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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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Staff experiences of the rapid move online: challenges and opportunities

by Eileen Kennedy and Allison Littlejohn

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The authors’ statement can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated major changes to research, teaching and professional working in Universities. In the UK more generally, there was surprise at the degree of public support for lockdown, and the Prime Minister’s directive to “join together” to beat the virus. Commentators have observed, however, that despite the constant suggestions that we are all in this together, the pandemic has affected people very differently. For example, the UN has observed that while the virus may not discriminate, but the impacts on individuals certainly do

We wanted to investigate how far this picture of uneven impacts may be affecting university staff. So, to capture staff experiences as they changed how they worked during this period, we launched a programme of research at UCL which involved a series of staff surveys and follow up interviews, Moving to Online Teaching and Homeworking (MOTH). This research was led by Allison Littlejohn with Martin Oliver, Lesley Gourlay, Eileen Kennedy, Tim Neumann, Kit Logan, John Potter and Jennifer Rode. Our aim was to understand how the crisis might be exacerbating pre-existing structural inequalities that impact adversely on staff, as well as posing challenges and opportunities for teaching and research.

We had 421 responses to our initial survey, which included asking about the challenges and opportunities of the shift to online teaching and researching at home. We also asked participants to share images that they considered communicated their experience. We sent out follow up surveys throughout the summer, and invited 32 participants to take part in in-depth interviews to explain their responses in more depth. 

What the findings showed us quite clearly was that the impact on staff was not the same for everybody.  Although respondents who identified as men and women reported caring responsibilities, caring appeared to manifest differently. Women found it more difficult to focus on research because of the caring labour they were doing – caring for children and adult dependents, for students, for colleagues. These activities lead to reduced time for research and to publish research papers with potential consequences for long-term career progression. 

Staff with physical and/or mental health challenges – either pre-existing or as a result of the pandemic – also experienced the lockdown differently, with reports of headaches, eyestrain, aching back, shoulders or wrists health impacts from 7.7% of survey respondents. Those with more space were more positive about the move than those with fewer rooms to work in, and staff on fixed term contracts experienced anxiety about the impact of the pandemic on their careers. 

The research we conducted showed very clearly that University staff experience is not uniform. This is an important message to those making decisions about how to support staff at universities during this crisis and beyond.

As for the move to teaching online, once again, experiences greatly differed. A slightly higher number rated their feelings as positive or very positive than those who rated their feelings as negative or very negative. Most people, nearly 40%, were undecided. A number of themes emerged, however. In terms of the challenges they described, the biggest issue were the lack of interaction and engagement with students online, technology problems, time and resource demands and the need for professional development. 

It became apparent from the survey that the most reported challenges that concerned teaching involved using live video systems like Teams or Blackboard Collaborate, and the key problem was the lack of visual cues, impacting interaction and engagement from students. This made online teaching more difficult and stressful for staff. This was borne out in the interviews. Staff said that students would not switch their cameras on,  “so, I was talking to a picture of myself on the screen” (interview participant). Staff really missed the energy from students they were used to in traditional teaching, and without this teaching online was stressful and exhausting. What made the difference for those staff who were more positive about online was prior experience. Those participants were also much happier with student engagement, and saw the move online as an opportunity presented by the pandemic.

“I feel positive about the probability that one of the outcomes of the COVID crisis will be more widespread general understanding about productive ways to use technology to support learning, not least among academics, but also, I hope, among education administrators and managers” (survey participant).

This research has given us insights into how university staff have experienced the pandemic. But it has told us more than that. A defining feature of the data was the central role that emotions played in every aspect of the move to online teaching and homeworking. Participants regularly described their anxieties about colleagues and students, the extra time they were putting into tutorials,  pastoral  care for students who experienced extra difficulties during the crisis and the impact this was having on themselves. This has led us to revisit the theme of emotional labour in teaching, and how we can make sense of the care that participants show in digital education. This is an aspect of online teaching that is seldom discussed. Our question, therefore, is what is the role of technology and the move to online and home working in supporting the caring labour of University staff?

Dr Eileen Kennedy is a Senior Research Associate based at UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education. Her research focuses on ways of enhancing and sharing practice in online and blended learning. Eileen works with two ESRC-funded research centres: the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) and the RELIEF Centre. With CGHE, Eileen is exploring the transformative potential of digital technologies for higher education. With RELIEF, Eileen is researching ways of using digital education (particularly in the form of MOOCs) to build inclusive prosperity in the contexts of mass displacement.

Professor Allison Littlejohn is Director of UCL Knowledge Lab, UCL Institute of Education. Allison works in the field in Education, specialising in Digital Higher Education. Her expertise is in applying learning theories to complex interventions for professional learning that capitalise on digital technologies. The context of her research spans the energy, health, finance, education, and international development sectors across various countries.