From the 28th to 30th of June 2017 the European First Year Experience Conference (EFYE Conference 2017) took place at Birmingham City University. Organized for the first time in 2006, the EFYE conference has been running annually ever since and is thematically focussed around improving the student 1st year experience. The 2017 edition of the EFYE conference asked participants to consider in particular the role of students as partners in improving the first year student’s experience. Being a topic close to our heart (the Leicester Learning Institute promotes and supports staff-student partnerships across the University of Leicester), Tracy Dix (Learning developer) and I (project officer staff-student partnerships) eagerly made the short trip to Birmingham. Below we briefly reflect on our experiences of EFYE 2017 and our major conference “take-aways”. We aim to do this by drawing together two presentations which particularly resonated with us.
Gareth Hughes (University of Derby) presented a paper titled: ‘We don’t teach them many “life skills”: the role of schools in preparing students for University.’ It focussed particularly on what secondary school teachers think about how well prepared their students are for HE. For this purpose 17 teachers in 17 schools were interviewed. In general terms the study found that teachers believe that their students come utterly unprepared to University. A range of issues are identified, from surface learning to a lack of resilience and an inability to imagine life at University. What stood out to us most, however, was the perceived lack of life skills. Secondary school students (according to this study) have severe difficulties with, for example, managing their time, negotiating relationships and utilising the appropriate channels of communications. Coupled with an apparent lack of confidence and resilience and an inability to see beyond the here and now, Gareth’s paper really drove home the magnitude of the challenge that awaits Universities during the 1st year.
From a students as partner’s perspective, Gareth’s research has clear implications. Staff sometimes (initially) resist working with students as partners because students are (incorrectly) perceived to be unable to meaningfully contribute because they don’t have valid experience or knowledge. It appears, however, that a lack of ‘life skills’ might be more of a barrier for engaging with students as partners than anything else. Engaging in partnership requires from students a commitment to take ownership of their learning, establish working relationships and communicate effectively with their teachers and peers. Working in partnership often also takes place outside of regular curricular hours so the ability to manage one’s time and workload is an important element of successful staff-student partnerships. In short, asking learners to become involved as partners in enhancing the learning and teaching environment rests on the (implicit) assumptions that A) students have the necessary life skills to engage in meaningful partnership and B) that students are eager and willing to do so. Gareth’s research has highlighted that such assumptions not necessarily rang true. The successful establishment of an institutional climate in which students engage with staff and fellow peers as partners in their learning and teaching is, therefore, challenged not only by notions of student expertise and whether or not it is appropriate to give students an active voice in practices of learning and teaching, but also by general unaccustomedness, for want of a better word, of the average student with many of the qualities pivotal in establishing successful partnerships.
Gareth’s work stresses once more the importance of the first year as a transition period in which new students adapt to life at University and the demands of their studies. This is a point also made by Michelle Morgan of Bournemouth University. Her paper on ‘the importance of using the students lifecycle in supporting effective student and staff partnerships in the first year and beyond’ is another EFYYE conference contribution we would like to draw attention to. Michelle has developed the practitioner model, a framework that outlines the six stages of the student experience and five themes with which students engage during each stage. She stresses the need to engage with students pre-arrival at University and highlights the importance of student-staff communication across and during the various stages and themes of the student lifecycle (as interpreted by the practitioner model). The practitioner model is an interesting way of visualising the student experience and allows academic and professional practitioners to identify when and where students need to be extra supported. Michelle suggest that the model can serve as a useful framework for building partnership opportunities into the student journey. The model with its clearly defined stages enables systematic consideration of the way in which opportunities for partnership are built into the student experience and allows for a scaffolded partnership strategy in which students can be gradually eased into taking greater ownership of their own learning and teaching. Such a scaffolded approach to working in partnership with students seeks to gradually engage students into new ways of working and learning and aims to develop and foster the skills required to do so effectively and confidently. Throwing students in at the deep end and immediately expecting them to embrace this way of working or postponing any such initiative until much later in their studies are perhaps not the most effective ways in which to engage with students as partners. Just as with other areas of University life students need to be transitioned into working with staff as partners. The practitioner model might provide a structure for doing so. The potential embedded within this model definitely resonated with us and we would encourage University of Leicester practitioners to have a look at Michelle Morgan’s work (http://www.improvingthestudentexperience.com) and consider not only how the various stages and themes embedded within the practitioner model can benefit from working with students as partners but also ways in which students can be gradually eased into taking greater ownership of their own learning and teaching.
The LLI has recently conducted a staff-student partnership audit, collating examples of students working with staff as partners from across the Institution. The audit has unearthed a rich and varied spectrum of initiatives which seek to give students greater ownership of their own learning and teaching. Some departments have embedded their approaches firmly within the curriculum and throughout the various stages of the degree whereas others rely on more individualised initiatives. Clearly outstanding work is going on and students of the University of Leicester have more input in shaping their own learning and teaching landscape than ever before. It is important to not lose sight, however, of the fact that students might at first be very unfamiliar with and unprepared for students as partners approaches. Embedding initiatives within the curriculum and designing opportunities for students to work in partnership with staff around key stages and themes of the student life cycle is key in setting up a scaffolded approach to working in partnership. Such an approach will gradually seek to engage students more proactively with their own learning and teaching and develop in learners the life skills and confidence that will enable them to take full advantage of the opportunities that working in partnership offers.