Student Voice

Transformational Learning Hackathon December 2021

Hackathons are events in which participants are asked a question, or given a problem, and have a limited amount of time to find a solution. Most commonly used in engineering disciplines, participants are put into groups and work together to on the problem and develop some solutions.

BILT’s third hackathon took place across two afternoons in December, with around 15 students joining us to share their experiences of University. We wanted to look at what made for a transformational experience of learning, where students are engaged in a process of deep, constructive and meaningful learning – rather than something seen as purely transactional (where learning is more about knowledge acquisition and getting a degree) – and look for any commonalities in these experiences. To do this, we split the cohort into three groups, each led by one of our Student Fellows, and asked them to reflect on their learning experiences and discuss these To help answer the questions ‘What makes for a transformational learning experience?’.

The first hackathon: reflecting on learning

At the first hackathon the students reflected on their degree subject, comparing how they felt about and experienced their subject before and now during university and what they wanted to do when they finished. They then considered questions like ‘if university was free, would you feel differently about your studies?’ and ‘should university be about getting value for money?’. At the end of the afternoon, each group fed back five key points from their discussions.

All three groups highlighted the importance of connections as a key part of positive experience. The more a student felt like they had connected with others – on their course or outside of it through extra-curricular activities or engagement with events in the city – the more they felt like they were having a transformational experience. Wellbeing was also a huge factor in whether students had a good experience. Students who felt they were worried about housing or finances did not feel they could truly enjoy their time or focus on their subject. The need for more support around student services and access to information was highlighted.

In the classroom, students noted the difference in quality of online learning and expressed a desire for a more level playing field when it came to teaching online. Some of the students, especially those doing lab-based degrees, did not do as much practical work as they had hoped they were going to do, and were disappointed by this. They believed they would enjoy their studies more if they could physically be in a space with others on their course. Autonomy in learning, whether it was having flexibility with blended learning, or the ability to choose their own essay titles/ research projects, was popular with students and made them feel more engaged and passionate with their subject.

At the end of the session, we asked the students to add a word or two about what they believed made for a transformational experience via Mentimeter.

Mentimeter activity results from first hackathon afternoon.

Engagement was viewed as the biggest factor in what made for a transformational experience. Whether this was engaging with your subject content, course mates, house mates, events in Bristol, academic and sport societies or political movements – this engagement with others was the key driver in positive experiences.

The second hackathon: what changes would you make?

The second week of the hackathon saw a similar format, with sub-groups creating a short presentation to deliver to senior stakeholders and others in the hackathon. We asked the students to focus on practical things we could do to make positive changes.

Feelings were similar to those in the first week, with students discussing the need for more face-to-face learning, while also enjoying the flexibility of asynchronous content. Students mentioned the need for more Careers-related activities and believed it was the University’s responsibility to create these experiences, rather than being down to the students. They felt disconnected from University management and some felt that the University did not care about the students (they were assured this was not the case!). Wellbeing services and information about Student Services were highlighted as being problematic, with access problems and lack of available information.

Issues around communication were central to a lot of problems – students felt inundated with information and emails, but at the same time struggled to find the information that they wanted.  Students wanted to join clubs and societies and be aware of upcoming events, but didn’t know how to find out this information. This point echoed previous hackathons where the same issue was discussed – a potential solution was the creation of a student app but this has not been followed up.

You can watch the full recording of this event here.

Hackathon workshop

In January, the hackathon was followed up with a workshop on the hackathon findings and aimed to discuss potential solutions with staff. Some of the additional key points raised were:

  • The role of the city in created a sense of community and transformation, this differs depending on the city/institution. Students that engaged with the city (for example, attended music events) felt more positive about their experience overall.
  • Experiences of students who have additional financial challenges and the potential impact/knock-on effect this can have on students experience of connection/transformation.
  • Year abroad can both help and hinder – students coming back from their year abroad will have lost their cohort and need to re-establish a sense of connection all over again. 
  • Challenges of comms to promote opportunities for students. No silver bullet as students engage in different ways with different comms platforms and are more likely to engage with school comms than university level comms. 

A potential solution

We had a brief opportunity to discuss a potential solution to a lot of these issues. We discussed Plymouth’s use of a four-week induction process, where students only take one module and focus on study skills and the language of their course, while also getting to know the others on their course and learning more about university and what they can get involved with. There were positive results across the board: students reported higher levels of wellbeing and retention increased, with students naming a sense of belonging, academic integration, social integration and strong study skills as being key factors in the improvement. Peer collaboration and networking grows due to the collaborative work that takes place early in the programme. The average grade from first assignments went up from 62% to 67%, despite the fact the individual student needs had not always been recognised at this point. Both genders showed heightened performance, thought the enhancement was greater for males, therefore reducing the attainment gap.

Improvements shown through this immersive module would be a big step towards tackling some of the issues highlighted by our students in this hackathon.

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