srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Fostering a sense of safety in higher education

by Lauren McAllister, Luke Ward, and Lauren Young

From left to right: Lauren Young, Lauren McAllister, and Luke Ward

As three lecturers who have taught on a postgraduate course for several years that covers topics around race, gender, identities, parenting, development, disabilities, mental health, wellbeing, and the associated experiences of managing these oppressive and regulatory discourses – we began to question how we can keep ourselves, and our students ‘safe’. We had reflected that we were not talking about a physical sense of safety here, but rather a felt sense of feeling understood, or perhaps even contained.

Having spoken to colleagues and other lecturers who similarly teach some topics that may be deemed ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’, we found that there was very little agreement with regards to how to approach some of these topics and discussions.

What does it mean to feel ‘safe’ within the higher education classroom?

Historically, this idea of a feeling of being ‘safe’ derived from feminist movements where a physical space was created for like-minded individuals to meet and explore their experiences (Flesner and Von Der Lippe, 2019). Within UK universities, safe space is also explored in the context of addressing sexual violence, harassment and discrimination (see: Anker and Von der Lippe, 2018; Uksaysnomore.org, 2022).  Research which did explore safety in the context of a relational sense in the classroom, either positioned the achievement of safety as unrealistic (Du Preez, 2012) or as necessary to ensure both educators and students feel comfortable unpacking difficult dialogues (Nolan and Roberts, 2021). Despite this discrepancy, there was a general agreement that lecturers felt anxious and ill-equipped when teaching sensitive/contested/difficult topics – often leading to them avoiding or minimising engagement in the teaching of such topics (Sue et al, 2010; Warde et al, 2022). We also noted that there was not a clear sense of agreement with regards to what is considered ‘sensitive’ in teaching. In fact, some pedagogical researchers argue that students experience topics differently, and assuming students homogenously feel safe fails to consider this diversity (Barrett, 2010).

As a result, we felt we had several core unanswered questions which drove our research, including: how then as educators do we manage the complexity of experiences, when topics are differently experienced? How do we balance our own anxieties around teaching topics that are differently experienced, and morally/ethically ensuring are students are feeling ‘safe’? And finally, are we as educators responsible for this management of the classroom space?

Our research: What did we do and what did we find?

Our research used collaborative methods to explore both students’ and lecturers’ experiences of ‘safety’ within the HE classroom. We conducted our project in four clear stages to ensure that lived experience was at the heart of any recommendations we established.

Firstly, we conducted five focus groups with students, unpacking the notion of safety and jointly creating a vignette which would be used to scaffold the lecturers’ focus group discussions. We then conducted four lecturer focus groups in which we similarly explored this notion of safety, before using the collaboratively created vignette. This vignette was presented in four stages, with discussion encouraged at each stage. The vignette anchored discussions and enabled lecturers to explore how they prepared for difficult topics; the management of an in-class disclosure; the impact of a dominant voice; and finally, how they end their sessions. Following the focus groups, both groups were thematically analysed separately, before themes were established across the groups, with the support of two students from the student focus groups. The final stage of the project was then to establish some useable recommendations in the form of a workbook/resource for lecturers, which was similarly created with the support of students.

Within the focus groups we found that both the students and the lecturers focused less on whether a topic was deemed ‘sensitive’ or not, and more so on the space ‘between’. Students for example talked about the need to feel heard, the trust between the group and the worry about how their contributions could be perceived. Lecturers noted the impossibility of being able to prepare students for challenging discussions, and many explored the need for students to feel uncomfortable and uncontained, as part of their learning.

Our findings raised two core areas of focus which we used as basis for the development of our workbook: the development of the foundation of relational trust, and the scaffolding of discussions. Building on scholars who positioned relationality as core to teaching and learning (Hobson and Morrison-Saunders, 2013), we developed the concept of ‘relational trust’. We conceptualised relational trust as this shared or mutual understanding between all members of the group (students and lecturers), of an expectation of disagreement, misunderstanding and challenge. We also recognised that this foundation was not a set or established entity, rather it was relationally created and needing to be continually nurtured through considered teaching and learning activities/experiences. In the implementation of our findings, we therefore began to focus less on the framing of a particular topic (ie as inherently safe, or not), and more so on ways through which conversations could be scaffolded within our teaching.

