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The Bristol Model: How Social Sciences and Law Provided an Authentic Research Experience to Undergraduates

The Bristol Model program is an excellent example of authentic learning in practice. Taking place from September 2020 – February 2023, it provided undergraduate students from across the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law with the opportunity to conduct research with external partner organisations.

What is it?

The Bristol Model programme consisted of six co-produced research projects, designed in collaboration with external partner organisations from across the city of Bristol. The projects enabled undergraduate students to gain experience of Social Sciences research as Research Assistants, supported by a PhD student as a Research Associate. Participating students worked with leading academics from the university, bridging the gap between teaching, learning and research and creating a truly civic university.

The programme allowed students to break out from the university bubble to build partnerships with organisations in the city, mostly local charities, community and activists groups in the third sector. Projects were developed co-productively to ensure that research was directed in the best possible way to fill a need identified by the partner organisation. This led to an ‘everybody wins’ mindset that encouraged a supportive atmosphere for the student researchers.

What do academics say?

Each project had a lead academic from the university with a great deal of freedom in how they undertook their role. Most took a ‘light touch’ approach, leaving the project management to the PhD Research Associate. Some were more active training students in literature reviews and research methods, working alongside students in data collection, writing and editing. In either instance, lead academics provided support when needed and were a valuable resource for the projects they were involved with.

“I’m very positive about using students to do this kind of work. It’s good for them and it’s good for us.”

Involvement with the projects gave academics a unique insight into the benefits for the students involved. Academics were overwhelmingly positive about the programme and the role of undergraduate students as researchers in their own right.

“The real world problems are fantastic for student learning. They are much more effective than the kind of abstracted case studies that we provide in books”

What do Partners say?

Partner refers to the person in the organisation who was the main point of contact with the model. In most cases, they were involved in the negotiation and development of the project and were key in steering the research in a direction that provided useful information for their organisation and ensured that the research benefited their objectives as much as those of the University.

“Our evidence base is often anecdotal. We wanted to be driven by evidence from research…we wanted the legitimacy and credibility that comes from a link with the university in a research partnership.”

They were supportive of the involvement of student researchers and saw the benefit of the ‘fresh eyes’ and creativity that undergraduates brought to the research.

“I’ve really enjoyed developing that working relationship with the university. Seeing the students go on to do things and realising how valuable its been for them in their careers and their confidence. That means everything because then everybody wins”

What do students say?

Students indicated they felt that they had learned, adapted and grown, both personally and professionally. Perceived benefits for the students included personal development, development of research skills, experience of academic theory in practice, widening knowledge base, increased awareness of the partners area of operation as well as an enhanced CV.

“It feels really collegiate. Like we are all properly engaging with each other and the topic. I can see the things that come out of that process which is really satisfying”

The encouragement to take ownership of the project increased student’s confidence and skills which lead to the majority of student Research Assistants feeling more self-assured and capable after earning the respect of those they worked with and seeing the progress they made. They also reported that their university work was given precedence by supervisors and so their degrees were not neglected.

“A big, big thing for me was that it’s nice to feel like I had ownership of the project and take it in the directions I wanted. And that was definitely translated into how I was supervised, where they let me get on with it”

While students reported an initial ‘out of depth’ feeling on arrival, support and encouragement let them find their feet which was identified as a positive process overall.

“I think it was the right balance of knowing that we had guidance if we needed it, but also throwing us in the deep end to try and plough through it and stay afloat.”

The students also reported that the Bristol Model let them feel more connected to the city of Bristol outside of the university and let them feel more at home in an unfamiliar city, especially when Covid-19 lockdowns meant it would otherwise be difficult to connect and engage.

“I really do credit that for a lot of my integration into Bristol as a city as well as a university.”

Future directions

Evaluation has shown that the Bristol Model is overwhelmingly positive for both students and partners, but since the initial funding from the Office for Students has now run out, how can the project be sustained or developed? A recent workshop on the topic involved representatives from across the university alongside students and academics who had taken part in one of the projects.

One idea for further development involved embedding this kind of project into the curriculum so more students can benefit, trading paid positions for those conferring credit for their degree. Concerns surrounding a lessening of student engagement and barriers for Widening Participation students were raised with this and it is clear that a huge amount of behind the scenes work would be necessary.

Discussions also took place on other potential problems of scaling up, how would we ensure that organisations are suitable on a large scale? Would the role of the lead academic be possible or would this be another burden on academics limited time? How would we ensure that students were adequately supported as is suitable for a credit bearing unit? What would assessment look like?

It might be reassuring to know that there are already units in other faculties that involve work with external partner organisations. Perhaps, in the future, the Bristol Model could draw inspiration from units such as ‘GEOG20011: Research Methods in Physical Geography’ which allows students to put learning into practice through the design, delivery and write-up of a group project delivered in partnership with local environmental organisations.

Findings taken from ‘The Bristol Model: Executive Summary and Findings’, The Evaluation Team

Further reading

Infographic summary of the key findings and feedback

For more information on the projects:

1 thought on “The Bristol Model: How Social Sciences and Law Provided an Authentic Research Experience to Undergraduates”

  1. Excellent model and a great article.
    It would be great in the future to include organisations beyond the third sector, too.

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