New ideas in T&L: May

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Involving students in science higher education = Effective leadership

Effective higher education leaders involve students. Craig McInnes and Hamish Coates reminded us of this at the 2015 ACDS Teaching and Learning Conference. Involving students meaningfully – as more than a source of data – in science undergraduate education is a new concept. So what does that look like? How can science curriculum leaders engage students as partners to enhance teaching and learning? This blog post is an intro-level explanation for those new to the idea.

Students as consumers is a problem

There has been a lot of talk about the commodification of higher education. Students as consumers buying a degree with all kinds of frustrating consequences for academics. This consumerist model does not appeal to many students either. Evidence suggests (unsurprisingly) that students with a “consumer mindset” earn lower grades than peers without such a mindset.

With university fee rises on the Australian federal agenda, the “students as consumer” messages are likely to persist. But there is an alternative to the “students as passive consumers, buying an education” rhetoric.

Instead of consumers, our science students should become collaborators to foster deep, authentic learning experiences. Beyond active learning, the goal is for students and academics to share responsibility for learning and teaching.

Students and science academics collaborating to enhance science education

There is a growing movement to engage “students as partners” in learning and teaching. This takes many forms, including students collaborating with academics on curriculum development.

Video: 4 minute overlook on the broad concept of “students as partners”

Two examples I want to share to demonstrate how student-staff partnerships have worked in science and mathematics.

Science course design: Students and academics collaborated to co-create a first year science skills course at the University of Glasgow. Not part of any formal program for “students as partners”, this example unfolded organically with a small group of staff inviting a handful of upper year science students to help them develop resources for a new course.

The materials produced by students were so impressive that all of them were used in the course. One upper year student even taught into the course. After the first cycle of running the course, the evaluations were so positive the course grew (doubled in credit value). Science students involved in skill-building courses seemed a good fit for co-creating courses.

Developing maths instructional materials: Attempting to makes maths relevant to first year engineering students motivated this student-staff collaboration. Students from engineering and multi-media developed animated videos for inclusion in a first year engineering mathematics course.

The resources developed were high quality and used in the class. The collaborative approach to make maths relevant continues at Swinburne University with more student-academic partnerships underway in other courses.

Folks are debating the merits of this and experimenting with the concept in practice. A review of the literature and a scan of inter/national case studies reveal few examples in the sciences and mathematics.

Perhaps they are happening but not yet shared – if you have cases, share them please!

Science leadership involving students

A good summary of the benefits and drawbacks of “students as partners” can be found here. The ethical implications of collaborating with students have also been explored. Being knowledgeable of practices and risks is sensible as science leaders start engaging students more meaningfully in shaping science degree programs.

Jisc Can Event Group

A simple, easy example from The University of Queensland: Professor Peter Adams (Associate Dean Academic) amended the policy for the Faculty of Science Teaching and Learning Grants Scheme in 2015. Applicants are encouraged to include students more actively in projects, and priority is given in the decision-making process to such proposals.

As McInnis and colleagues argue:

Increasing the involvement of students takes engagement to a new level when students are seen as active partners and change agents in shaping their learning experiences…. while the university takes its share of responsibility for student learning, students play a role in enhancing teaching, the curriculum and their overall experience.

Two questions for science curriculum leaders should ponder:

  1. How are you engaging “students as partners” to enhance the science student experience?
  2. How are you fostering a culture that values students as active agents in their learning and enables academics to partners with students in their teaching and learning practices?

Join the Australian Students as Partners Network to stay connected to the latest news and events. Start the conversations in your universities now about “students as partners” in the sciences!