Ok, but what can I ‘take away’ from this and use within my teaching?

Based on the discussions with the students and staff, we can make several usable recommendations to support educators:

  1. Development of a classroom agreement: Firstly, we explored the importance of this foundation of relational trust, whilst also acknowledging that this foundation is never truly ‘set’ or done – rather it is something that needs to be continually nurtured (and revisited). Lecturers and students explored the benefits of a ‘class contract’ during the induction of a new group, whilst also acknowledging some key barriers to the effectiveness of this contract. We explored the importance of needing to revisit this class contract, acknowledging that this relational trust changes with the introduction of new members to the group, changes in topic, general changes in dynamic etc.
  2. Clear expectations of roles: Both lecturers and students lacked clarity with regards to the role of the lecturer – and in turn, the student – in the classroom space. In particular, there was a clear blurring of expectation of what was expected of the lecturer when engaging in discussions that may be considered challenging.  Lecturers generally have multiple roles within higher education, but our findings suggest there is an expectation for lecturers always to fulfil all these roles within the classroom, and that lecturer roles are not neatly compartmentalised into ‘teaching’, ‘module coordination’, ‘office hours’, ‘dissertation supervision’, ‘personal academic tutor sessions’ etc. Therefore, we explored the importance of having a discussion/activity where you actively engage with your students, considering the different expectations of the student, lecturer, and other facilities – to ensure that there is a mutual and shared understanding of roles.
  3. Scaffolding of discussions: Using ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1992) and trauma-informed pedagogical practices (Carello and Butler, 2013; Dana, 2018; Perry and Hambrick, 2008), as a basis, we recognised the multiple layers of comfort and safety and how these could be scaffolded within classroom discussions (see Figure 1). We have therefore provided a framework below through which lecturers can frame their discussions, enabling students to contribute and be heard in spaces that gradually feel more comfortable, negotiating possible language and elements of disclosure. For this activity, it is useful to consider an element of teaching, eg a core topic, an activity, discussion, skills practice, and reflect on/plan out how this might look, starting at the ‘individually’ zone and working your way towards ‘wider group/class’. For example, the activity might be a discussion point on ‘what childhood means to you’, which you may then ask students to (1) reflect on individually for a few minutes, and note this down on a post-it, before then (2) discussing this with the person next to them, noting areas of similarity and difference. Later, the students are then tasked with (3) forming small groups and assigning a particular developmental stage, asking them to mind-map the main themes of childhood for particular developmental stages. Before then (4) bringing the class together, asking each group, in turn, to share their discussions, starting with the group who was assigned the youngest developmental stage, working up to early adulthood, to produce a co-constructed developmental trajectory.

Figure 1: Zones of Comfort

Four circles all within each other showing how a task can gradually include more people (individual, pairs, small groups, and wider group)

Beyond these useable recommendations, we also argue that there needs to be more of a systemic shift within the university culture where work that involves caring for students needs is often undervalued or unseen (Baker et al, 2021). For example, some universities do not provide hours for staff to prepare and undertake course inductions which promote this relational trust, nor are they given time throughout the course delivery to consider activities that purposefully consider inter-class relationships.

Want to hear more? You can find us on Twitter: @Lauren8McA, @Lukewrd, @Laurenyoungcbt

Dr Lauren McAllister is a senior lecturer and programme lead for the MSc Child and Adolescent Mental Health course at the University of Northampton.

Dr Luke Ward is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health and a registered therapist working with children, young people, and families who have experienced trauma.

Lauren Young is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health, a registered cognitive behavioural therapist, and a registered children’s nurse.

