Monday, 7 April 2014

Students as Partners

'Students as Partners' - an interesting article co-written by RUSU Education Officer, Emma Jackson and Professor Matthew Almond, Senior Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry and University of Reading Teaching Fellow.


At the end of Spring Term, RUSU organised a “Partnership in Teaching and Learning” conference. Supported by the Higher Education Academy and the National Union of Students, this was an enjoyable and well-attended event highlighting the work of the RUSU Excellence Awards winners.

The conference itself was the first of its kind to be run by a Students’ Union, in the sense that it not only celebrated fantastic teaching practice, but also demonstrated the ways students can work to change teaching and learning by highlighting and disseminating what they consider to be good teaching practice. The conference did this by creating an opportunity for the winners of the student-led teaching awards to share how they teach, and what their students respond best to. The event showcased some outstanding examples of good practice, ranging from technological innovations (Karsten Lundqvist and Emma Mayhew), research-inspired teaching (Emily West) and the role of personal tutors (Becky Thomas). From the programme, it is clear innovation in teaching was a pervasive concept. However, the overriding theme that emerged was that of “Students as Partners.” This concept has been growing in strength across the whole of the university sector in recent years, not least as a major aspect of the Student Charter.  At an institutional level the “Students as Partners” philosophy is underpinned by the high level of student representation on Boards of Study, Periodic Review Panels, Appointment Boards, Senate and suchlike. However, the conference highlighted the idea of a ‘partnership’ at ground level, with speakers from some of the University’s PLanT Project teams. The PLanT Project, as run by Joy Collier and Maura O’Regan, is an initiative which gives students the opportunity to work with staff to enhance and develop aspects of their course, ranging from delivery and design of a module to considering the resources used to teach. The conference was a platform for teams within the Institute of Education and SPEIR on exploring the “multiple identity” associated with being a student and a teacher whilst studying within the Institute of Education, and on running breakfast clubs to enhance student engagement and collect honest and frank feedback.

In this short article we would like to explore a slightly different aspect of “Students as Partners;” how changes to the mode of delivery of academic material can encourage students to take more responsibility for their learning and to engage more with their curriculum. One of us is a lecturer in Chemistry and, as such, many of the examples chosen will come from the Chemistry Department. In no way does this indicate any sort of monopoly on good practice, it just happens to be what I know most about. One of the great things about Teaching and Learning enhancement at Reading is the way that good practice is freely shared between Schools and Departments

Transferable Skills Training  - Teamworking

Transferable skills training is now embedded into many programmes at Reading driven by the realisation that this can underpin other academic skills, and will enhance employability. Typically this sort of work will include group exercises and group work allows students to work together and to interact more closely with staff. In Chemistry we have run a first year module, developed by Elizabeth Page, “Chemical Concepts in Context” and this leads onto more group-led research projects at Parts 3 and 4. Some of these projects have led to published work. In all cases students see the value of working as a team to achieve their aims: some student comments include:

“Good for getting to know a group of people early in the year”
“I found the module useful and related to my course”
“Picked up a lot of useful skills and examples for interviews as well as chemical knowledge”
“It was very useful for future jobs as this was the module where I learnt most of my skills”
“ I Really Enjoyed Doing Them”
“We enjoyed opportunity to do more lab work. Felt that the project enormously helped teamworking skills”

A Colloquium-led Module

Probably all Departments within the University run series of colloquia or seminars where outside lecturers come to talk about their research. David Nutt in Chemistry has seen the potential to use such events as a source of material for teaching. Undergraduate students attend such collqouia as a credit-bearing module and submit a report on one selected colloquium for assessment having been given formative feedback on an earlier report. Students need clear guidance through such a module but one great advantage is that student feel a part of the research community of their department. They no longer see the research activity as something completely separate from their studies; at the same time the module greatly broadens their horizons.

The Student-Led Conference

Several Departments have run departmental conferences where students give a presentation (oral or poster) on a topic from their subject specialism. They may in some cases have a free choice of topic, in others the topic may be set by a member of staff.  Once again such activity gives the students a feeling of being research partners. It may be daunting for many beforehand, but afterwards all recognise the value of what they have done. Some positive comment include:-

  • During my second year, my department organised a student conference challenging students to present on their chosen subject. Having been encouraged to take part in this, I have grown in confidence and have since presented multiple times during my industrial placement.
  • Opportunities like the student conference and chemical concepts course gives us the chance to develop the transferable skills (like presentation) that employers will look for when we leave university.

The Flipped Classroom

Across many parts of the university the “flipped classroom” is gaining a strong following as a way to deliver lecture material. For any not familiar with this approach, the technique is to present the formal lecture in an alternative format e.g. as a video on which the students work independently and then the formal contact time is used for discussions, question-and answer sessions or problem based learning. This allows a much better partnership to develop between students and lecturer than is possible in a formal lecture. However, there are some caveats. Some students and lecturers feel that this approach works better in some subject areas than others – in chemistry the consensus is that it works better in the more problem-based areas than the more descriptive ones. Of course, there is also the feeling from some that if too much material were delivered in this way then the workload would be very difficult for both staff and students.


UROP is an excellent way to encourage students as Research Partners.  Recently we have trialled a scheme whereby UROP students also gain supervisory experience by working alongside other placement students such as Nuffield Bursary placement students from schools and colleges. In this way the students see that they are being treated fully as partners, not only engaging in research but learning how to supervise and direct research.


The comments above just provide a few possible ideas. Of course the whole area of Technology-Enhanced Learning opens up a whole range of possibilities for students and staff to work more closely alongside each other.  Our experience is that Teaching and Learning and the Student Experience are really enhanced when staff and students work alongside each other.  If any of these ideas have inspired you and you would like to know more then please do not hesitate to contact us.

Emma Jackson
Professor Matthew Almond