Reflections from a (newly-ex) Sabbatical Officer

On Thursday 19th October, I was one of about 100 delegates from numerous higher education institutions who gathered at Senate House, University of London for the evasys Student Engagement Conference: You Said, We Did, Now What? The day was packed full of discussion events, panels, and presentations about the different ways education providers can offer an enhanced and effective way of engaging their students. The following is my personal recount of the day and the sessions I attended.

Poppy Lindsey

By Poppy Lindsey

Journalism intern at the News Movement
Former Welfare Officer at Reading University Students’ Union

The event opened with a welcome from Helena Lim, Head of Opportunities at evasys, who walked attendees through the plan for the day and set the scene for the discussions to be had. Helena also introduced evasys as a company, and why it is the most trusted survey provider for 60+ UK and Irish higher education Institutions, before going on to welcome Professor Gilly Salmon, opening keynote speaker, to the stage.

Opening Keynote: Creating Student Engagement for the Future: Designs and Benefits

Gilly Salmon is the founder and CEO of Education Alchemists Ltd, a company centred around pedagogical change, design methodology and technology enhanced learning. The keynote was entitled: ‘Creating student engagement for the future: designs and benefits.’

Transaction vs transformation

The session focused on how we can create change in student engagement – moving away from seeing education as a transaction, and toward a transformation.

Gilly reflected on the fact that acquiring an education has always been about showing how worthy you are, and receiving knowledge in return for this. This ‘transactional’ approach has become ingrained in a culture student engagement is not naturally part of, and remained throughout the evolution from books, to the internet, and now the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Gilly analogised: “there is a reputation for building barriers brick by brick, and we need to start removing the bricks from this wall.” The more we empower one part of this wall, there will be less transactions and more partnership.

Importance of being values and data driven

Gilly went on to outline how imperative it is to be values driven, with a clear vision of why we’re trying to engage students, which she admitted will likely be a contested and political space. Importantly, she said: “We need an understanding of enabling acceptable culture change, and to be able to lead in uncertainty.” To do this, an institution will need meaningful data and evidence, and Gilly explained a transformation shouldn’t be attempted without it. Data and evidence offers compelling reasons to spend time and effort on engagement, and essentially shape the future. By using it, an improved learning environment can be leveraged.

‘Norm’ the ghost

Gilly wasn’t the only star of the keynote speech, Norman the ghost also featured prominently – allow me to explain! Gilly used an image of a ghost who floated around the screen to explain the ‘norms’ presented as a barrier when change is suggested within HE discussions. Norman the ‘culture ghost’ is known for taking up resources and slowing things down, spooking any transformative suggestions. This amusing, but equally relatable, analogy set the tone for the day and was often referred back to in subsequent sessions.

The audience was encouraged to think about a time they’d been completely hooked on a Netflix series or something equivalently addictive, recognise what it was which kept us engaged, and use our own pulls to engagement within the educational space. If we fail to design the student experience for engagement, fans of ‘Norman the culture ghost’ will revert to type and transaction will never turn to transformation.

What do students really want?

Gilly continued to explain keys to unlocking the doors to student engagement, including ‘creating the future’. One of the crucial ways of ensuring student engagement is by preparing them for career environments. Students are keen to realise their learning outcomes – what am I striving for? Employability and contribution to solving world problems are amongst the priorities of students nowadays, so education providers must begin to be increasingly explicit about how their learning is helping them solve problems and ensuring students can see their goals being fulfilled. By designing programs for the user experience, rather than for ourselves as providers, students are given a true competitive advantage upon graduation. When they feel heard and valued, like all of us, they are more likely to become active participants in their own learning.

Gilly concluded with motivation for delegates to take lots from the day away with them:

“We can’t delay – the future of engagement relies on us taking effective action today.”

Workshop: Queen Mary Academy learner internship project: co-creation through scholarship

The morning keynote was followed by the first set of parallel sessions and I attended a workshop facilitated by Daniela Thibodeau, Graeme Hathaway and Elise Omfalos, of Queen Mary University of London, which looked at the importance of teaching and learning initiatives being co-created between students and institutions.

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To get the conversation flowing, the audience were asked how they have currently tried to engage their students. Answers included using Mentimeter to conduct snap surveys on a larger scale, partnerships to enable the advertising of engagement roles, creating a podcast to engage both students podcasting and the listeners, and the National Student Survey (NSS).

In breakout groups, attendees delved deeper into creating a plan for engaging students in scholarship projects.

Firstly, it was said to be important to engage a variety of students, bringing a diverse body of representatives and focusing on their mindset. By teaching a ‘growth mindset’, students can ‘learn how to learn’ and their engagement in teaching and learning will become more active. It was also seen as crucial that students really understood what scholarship meant for them, and assessed what they saw as ‘teaching and learning’.

The factor of inclusivity also came up – the importance of explaining to students why we are asking for partnership. Attendees remarked that we need to encourage students to recognise their differences, as many are often not tuned into differing university experiences. The same students are depended on to quote their lived experience, rather than the minority being represented.

Comments were also made surrounding students not actually realising how much providers genuinely care about their experience, so there is merit in giving students a taste of pedagogical practices used for their advantage behind the scenes.

Others remarked that students appreciate the university bringing ideas to them, and their role being to offer their perspective on it, meaning staff must provide the scaffolding to support students in their feedback, but also be able to ensure the process remains student-led.

Training must also be tailored to scholarship projects: students need the confidence to speak, know how to give effective feedback into project outputs, evaluate the long term impact of their work, and understand the institutional gain from it.

Workshop: Building student-centric services: unlocking innovation in student engagement

The next workshop I attended was facilitated by Colum Mackey from Greenwich Students’ Union and Tania Struetzel from the University of Greenwich. Mentioned first was survey response rates, and the disparity between institutions. In certain universities module evaluation responses were reaching 95-100%, but others stalled at 30% or even 15%. To improve this, suggestions were made to have ‘champions’ for evaluation completion at faculty level, who take ownership for the closing of the feedback loop, for example. An interesting point raised was that students don’t know how to give feedback, as it isn’t necessarily required throughout school or college. Some attendees shared their technique of presenting a Mentimeter survey to students at Week 4 of their term, which teaches the etiquette of giving feedback from the beginning, and helps students understand why it is so important. These questions don’t need to mimic NSS style questions and can ask for feedback at a simpler level.

Another issue raised was the age-old dilemma of postgraduate (PG) international students who express low satisfaction rates. A ‘peer mentor’ style student-to-student approach was suggested to remedy this, and a conversation about the best way to digitally reach students developed. It was mainly universally acknowledged that emails are ineffective, and that ‘warning’ texts had been trialled at some institutions – sending a text 10 minutes before a phone call explaining what the call would be regarding. It was also suggested that communications around asking for feedback must be reframed to tackle any ‘us vs them’ narrative which has built up, and level out the power imbalance it’s created.

Parallel paper presentations

After a short refreshment break, there were three parallel sessions offering eight paper presentations. It was hard to choose from the choice of topics, as they all sounded so interesting!

Using creative enquiry to empower student voice: experiences from Queen Mary University of London

The opening presentation I attended was on a paper authored by Louise Younie, Ana Cabral and Stephanie Fuller of Queen Mary University of London, around creative enquiry empowering students. The team’s project required students to explore their lived experience through the arts, in particular for those studying medicine-based degrees, and encouraged them to think about how the arts may also work for patients.

Creative enquiry was said to help students improve their communication skills, help them hear themselves think within a profession which often doesn’t allow for this, and open them up to new perspectives.

Photovoice for advanced learning among first-year BA students

This paper was presented by Christie Johnson and two student co-researchers, Alice Kim and Elsie Lusty from the London College of Communication, University of the Arts.The photovoice project was introduced as an arts-based participatory research methodology, involving taking photographs and thinking ‘discursively’. The project was open to every student and the team were keen to stress it doesn’t require any prior photographic skills or knowledge – meaning it can engage students institution-wide.

Alice, currently a third year student, took part in the project in her first year, before becoming a co-researcher in her second year, took the stage to give feedback of her own experience of the photovoice project. She explained how it gave her creative confidence and helped her get away from the stress of her daily life and studies. Alice said it was “life-changing” to see her photos exhibited in public places and she enjoyed her peers letting her know they’d seen her work up in the library! She also said it improved her sense of belonging as an international student who felt quite lost when she arrived. Alice was empowered to engage in student representation after taking part in photovoice, subsequently being elected as a School Rep.

Elsie, now a third year photography student at the University, worked alongside Alice as a co-researcher for the photovoice project. She said the work challenged her own creative practice in a risk free environment where she could trial new techniques and skills. For Elsie, her educational experience was overshadowed by the Covid pandemic and she felt photovoice provided a platform to express the feelings of isolation and loneliness so many university-goers found themselves in during the pandemic.

Motivating international postgraduate taught students at UK business schools – bridging the chasm of student expectation and institutional reality

The final paper was presented by Ann Qian, of Chester Business School. Ann’s presentation looked at tackling the ongoing dilemma many institutions face when it comes to engaging international postgraduate students. There was an intriguing aspect on the gap between student expectation and the reality of resources universities have to offer, causing a lack of engagement and motivation when students arrive at a UK institution. This is part of ongoing research that Ann is currently undertaking.

Workshop: NSS: One size fits all? A peer learning discussion

After lunch, I attended a workshop facilitated by Dr Helena Lim from evasys and Huw Morgan-Jones from the University of London. The session opened with an introduction to the reformed National Student Survey (NSS), accompanied by a graph with the NSS results 2023 by survey theme.

  • Key changes in 2023

Some of the key changes affecting institutions in the new NSS format includes the removal of Question 27 (overall satisfaction) in England. There was a new question about the freedom of expression and mental wellbeing of students. The 4-point scale changed to a 5-point scale, and agreement responses were replaced with direct questions.

  • Discussions

Attendees were placed into groups to discuss the impact the new questions have had in their individual organisations and how much the NSS comes into their student experience planning.

Comments were made around the release of data being a necessary wake-up call for some universities to stop comparing results internally, and rather look externally, comparing course-for-course.

It was also remarked that sometimes the NSS can cause problems with students giving feedback with one angle, and the NSS reporting back a completely different view, but that all metrics are useful and valid when using student feedback to tailor student engagement.

A delegate from Swansea University reported instrumental changes as a result of the survey, changing all internal services to mirror the NSS methodology and subsequently finding out how students interpret their questions.

Lunch break at the evasys Student Engagement Conference
Lunch break at the evasys Student Engagement Conference

Roundtable discussion: why we must engage all student groups in Higher Education governance structures

This session was led by Diana Beech of London Higher, alongside Emily Dixon (London Higher), Taruna Bangia (Westminster SU President), and Michelle Morgan (University of East London Dean). Each panel member gave a short talk before the Q&A session.

Emily Dixon, London Higher

Emily drew on her lived experience as a disabled student on a small course in London to portray the challenges faced engaging all students. She remarked how she wanted governance structures to hear every type of student’s situation and needs, and that these benefit both the institution and the student body. Particularly in a London context, universities must prepare for hyper-diversity, in terms of commuters, age, and international students, as well as the cost-of-living crisis hitting London hard.

Emily spoke about how the student experience differs across groups and within groups, and that

“if you’ve spoken to one international student, you’ve spoken to one international student.”

Michelle Morgan, University of East London

Michelle spoke extensively on the benefits of collecting student feedback before the end of their time at university and the importance of studying student transitions. The data we collect must be meaningful (collecting at course-level), appropriate for the specific course activity, available and accessible, and safe (recommending anonymity). By receiving this, we can reach a wider scope of feedback – for example, learning the Postgraduate top 10 concerns from first year to second year – and we are able to remedy it before the students graduate. In regard to student expectations of service, Michelle took the example that if we know more men are likely to use sport, but are also three-quarters more likely to die by suicide, we should be asking how we push wellbeing through those men engaged in sport. Institutions must start asking the right questions.

Taruna Bangia, Westminster Students’ Union

Lastly, President of Westminster Students’ Union, Taruna, provided the much-needed student voice in the discussion on student engagement. Taruna explained why we need to engage all student groups in Higher Education governance structure. Students have the right to be heard, and are the true beneficiaries who deserve inclusive policies for all. Taruna reminded the room that students are the leaders of tomorrow and have first hand expertise in their world. Education goes beyond assignments, it is about developing skills, community building and active citizenship.

The session concluded with a Q&A, where the audience asked the panel what we should be telling policy makers, how we can best involve students in university governance structures, and how to demystify senior meetings to avoid alienating students.

Closing Keynote: Student engagement, interventions and evaluation data – what keeps me awake at night

For the closing keynote session, Charles Knight of Advance HE talked us through the things which keep him awake at night within Higher Education. Charles spoke on students in paid employment, with full-time courses being structured as part-time courses to enable students to earn money at part-time jobs. It’s time to start looking at data with a human lens – How should we be supporting students who need to work? He also touched on the sense of belonging so many students lack at university, and questioned how institutions can capture this and remedy it. The topic of AI was a running feature throughout the day, and Charles captured its essence perfectly. Instead of running from AI, universities should be educating students about the appropriate use of it, and learning about what it means for students to begin outsourcing their activity via AI software.

Reflections from the Student Engagement Conference by poppy Linds
Reflections from the Student Engagement Conference

Coming from the other side, being a student only two years ago, it has always struck me at conferences like these how much the student experience really is prized and valued. Perhaps at school with incredibly limited resources, the student experience acts as a bonus, and upon becoming a sabbatical officer I was amazed to find there was even a Pro-Vice Chancellor for student experience.

The evasys conference reminded me of how essential it is that we communicate to students how much the institution genuinely wants to improve and flourish, in order to gain specific and high-quality feedback. The more open the dialogue between students and providers, the more both parties will thrive.

As a Welfare Officer at my Students’ Union, I admittedly hadn’t thought particularly deeply about the kinds of surveys available to students, or the differing impacts they might have, leaving the likes of the TEF and NSS analytics to the Education Officer! The examples of various surveys at the Student Engagement Conference got me reflecting on the importance of wording questions correctly, and the most appropriate times on a student’s journey to ask for feedback.

All in all, the evasys Student Engagement Conference was a fantastic event with a diverse set of speakers that will help delegates to consider all the potential routes to enhancing student engagement in their institutions.

Poppy LindseyPoppy Lindsey, Journalism intern at the News Movement | Former Welfare Officer at Reading University Students’ Union

To view the programme and presentations, visit our events page. To learn more about evasys, reach out to us at enquiries@evasys.co.uk.

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