References

Anker, T and Von der Lippe, M (2018) ‘Controversial issues in religious education: How teachers deal with terrorism in their teaching’ in Schweitzer, F and Boschki, R (eds) Researching religious education: classroom processes and outcomes  Waxmann Verlag GmbH

Bronfenbrenner, U (1992) Ecological systems theory Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dana, D (2018) The Polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation WW Norton & Company

Perry, BD and Hambrick, EP (2008) ‘The neurosequential model of therapeutics’ Reclaiming children and youth 17(3): 38-43


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The Digital Tutor: Digital Tools, Relationships and Pastoral Support in Higher Education

by Jodie Pinnell and Sukhbinder Hamilton

If navigating higher education in recent times has taught us anything, it is that digital technology for teaching and learning is no longer an ‘option’ but imperative for an accessible and inclusive learning environment. With the sudden response to Covid-19 leading to remote online approaches overnight, some professionals in higher education have been thrust into a new digital world, and in survival mode, this has naturally prioritised its potential for pedagogy. Unsurprisingly, research has investigated digital technology and pedagogy thoroughly (Williams, 2012), but outside of the remit of formal counselling (Situmorang, 2020) and distance learning (Hilliam and Williams, 2019), the potential for digital tools for pastoral support has yet to be thoroughly explored. This gap in research prompted us to see how digital tools can benefit personal tutors, and more importantly, how these tools can aid relationships, in a climate where students and academic staff find themselves more disconnected than ever before.

Working in the capacity as senior lecturers, predominantly for undergraduate Childhood Studies programmes, the ‘digital awakening’ brought about by Covid-19 has been a welcome development in our practice. For us, it has paved the way for new approaches, new thinking and ultimately innovations in all areas to support students. Even before the unexpected impacts of Covid-19, we had identified a gap in our personal tutor practice at level 4, a crucial time for students to feel supported as they settle into the first year of their undergraduate degrees. For context, within a study skills module, students are allocated a designated academic ‘personal tutor’ to address academic and personal matters. Whilst this module design has historically allowed for a holistic approach to study skills and pastoral support, it has relied on students being confident enough to approach their personal tutors to articulate needs, something that many were often reluctant to do independently.

The nature of the personal tutor and tutee relationship within higher education is one conducted in a climate which is growing ever more ‘consumerist’ in nature; with inflated expectations for ‘value for money,’ and rhetoric defining students as customers (Modell, 2005). With increasing student numbers (Yale, 2019), it is notable that more and more students are demonstrating wellbeing issues (Universities UK, 2020). The personal tutor is the first point of contact for students to discuss concerns, and with a focus on emotional wellbeing through individualised support, the personal tutor role can be increasingly compared to that of a counsellor (Jorda, 2013). A supportive relationship with a personal tutor in the first year of a degree can prepare students for more challenging times (Brinkworth et al, 2009), and in managing transitions, provides a familiar face and a door to knock on. Giving ownership to the student to share information with their tutor is needed, especially where personal or sensitive issues need to be discussed, and the student signposted to necessary services is required.

Despite this, it has been found that students can struggle to understand the role of their personal tutor (Ghenghesh, 2018, p 571), and with diverse student needs, tutors are pressured to help at all costs, with support not appropriately suited to the confinement of ‘office hours’ (Jorda, 2013, p 2595). Other challenges span a general lack of effective tutor training or the ability to meet increasingly complex student needs (Lochtie et al, 2018). With growing workloads, academics already have a plethora of ‘hats’ to wear (Knight, 2002), with competing demands in other areas, causing a conflict for a role that cannot necessarily be time bound.

Within this consumerist culture, and with a focus on the personal tutor role (and its challenges), we decided to do something different. A Google form asking pastoral questions was forwarded to first year students at the start of the academic year, giving them the opportunity to provide a written background about themselves. Without knowing this would prompt a research project and prove to be valuable, the form aimed to ‘break the ice’ between tutor and student, to remedy reports that some students struggled to open up. Without an opportunity for students to discuss their needs, the correct support is difficult to provide. The form’s questions included; How are you currently feeling about enrolling at the university? What are your hopes and fears regarding university life, and the course? What do you expect from the tutors? And importantly (and most effectively) the request to ‘Finish this sentence… I wish my tutor knew…’ (Schwartz, 2016). All answers were collated in a spreadsheet, and tutors were able to find their tutees’ answers through a search function. The aim of the forms was to give personal tutors an insight into the student’s world without requiring them to initiate conversations in a ‘cold’ meeting with a stranger, ‘fast-tracking’ a relationship between personal tutors and their tutees. The form was completely optional and formed the basis of the first tutorial meeting between tutors and students, giving some background, but ultimately allowing students to outline issues that they may struggle to articulate in the first instance.

