Eight things I learned by talking to heads of school

Mack Marshall is Education Officer at Newcastle University Students Union

In my line of work, there’s a lot of talk of SUs and their officers understanding and talking to students. But that’s only part of the picture.

The more that student representatives understand what is happening within academic departments, the more likely it is that our proposals and suggestions for change will land well – both in terms of approval and delivery.

So in our first few months in office, I travelled with my team across the university to meet up with Heads of Schools to introduce ourselves, get a sense of how they operate, and, most importantly, ask lots of questions.

We started by asking “What do your programmes look like?” As an officer, specifically one focused on education, it’s easy to relate to and understand the student experience when you remember your degree.

But a Pharmacy, Architecture, and engineering student (walk into a bar), they have vastly different academic experiences to me and my 6 essays a semester. To best represent them, I found this question hugely valuable.

We asked about assessment and feedback (tick that off your HE Bingo card), decolonising the curriculum, academic wellbeing, and the cost-of-living crisis. These questions led to interesting conversations that have formed themes that sit in a healthy bank of critical questions that I’ve been able to use later in my term.

20 hours of meetings later, and I have 8 key themes, topics, and questions that I hope others may find useful.

1. Who are our students?

My first question to think over is: Do we know what cohort we are teaching? Who are you teaching? What does your cohort look like?

One school we spoke to prepared short breakdowns for each programme of how many students arrive straight from Sixth Form or college, the number of international students, how many went through clearing, what percentage had studied something similar previously, and so on.

The bottom line is we cannot make assumptions about our students.

To provide a personalised educational experience, universities need to know who they are teaching. It’s no good standing at the front of an induction lecture theatre congratulating students on arriving at the institution if 40 per cent went through clearing and in fact didn’t want to be here a few months ago.

How we support students who didn’t want to study here is another puzzle. It’s a question we don’t tend to ask as a sector, and not one I’d really thought about before. I don’t have all the answers on how we support all of these students, but I think part of it comes down to proving to them that this university is for them too, even if they didn’t initially plan to be here. And that has to start with taking the time to ask questions, listen, and show we’ve listened.

This is their university too, and any steps we can take to better understand them and their needs to ensure they feel part of the community is helpful.

2. Student voice

Following my conversations with academic leaders, I got thinking about what effective “student voice” really looks like. Where do things like end-of-stage evaluations, NSS, PTES, PRES, and other systems universities have in place fit into supporting current student needs?

Feedback, once the module is finished, is too late. Mid-module evaluations need to be the norm, as preventative and early interventions in learning and teaching so that we can best respond to the specific needs of a cohort.

And this isn’t just about “likes and dislikes” or “problems”. One school included “What is it that you’re just not understanding so far?” in their mid-module review which stuck with me.

Some asked how we can better engage students in their feedback mechanisms, and one thing we suggested was rephrasing how they ask students to get involved with the course.

Our current structure has one course rep, then a school rep. But I suggested to staff when asking students if they wanted to be involved, it may be worth asking how many students want to be involved in shaping their experience – and allowing all who volunteer to be involved in some way.

Finally, a really interesting question that I simply cannot answer (yet): How do you rebuild trust amongst a cohort where they exercised student voice on mass and it was not actioned, simply because it was not possible?

3. Covid lag

There has been a huge impact, academically and socially, on students throughout Covid – and it’s imperative that universities adjust their teaching practice in light of this. It’s not just about bringing students back onto campus and presuming that will solve the problem – it’s working out how to engage them once they’re there. How do we support students who have experienced years of educational disruption? To begin to answer this, we have to first recognise these students are different from other cohorts.

We have seen a delayed hit in developing cultures of learning, relationship building, and informal knowledge networks. How many years has it been since students last sat an in-person, high-stakes exam? If we set that type of assessment, how are we supporting them considering this lag? What steps can we take to reduce anxiety?

4. Assessment and feedback

Whenever I chat with other education officers, many are working alongside their university to improve assessment and feedback in some form. This is a vast policy area, but I’ve found four areas to focus in on:

  • Do we have a shared understanding of the expectations of A&F amongst colleagues?
  • Could we encourage students to respond to feedback to form part of the assessment (meta!)?
  • Do our moderation processes look at feedback, as well as assessment, to highlight best practices?
  • How do students access feedback and in fact, do they want to?

In one school, we spoke about how traumatic it can be to read feedback where students may know it won’t be a high mark. For me that kind of empathy is a great place to start.

5. Cost of living and learning

There’s a growing need for transparency on course costs, as various national campaigns on the cost of learning and Kortext’s Eleanor Parker pointed out, but it does seem it should be in open day booklets at least.

Ultimately, no students’ learning should be impacted because they cannot afford to participate, and this is underlined in the B conditions set by the regulator in En;land when it comes to students’ participation.

Universities need to ensure that if there’s a compulsory field trip that there are no incurred costs to learning. Every textbook should be available online or in the library, and every lab coat or specific equipment you may need to feel effectively prepared doesn’t eat into your maintenance loan or savings.

With students taking on more part-time work, it’s imperative to make adjustments at the time of assessment, which is something we at Newcastle have worked closely alongside the university to change.

However, there is still a need for more flexible learning and consistent timetabling to ensure students who are working part-time can best schedule shifts around their studies.

6. Communication

How do we best communicate to our students? What is the most consistent method? This naturally differs from school to school. Some discussed the feasibility of texting students if clinics are cancelled, others want to streamline their emailing, others want to use video updates on virtual learning platforms like Canvas or Blackboard.

One interesting example of simple communication that I liked was “lecture housekeeping.” This included staff spending five minutes at the beginning of a lecture reminding students when assignments are due, when seminars are, what is required of them, and when things will be marked. It didn’t sound revolutionary but it’s the small things that can be really important to building students’ confidence.

7. Hidden curriculum

From the conversations I’ve had with students, a lot of the “small” things staff can do to help set students’ expectations and build confidence are around teaching students how to be at university, in what we often refer to as the hidden curriculum.

For example, when I arrived at university, I didn’t know what anyone really meant by office hours, personal tutoring, or “critical engagement” – let alone how the mark schemes and grading system worked. This is what we expect our students to know what we mean, but do we explain what these words mean?

We cannot make assumptions about our students – we need to be breaking down this language. It was really refreshing to hear how proactive some schools are at doing this for students – this a sector-wide project for us all to tackle.

8. Why are there so many requests for extensions?

Speaking to other officers it’s clear that nobody has been immune to the increase in extension requests post-Covid. Extenuating circumstances systems being used on mass may suggest the systems are not fit for purpose. I’m yet to find a perfect model for this, but we do as a sector seem to be confused about whether we trust students. If 80 per cent of students on a module self-cert an extension, I’m inclined to start by assuming that they need support rather than assuming they’re trying it on.

Requests for extensions can also be a vehicle to adjust assessment deadlines where students need the extra time because of limited access to assessment support, and help students to address assessment bunching. An extension form is students exercising their own agency to better spread out deadlines. This isn’t the whole story, but it’s certainly part of it – and we should find out more before making sweeping changes.

Travel takeaways

In travelling across the university, I learned a lot of things that I’ve been able to take with me over the first semester of my term. I learned a lot about what programmes we offer, and what our students look like – but also had productive conversations about improving the student experience and where we may need to start or dig deeper.

We need to know who our students are, recognise and respond to the “Covid lag” in order to continue effective work on assessment and feedback, listen to their feedback, make accommodations during the cost of living crisis and dismantle the hidden curriculum. Lots to keep me and my fellow officers busy working within their SUs and with their universities over the coming months, to say the least.

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