Over the past six months, we have been considering these questions as part of our evaluation of the HEFCE Catalyst Fund Call A programme which focusses on pedagogic innovation in learning and teaching.

The programme comprises 67 projects whose work on innovation centres around six key themes:

  • Learner analytics
  • Inter- and multi-disciplinary practice
  • Blended and immersive learning
  • Transition and retention
  • Collaborative learning
  • Employability

Despite the breadth of approaches to pedagogic innovation being explored, student engagement is necessarily at the heart of each project.

In this post we consider both student and staff perspectives – drawn from a recent survey conducted with the project teams and involving 28 students and 102 staff.

Student perspectives on engagement

Students have taken many different roles within the projects, ranging from participant to co-designer. The most frequently-described role was project participant, followed by adviser.

Student respondents have also been involved in piloting and evaluating the projects. Just over a quarter of respondents helped to implement the project and a fifth were involved in initial project design.

How do students benefit from project engagement?

Students’ perceived benefits from working on the project included increased research skills, an enhanced awareness of learners’ needs (both their own and peers’), team-working opportunities, ‘real-world perspectives’ on their subjects and the strengthening of professional networks.

They also cited the opportunity to enhance the curriculum for future learners and valued the authenticity of the experience, the connections with future employment contexts and networks, and the opportunity to see ideas through to fruition.

How can projects engage more students?

Students also offered ideas about how participation amongst their peers could be increased. Suggestions included:

  • Involving a ‘wide and diverse’ set of students at the ‘market research’ stage of the project planning
  • Involving students more actively in the recruitment of their peers as participants
  • Increasing the accessibility of projects by:
    • simplifying the use of language and reducing the use of acronyms
    • making the topics relevant
    • enabling access via multiple digital platforms
  • Promoting opportunities more efficiently through student channels, e.g. social media and student unions
  • Making project goals adaptable so that they align with students’ strengths
  • Offering financial incentives.

Enhancing a sense of belonging

A broader – and very positive – outcome is that engagement appears to have strengthened students’ sense of a bond with their institutions: 68 per cent of student respondents indicated that their sense of belonging had increased through involvement in the project.

Staff perspectives on student engagement

Staff members of the Catalyst project teams highlighted a range of benefits of involving students in pedagogical innovation.

They stressed the insights and understanding that students have contributed – bringing vital disciplinary, practical and contextual knowledge to the projects.

In terms of enhancing the innovation process, staff members underlined the invaluable role students have played. It is of course the students themselves who are best placed to judge the relevance and quality of the innovation.

Other staff emphasised the importance of student creativity – one respondent describing the students as ‘inspirational.’

Students as partners

Our survey revealed that, across the broader higher education sector, there has been increasing interest in engaging students in projects of this type. Seeing students as partners on their innovation projects enabled staff members to offer an opportunity for authentic collaboration – a chance to work with students as ‘real participants’ and ‘co-creators of new resources’.

Finally, our survey respondents stressed the important role students played in increasing the reach of their project by fostering further buy-in for the innovation among student peers.

Recognising the challenges

While student participation is highly valued by staff – and by students themselves – it also raises some potential issues. In thinking about developing new approaches to student engagement, it is important to consider the challenges that members of the innovation project teams encountered, as well as the benefits.

Firstly, engagement is voluntary – if the innovation does not relate to actual study it is difficult to ensure meaningful buy-in and representation from diverse groups.

Secondly, some project teams have faced practical challenges – ranging from basic scheduling issues to ensuring that time on the project did not have a negative impact on students’ studies.

Thirdly, a number of staff members highlighted a set of deeper student identity issues that had surfaced during their collaborations. These included managing potential power dynamics, and the understandable reluctance of students to be positioned in such a way that suggests they are not succeeding in their education and require additional intervention.

Finally – and potentially a cross-cutting theme – some staff members were acutely aware of potential ethical issues posed by working with students in this way. One highlighted their reluctance and the need “to ensure that students are not ‘mined for data’ and are genuinely involved.”

In conclusion

Although we are still only halfway through the overall evaluation process, it is clear that there are some extremely positive lessons to be learned from the experience of student engagement in pedagogical innovation projects – in terms of processes and outcomes of innovation as well as in terms of the impact on students’ broader learning and the development of learning communities in higher and further education.

We hope that our evaluation work will prove useful in enhancing processes of pedagogic innovation and will further understanding of the benefits of student engagement in innovation projects.

Project teams have inevitably encountered challenges along the way but we have seen a  range of creative solutions developed in response which we will highlight in a future blog post.