Following the success of this approach, a second form was issued at the end of the year, with questions about the effectiveness of using the initial form. Both ethical clearance and student consent were sought to publish the findings. All responses from the students who agreed to participate were collated in one single document, and with rich findings two papers emerged, one focusing on the role of the tutor, and the other on the impact of Covid-19, but with threads of student wellbeing and a sense of belonging running through both.

It’s safe to say that the findings have made a real impact on our practice. Firstly, the value of the forms for relationship development were clear, with snapshots illustrating that it allowed students to reflect on how they are feeling and to raise any concerns they had. Linked to wellbeing, the approach meant that students could discuss mental health issues and their home life situations, without needing to ‘physically disclose something to a stranger.’ Linked to expectations surrounding the personal tutor role, it was clear that students saw their tutors as the first person they felt ‘comfortable’ with, and they expected them to learn about their names and backgrounds. Qualities of a tutor were clearly identified as ‘respect,’ ‘empathy’ and ‘trustworthiness,’ and at level 4, this was largely characterised by the transitions associated with first year study. Anxiety, relief, wellbeing and the impact of Covid-19 were threaded through these findings, leading back to the role of the tutor primarily for support.

So, what’s next? For practice, the continued use of the digital forms will remain an integral part of our pastoral strategy but rolled out across other year groups also. The value of the personal tutor role needs to be reiterated across the team and plans are afoot to provide in-house training. This is not just a useful step to take within our establishment but should be the case for higher education in general as it is imperative for successfully supporting students as a first point of contact. Further research is needed in the area of digital tools for pastoral care and their potential for fast-tracking relationship development and ‘breaking the ice.’ Working towards the goal of creating an inclusive learning environment starts with relationships, and with the rise in remote working, we can rely on digital tools to help, harnessing their perceived unlimited potential to enhance the student experience.

Jodie Pinnell is a Senior Lecturer, Course Leader and Senior Tutor in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Jodie on Twitter @jodieEdu

Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Co-Convenor for ‘The Women’s Workshop Sociological Collective,’ and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Sukh on Twitter @sukhhamilton1

References

Brinkworth, R, McCann, B, Matthews, C and Nordström, K (2009) ‘First-Year Expectations and Experiences: Student and Teacher Perspectives’, Higher Education 58 (2) 157–173. https://DOI:10.1007/s10734-008-9188-3  

Ghenghesh, P (2018) ‘Personal Tutoring From the Perspectives of Tutors and Tutees’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42 (4), 570-584. DOI: https://10.1080/0309877X.2017.1301409

Hilliam, R and Williams, G (2019) ‘Academic and pastoral teams working in partnership to support distance learning students according to curriculum area’, Higher Education Pedagogies, 4 (1) 32-40 https://doi.org/10.1080/23752696.2019.1606674

Jorda, JM (2013) ‘The Academic Tutoring at University Level: Development and Promotion Methodology Through Project Work’,  Social and Behavioral Sciences 106 (1) 2594- 2601

Knight, P (2002) Being a Teacher in Higher Education  Buckingham: SRHE Open University Press

Lochtie, D, McIntosh, E, Stork, A, and Walker, BW (2018) Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education. Critical Publishing

Modell, S (2005) ‘Students as Consumers? An Institutional Field‐Level Analysis of the Construction of Performance Measurement Practices’ Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 18 (4) 537-563 https://doi.org/10.1108/09513570510609351

Schwartz, K (2016) I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids Da Capo Lifelong

Situmorang, D (2020) ‘Online/Cyber Counseling Services in the COVID-19 Outbreak: Are They Really New?’ Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 74(3) 166–174

Universities UK (2020) Coronavirus (Covid-19) https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/covid19

Williams, J (2012) Technology Education for Teachers BRILL

Yale, AT (2019) ‘The Personal Tutor-Student Relationship: Student Expectations and Experiences of Personal Tutoring in Higher Education’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43 (4), 533-544, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2017.1377164


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The Social Mobility Index (SMI): A welcome and invitation to debate from the Exeter Centre for Social Mobility

by Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Pallavi Banerjee

There is a new English league table on the block! Welcome! The exciting focus of this new ranking concerns social mobility – the clue is in the name and it is called the Social Mobility Index (SMI). Focusing on social mobility differentiates the SMI from other league tables, which often include dimensions such as prestige, research income, staff qualifications, student satisfaction, and employment outcomes.

