Good bystander training needs discussion with peers

Meg Haskins is Policy & Research Coordinator at Students' Union UCL


Simona Stopková is Active Bystander Project Assistant at Students' Union UCL

Every student deserves a safe university experience where they can study without facing unacceptable behaviour.

However, for many students, this basic expectation is not met.

Statistics show that students may be more vulnerable to certain behaviours than individuals from other occupations.

For example, in 2020 full-time students were more likely to have experienced sexual assault in the previous year than people in other occupations, with 11.6 per cent of female students and 4.2 per cent of male students having an experience of sexual assault. The true number is likely to be higher.

Meanwhile, a 2019 inquiry into racial harassment in higher education in England, Scotland and Wales found that 24 per cent of ethnic minority students had previously experienced racial harassment on their campus.

To help tackle the prevalence of unacceptable and unlawful behaviour within our community and beyond, Students’ Union UCL has worked hard over many years to develop and implement a two-part Active Bystander Programme.

Our programme is now a core part of students’ induction and aims to ensure that all students understand a range of unacceptable behaviours, including bullying, harassment, discrimination, and sexual misconduct, and can practically, and safely, intervene if they witness or experience any of these unacceptable behaviours on campus or beyond.

In our recently launched evaluative report, we took the time to reflect on the journey it has taken to get the programme to where it is today.

From theory to practice

Throughout both parts of the training, students are taught the definitions of various types of unacceptable behaviour. While covering these definitions is important for students to understand what unacceptable behaviour is and why we should try to prevent it, it is equally as important to empower students with practical skills.

For instance, while recognising bullying is the first step in preventing unacceptable behaviours, students must learn how they can safely take action and feel confident doing so.

Simply put, it is not enough for an active bystander programme to present students with a list of unacceptable behaviours and their definitions; the programme must also provide them with clear and actionable strategies that they can use when they encounter these behaviours.

In our programme we teach students a range of intervention strategies. These are known as the 4 Ds:

  • direct action,
  • distract,
  • delegate,
  • delay.

Consistently, students have praised the 4 Ds for being easy to understand, memorable and practical. They have also been praised for providing students with choice.

For example, if a student does not feel comfortable directly confronting a perpetrator, they have three other strategies that they can use to challenge the unacceptable behaviour.

In our experience this choice has helped to dispel the myth that direct action is the best or only way to be an active bystander.

For example, modelling positive behaviours through indirect action can be invaluable in helping to establish community behaviour boundaries.

Indeed, the most powerful interventions can also be the most subtle – what is important is that students are educated and empowered through our Active Bystander Programme to not just understand the theory, but to move forward and apply these skills safely when required.

Students like to chat

An important part of live workshops are scenario discussions, where students are introduced to real-life scenarios of unacceptable behaviour and asked to discuss possible intervention strategies with their peers.

Scenario discussions have proven to be an invaluable aspect of the training as they give students an opportunity to consider how they would intervene if they witnessed unacceptable behaviour in real-life.

Students have indicated that a key benefit of these discussions is the opportunity to share ideas while hearing what their peers have to say:

There was opportunity to discuss some scenarios with other people and hear their opinions, which I think is helpful for expanding our own perspective/views and allow for more open-minded thinking.

In our experience – and reflected in student feedback – scenario discussions have been one of the most useful aspects of the Active Bystander Programme.

The importance of allowing students to lead discussions about unacceptable behaviour was also highlighted in the recent Office for Students (OfS) consultation on a new approach to regulating harassment and sexual misconduct in English HE, where they proposed that institutions would be required to deliver mandatory training.

Importantly, the OfS emphasised that:

A short online session at the beginning of a student’s higher education career that does not allow for questions and discussion, is unlikely to be sufficient to meet our proposed requirements.

Thus, under this proposal, scenario discussions may become an essential part of active bystander training.

However, regardless of regulatory conditions, we would encourage all providers to ensure that the opportunity for questions and discussion is embedded into active bystander training.

In fact, to take this one step further, we would suggest that not only should students have the opportunity for questions and discussions, but they should also be trained in groups that they are most likely to encounter unacceptable behaviour with e.g. course mates, flatmates, societies, clubs.

Through taking this approach, we have found that the discussions themselves act as a powerful exercise in communicating differences in boundaries, relationships, and consent amongst peers.

One size may not fit all

Previously, we only delivered “general” workshops aiming to give students a wide breadth of knowledge on the key issues surrounding misconduct, bullying and discrimination. However, we also noticed that some groups of students would benefit from a more tailored and in-depth approach to training.

In summer 2022, we started working more closely with several departments and research groups to run bespoke workshops aimed at departments who had either shown low engagement in the programme previously, or who had raised particular concerns or issues within their departments.

For example, environmental investigations undertaken in the Bartlett School of Architecture and the Slade School of Fine Art resulted in us developing and delivering bespoke training for their students.

Bespoke training was also created for specific educational contexts such as academic fieldwork and lab-based courses, and for specific student demographic groups such as postgraduate research (PGR) students.

These workshops covered topics that are particularly pertinent for these specific students, such as staff on student misconduct, misconduct in academic or misconduct during fieldwork.

Through offering bespoke workshops, we have been able to take a targeted approach to delivering high quality and meaningful training to a wide range of students. In particular, we found that engagement tended to be better and more meaningful when students saw the relevance of the training to their educational context.

This was particularly evident among PGR students. Despite PGR students being less likely to attend our workshops, we have found that the bespoke PGR workshops often lead to far richer engagement in comparison to other groups of students.

We therefore need to remember that whilst training as many students as possible is important, the meaningfulness of that engagement must be continuously monitored.

Feedback requires action

After completing each component of the training, we invite students to complete feedback forms. Here, students are asked to rate how useful they found the training, how ready they now feel to intervene when they witness instances of unacceptable behaviour, what they liked about the programme, and what they would like to see improved.

In all workshops, we encourage students to be as honest as possible in their feedback. If the programme is to have a real impact, we must know how students truly feel.

This evaluation has been central to monitoring the programme’s impact and to its ongoing development.

However, just knowing how students feel is not enough; we must be willing and able to act on that feedback. In our experience this has involved being receptive and responsive to criticism, prioritising staff capacity for making the necessary changes, and seeking out professional development opportunities when necessary in order to upskill ourselves within this space.

Considering the lessons that we have learned and the feedback that we have received, we are working hard to improve the programme and increase its impact, both at UCL and in HE more broadly.

We hope to support other institutions in developing Active Bystander Training, and play our part in preventing unacceptable behaviour being an accepted “norm” of a students’ university experience.

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