University of Sheffield Students as Partners event 22 October 2013

This was a very interesting event attended by staff and students from a wide range of UK universities, representing older and newer institutions, and a number of different subject areas, alongside a diverse array of approaches.

In almost all of the cases the students present had been working with members of staff on research projects – some relating to their studies directly, others to improving the student experience at their institutions – and a poster session at lunchtime underlined the range of approaches and subjects which had been explored. As a representative from Lincoln, I was happy to hear Mike Neary’s work referenced several times!

Stuart Hampton-Reeves opening presentation was particularly interesting – he has organised a conference where undergrads present their research findings, based on an annual conference USA. www.bcur.org.uk gives further details and the next conference is in Nottingham in Spring 2014!

One of the questions raised in discussion was: how can we make these activities accessible to all students? Examples from the institutions already engaged in such activities suggest that by paying students engaged in research with staff, rather than giving them a small bursary or having them as volunteers, students may not be deterred by financial restrictions. This led to consideration of the need for there to be a pot of guaranteed money to make feasible. The benefits are manifold: students can then try out lines of research alongside or instead of staff, giving them experience of research but also potentially freeing up staff to pursue different or parallel lines of research at the same time, usually over the summer.

A range of papers were delivered at the event which offered insights into students’ experiences and staff motivations for engaging with such projects:

Intercultural interactions – University of Sheffield – considered the benefits of acknowledging different cultures in teaching and learning, especially the need to recognise and acknowledge difference and to act accordingly: see  Sheffield.ac.uk/lets/thinkglobal

Group learning – York St John – considered student engagement and the use of students’ knowledge and experiences, alongside the benefits of constructing knowledge in conversation

Students as researchers – Sheffield Hallam – the research outlined considered the online presence of students through 100 hours of research with an analysis and full report, aiming to guide students to think carefully about how they have represented themselves online and how future employers may view this.

Undergraduate interdisciplinary partnerships – Sheffield – Dominic A. Holland offered a very interesting scholarly analysis of the idea of interdisciplinarity: his book Integrating Knowledge through Interdisciplinary Research has recently been published.

The Interdisciplinary curriculum – Newcastle – students studying Combined Honours discussed how their degree had been seeking an identity and found it through interdisciplinary projects. Their work designing a module was part of their assessment and offered a holistic approach, challenging norms in HE, and with application to real world issues. The module will run 2014/15.

SALT – Sheffield – this research sought to challenge the idea of ‘value’ in HE  and offered a student-driven, less consumerist alternative with a rejection of  hierarchy in teaching and learning.

SURE – Sheffield – Discussing a bursary for students available in the Summer between L2-L3, the members outlined how they had co-created projects with staff and student involvement for 6 weeks in the summer, involving 100 students and – importantly for sharing ideas – with a designated work space on campus.

URB@N – Northampton – this research focussed on the idea that more collaboration leads to more knowledge. Paid for 50 hours of work, student involvement is believed to make them more employable and, from the staff perspective, many of the outputs across a range of disciplines at the institution have been REFable, Maintaining student commitment has been a challenge at times, and this may be linked to the need to ‘match’ the right students with the right staff and research projects.

Science undergrad curriculum – Canterbury Christ church – discussion of this project began with the assertion that research and teaching as experienced by staff do often conflict – so a way to show students that their research is part of a wider researching community may be to have them write, instead of dissertation, a journal article matching the criteria of an academic journal relevant to the subject area and useful experience if they intend to publish in a future career in industry or HE.

Overall the benefits of the experiences for students were clear – greater employability, experience of research and greater insight into what goes on at a university in the summer months were all demonstrated, with, in the case of the latter, undergrads often working alongside postgrad students and thereby getting a good idea of what work on a PhD actually looks like! Such projects offer exciting opportunities for staff too – having someone research a parallel area to your own frees up time to undertake longer-term research, whilst for all staff, research into the student experience is a core part of improving it in appropriate and feasible ways.

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