The SMI is specifically about an institution’s contribution to supporting disadvantaged learners. It uses the OfS model of access to, progression within and outcomes after higher education. Leaning on a methodology developed for a SMI in the US, the English version contains three dimensions: (1) Access, drawing on the Index of multiple deprivation (IMD); (2) Continuation, using progression data into the second year drawing on IMD; and (3) Salaries (adjusted for local purchasing power), using Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) salary data collected one year after graduation.

The SMI report thoughtfully details the rationale for the measures used and is humble in acknowledging that other measures might be developed that are more useful. But do the reflections of the authors go far enough? Let’s take the graduate outcome LEO data for example. These capture salaries 15 months into employment – too early for an outcome measure. It is also not broken down by IMD, there are heaps of missing data in LEO and those who continue into further study are not captured. Low IMD students may or may not be earning the same sort of salaries as their more advantaged peers. The regional weightings seem insufficient in light of the dominance of high-salary regions of both the US and English SMI. These shortcomings make the measure a highly problematic one to use, though the authors are right to endeavour to capture some outcome of higher education.  

We would like a bolder SMI. Social Mobility is not only about income but about opportunities and choice and about enabling meaningful contribution in society. This was recognised in Bowen and Bok’s (2000) evaluation of affirmative action, which measured ‘impact’ not only as income but as civic contribution, health, well-being.  Armstrong and Hamilton (2015) show the importance of friendship and marriage formation as a result of shared higher education experiences. The global pandemic has shown that the most useful jobs we rely on such as early years educators are disgracefully underpaid. The present SMI’s reduction of ‘success’ to a poor measure of economic outcomes needs redressing in light of how far the academic debate has advanced.

Also, social mobility is about more than class, it is about equal opportunities for first generation students, disabled students, men and women, refugees, asylum seekers, global majority ethnic groups as well as local, regional, national and international contributions. It is also about thinking not only about undergraduate student access, progress and success but about postgraduates, staff and the research and teaching at universities.

A really surprising absence in the introduction of this new SMI is reference to the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. These are the only global performance tables that assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. First published in 2019, this ranking includes a domain on reducing inequality. The metrics used by the Times Higher ranking are: Research on reducing inequalities (27%); First-generation students (23.1%); Students from developing countries (15.4%); Students and staff with disabilities (11.4%); and Institutional measures against discrimination – including outreach and admission of disadvantaged groups (23.1%). The THE ranking celebrates that institutions also contribute to social mobility through what they research and teach. This dimensions should be borrowed for an English SMI in light of the importance attached to research-led, research-informed and research-evidenced practices in the higher education sector.

The use of individual measures in the THE ranking, of those with parents without a background of higher education (first generation students) and those with disabilities, including staff, has merit.  Yes, individual-level measures are often challenging to ‘operationalise’. But this shouldn’t prevent us from arguing that they are the right measures to aspire to using. However the use of first generation students also highlights that the debate in the UK, focusing on area-level disadvantages such as the IMD or POLAR, is different from the international framing of first generation students measuring the educational background of students.

The inclusion of staff in the THE ranking is an interesting domain that merits consideration. For example, data on, for example, the gender pay gap is easily obtainable in England and it would indicate something about the organisational culture. Athena Swan awards or the Race Equality Charter or other similar awards which are an indicator of the diversity and equality in an institution could be considered as organisational commitments to the agenda and are straight-forward to operationalise.

We warmly welcome the SMI and congratulate Professor David Phoenix for putting the debate centre-stage and note that his briefing is already stimulating debate with Professor Peter Scott’s thoughtful contribution to the debate.  It is important to think about social mobility and added value as part of the league table world. It is in the nature of league tables that they oversimplify the work done by universities and staff and the achievements of their students.

There is real potential in the idea of an SMI and we hope that our contribution to the debate will bring some of these dimensions into the public debate of how we construct the index. This will create a SMI that celebrates good practice by institutions in the space of social mobility and encourages more good practice that will ultimately make higher education more inclusive and diverse while supporting success for all.

SRHE member Anna Mountford-Zimdars is Professor of Social Mobility and Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. Pallavi Amitava Banerjee is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is an SRHE member and Senior Lecturer in Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter.