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The Society for Research into Higher Education

New research on student engagement: partnership approaches in the disciplines

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By Abbi Flint

Engaging students as co-researchers, co-designers and co-creators of their learning experiences is an idea that, over the past few years, has captured the attention and imagination of many staff and students. The rationales for engaging students as partners in their learning are diverse and complex, including political and pedagogic perspectives. From a desire to engage and empower all students to take responsibility for their learning, an ethical responsibility to ensure students have a say in their education, to offering a constructive alternative to consumerist models of higher education.

At the HEA, our rationale is pedagogic. We are interested in how approaches which foreground partnership with students are powerful ways of transforming teaching and inspiring learning. As a sector we need evidence of their effectiveness in fostering deeper engagement with learning, particularly how impacts play out across different national, institutional and discipline contexts. Recent HEA research makes a much needed contribution to this debate.

Engagement through partnership is a popular idea, but what does this actually look like in practice and what difference does it make to the student learning experience? In Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education, we identified a need for further research into how partnership was interpreted and applied within different disciplines, and to build an evidence base to demonstrate the impact of this approach to student engagement. In 2014 the HEA funded research to address this issue, the focus was to:

  • increase our understanding of pedagogical approaches that foster partnership, with attention to disciplinary difference and context;
  • provide evidence of the impact these pedagogies have on student learning;
  • offer clear implications for teaching and learning practice.

The first report from this research (from the University of Lincoln) was published in September, and the subject of an HEA research webinar in October. The University of Lincoln has a history of engaging students as active members of the university community, most significantly through Professor Mike Neary’s HEA-funded National Teaching Fellowship project (2010-13) establishing ‘student as producer’ as an organising principle for learning and teaching at the institution.

The research team, led by Dr Karin Crawford, used a mixed methods approach (combining interviews with staff and students, questionnaires, and analysis of secondary data) to explore understandings, practice and impact of partnership approaches to learning and teaching across four disciplines: biomedical science, history, psychology and media production.

The research identifies partnership as both a way of working and learning together towards a shared goal, and a philosophy or mindset that prompts us to rethink traditional learning relationships. Several pedagogical approaches are identified across the disciplines which foster this ethos of partnership, including engaging students in research, using collaborative online environments to interact and co-create of resources; and interdisciplinary collaborations. An institutional model of student engagement emerged from the analysis which recognises these activities may take place within, beyond and on the edge of the curriculum. In fact, some students highlighted the importance of social activities outside the curriculum for getting to know one another, and build trust and confidence required for successful partnership relationships.

Those who engaged through partnership described powerful impacts including the development of professional/discipline identity and community, the development of a wide-range of skills, and greater confidence, curiosity and independence. It’s interesting to note that confidence emerges as both a prerequisite and consequence of partnership. This prompts questions about how we provide space for the development of partnership relationships early in the student journey.

The second report from this research (from the University of Southampton) will be published to coincide with the SRHE conference in December. This research focuses specifically on the impact of an international exchange programme, through which occupational therapy students worked and learned in partnership with peers and staff from their own institution and the University of Lund (Sweden), and with the wider public on real health projects. The research identifies the impacts of partnership approaches for students in terms of their personal and professional development, and the development of their sense of identity as part of a global community of health-care professionals.

Both of these projects embody partnership in their research methodology, engaging students as co-researchers throughout the research process. Engaging students as partners in subject-based research and the scholarship of teaching and learning are core areas of the HEA’s Framework for student engagement through partnership, and the subject of a recent guide.

This research provides insight into the impact of specific pedagogical approaches to partnership across a range of disciplines. This is just one of the ways the HEA continues to explore the impact of learning and teaching approaches, as part of our commitment to evidenced based excellence in teaching.

Dr Abbi Flint is Research Manager at the Higher Education Academy.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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