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.
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.