculty has sponsored an Education and Pedagogy conference that has drawn together academics and professional staff from across the Faculty to debate, discuss and disseminate developments in research in education and pedagogy and also in its application.

Feedback for last year’s event ‘Evolution or Revolution’ was really positive. The conference appeared to strike the right balance of academic papers, practical workshops and key note speakers whilst the exhibition provided the space to discuss ideas and network with colleagues with shared interests.  Building upon this success we will soon be issuing a call for papers for the 2019 conference on the theme of ‘Space, Time and Education’. This theme was chosen because it hoped to encourage contributors to think about space and time in all of its dimensions – from the physical constructions of teaching rooms and buildings to the liminal space that so often initiates or inhibits creative change. From the perceptions of time, users of time, temporal constructions of time (i.e.the academic day/year) to historical reflections and implications of working in academia in modern times.  We are also keen to encourage creativity in the formats that contributions might take. Abstracts outlining academic paper presentations are always welcome but if contributors wish to run workshops or communicate their ideas using other media, we would certainly welcome the proposal.

However, that is not our only good news! Something that is particularly exciting is that, following the success of the last two conferences, our proposal for a Faculty Research Group (FRG) in Education and Pedagogy has also been approved. We are thrilled at this development as this has the potential to not only build on the legacy of the previous conferences but has the potential to provide the pipeline of papers and workshops for the forthcoming one. The primary vehicle for this pipeline will be a set of Special Interest Groups (SIGs) that provide networking opportunities and support for academics and professional staff with shared interests and who are interested in the co-creation of research.  Feedback from last year’s conference suggested that there was interest in the following areas:

  • Assessment and Feedback
  • Digital Technologies and Blended Learning
  • Learning Theory
  • Employability Skills and Graduate Attributes
  • Designing Learning
  • Space and Time
  • Student Engagement and Transition

Calls for interest and an announcement about a launch event will be sent out soon so watch this space. In the meantime, if you are interested in being a member of the FRG in Education and Pedagogy and/or would be like to be a member of a SIG contact me at jenny.lloyd@bristol.ac.uk  and I will add you to the mailing list.

News

‘Evolution or Revolution? Teaching in Uncertain Times’: Second Annual Pedagogy and Education Conference

On Tuesday 26th June, we attended the second annual Faculty of Social Sciences and Law Education and Pedagogy conference in the School of Education. The conference’s title was ‘Evolution or Revolution? Teaching in Uncertain Times’ and asked us to question the changing landscape of higher education in the UK and abroad.

Paddy Ireland, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, opened the day with a reflective lecture on the changes he has seen since he started teaching in the 1970s. He mused on the increase in student numbers and their expectations, as well as the expectations of academic staff. He believes that we have moved from elite to mass education, with the student as the consumer and universities increasingly being seen as businesses, rather than what they ultimately are, which is educational institutions. Paddy welcomed the theme of the conference and asked us to be brave – what we teach will not always be what the students want; that we have to show commitment to our subject, as well as a commitment to teaching. We must prepare to be innovative and give though to education. He believes we must balance measures such as the REF, TEF and NSS with the importance of spending time thinking about what we are doing and maintaining a passion for our subjects.

There were a number of sessions to choose from throughout the day covering topics ranging from a the BME Attainment Gap to Clinical Legal Studies. All the sessions we attended were outstanding but, to save you a ridiculously lengthy post, have summarised just two of the sessions below.

Our mid-morning session was a 40-minute lecture delivered by Paul Howard-Jones, which looked at the connection between brain development throughout history and the way we learn. This was a highly stimulating lecture and provided us with an accessible insight into the way we engage, build on and consolidate new information. He highlighted studies he had undertaken, in which learners who were given ‘rewards’ for correct answers showed improved memory and attention, whilst learners suffering from anxiety were less likely to learn as their working memory was taken up, reducing the ability to process information. Questions from the audience asked what, if any, impact technology had on the brain (it does – it is making us be able to process more yet remember less) and whether there truly is a difference between female and male brains (there is – but culture has a far bigger impact on behaviour differences). The lecture left the audience enthused to learn more, at which point Paul handed out flyers for the book the lecture was based on – ‘Evolution of the Learning Brain (Or How You Got To Be So Smart)’.

The afternoon’s keynote was a lecture from BILT’s Director, Alvin Birdi, who (somewhat accidently) tied in his lecture with Paddy Ireland’s opening musings, highlighting the difficult balance between freedom and state intervention. He delivered a ‘critique’ of Bristol Futures, in which he wove literature, educational philosophy and history into a neat, 50-minute lecture on the intellectual underpinning of the ‘Bristol Futures’ vision.

He split his animated and exciting lecture into five key areas: context (in which he introduced the concept of intellectual freedom vs. state intervention/ government funding), history (conflicts between conservative and utilitarian purposes of university), protheses (universities as a way to supplement society’s needs and how  universities reflects society), eyes (highlighting how we need ‘blink’ to ensure that we are seeing and hearing properly; that we are effectively reflecting on our practice), and ways of educating (students looking at and working across different disciplines; solving real-world problems while gaining knowledge from scholars), concluding that Bristol Futures was marrying an imbalance we have seen in universities for the past three hundred years – a balance between intellectual freedom and intervention from the state, by providing students with the opportunity to explore difference areas, which, in turn, creates an awareness of civic and global responsibility and resilience to challenges.

The day highlighted the need to explore and innovate in teaching practice, placing knowledge and students at the heart of all we do. Alvin’s lecture ended with a quote from Derrida, and is fitting to consider for the conference theme as a whole:

Beware of ends; but what would a university be without ends?

(Derrida, 1983: 19.)