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Case study: PAIS, No. 1 position in the Russell Group for Overall Student satisfaction

The Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS) has always been committed to ensuring that our research-led undergraduate teaching is outstanding, but this was not always reflected in National Student Survey (NSS) results. PAIS put in place a number of changes that sought to address this problem – in particular through the creation of the role of Director of Student Experience and Progression (DSEP) in September 2012. The role was the first of its kind in the University and has proved highly successful in driving up the quality of student experience. DSEP is responsible for enhancing key dimensions of provision at every point in the PAIS student experience. The role was set up initially to focus specifically on undergraduate students and the PAIS administered core degree programmes. We are now focusing more on joint degree provision, through initiatives such as our SSLC Forum which brings together course reps across our programmes.

Department(s) / colleagues involved

Politics and International Studies (PAIS) – led by PAIS’s Director of Student Experience and Progression (DSEP) Dr. Justin Greaves, with support from Director of Education, Director of Undergraduate Studies, HoD, Director of Administration, Departmental Administrators, and all PAIS staff with responsibility for UG teaching, and SSLCs.

Our aim was to …

Our aim was to enhance key dimensions of provision at every point in the PAIS student experience, starting with recruitment, widening participation and open days, moving through academic progression to graduation, and ending with employability and building alumni links. Our DSEP is actively involved in all of these areas. DSEP involvement in the overseeing of undergraduate recruitment activities has played an important part in driving significant increases in our UG student numbers. 95 students were enrolled on our core UG degrees at first year in 2012-13 to 230 for 2018-19. Our overall student body – which includes students on all of the different joint programmes that we are involved in stands currently at over 1600 for 2018-19 (up from 790 in 2012-13) A growing student body poses challenges – and in reality the DSEP role has been focussed more on student experience and progression during their time at Warwick. Going forward, PAIS plans to take a more strategic approach to employability issues alongside NSS .

What we did …

Although these successes reflect a team effort, the creation of the DSEP role – and its resulting initiatives – has made a significant contribution. PAIS’s DSEP has strategic responsibility for our NSS action plan and has sought to drive up results through a forensic approach to understanding the NSS data and ensuring that the student voice and feedback is at the core of what we do. PAIS has been very careful to ensure that our approach to NSS is underpinned by a local departmental level education strategy in which we view undergraduates as partners, collaborators and producers. We value and act on student feedback, both qualitative and quantitative, gained through a number of feedback channels including SSLCs, feedback lunches with our HoD and DESP, focus groups, module evaluations and one on one interviews. We use this feedback to reflect on how we might best make improvements that will enhance the student experience overall and in relation to specific issues. We are keen to emphasise to students that NSS is not a one off empty technocratic exercise in form filling, but a process - one that they can actively engage in and benefit from. We make our NSS action plans available to students on our intranet site and incorporate their feedback and suggestions. We are committed to ensuring that students are made aware of how their feedback is acted upon (e.g. via a ‘you said we did’ intranet page). We have made numerous changes to how we engage with our students in PAIS – this has included things like providing individual written feedback to students on all their exams, one to one DSEP meetings with finalists, redesigning the look and feel of our module pages on Moodle, developing events with an employability focus, and even changing the student coffee machine when concerns were raised about the business ethics of the previous supplier. Our approach to NSS also involves always ensuring that we get our communication with students just right and don’t create unnecessary confusion by bombarding them with unnecessary emails. Communication is also about sharing good news with students and providing them with a clear understanding about what is unique about studying in PAIS. Most recently, for example, we have been developing messages and guidance about the specific skills and attributes of PAIS students that employers value, and building these PAIS core skills into our employability plans.

The outcome has been …

In 2013 the NSS overall satisfaction rating for PAIS stood at 81% and since 2015, we have consistently scored above 90%. Our current score of 95% overall student satisfaction places PAIS in the no. 1 position in the Russell Group for Politics and this has been a significant factor in propelling PAIS to its current first place positioning in the Times/Sunday Times Good University Guide. Being no. 1 in the Russell Group matters to us because it shows that research intensity and positive student experience are not mutually exclusive, indeed, our view is that the two can be mutually reinforcing.

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The benefit/impact has been …

PAIS students, including not just our home students, but also our students on joint programmes, have been the primary beneficiaries of these policies. In 2018/19 our total student intake across all core PAIS degrees and joint degrees was over 570 students – an overall UG student population of over 1600. Even with this large student body, we have sought to build a sense of community, and an environment in which their feedback informs key decisions that we make as a department. Viewing students as ‘co-producers’ of our education strategy is not just a catchy headline – it is an approach that we put into practice through for example our popular student research assistant scheme whereby students work with academics on research projects. We have developed a range of initiatives in which we ask students to take responsibility for their own academic development which includes things like tasking them to organise and run their own ‘dissertation conference’ where they receive peer-led feedback on their dissertation projects. At a strategic level, students are represented on numerous PAIS committees including the Departmental Board, Education Committee, our Assessment and Feedback Working Group, and our Liberated Curriculum Working Group (see below).

This supports the Education Strategy by …

This work has been underpinned by an approach that places partnership and collaboration with students at its centre. This is something very much in line with the University's Education Strategy and it is one that we pursue alongside, and never at the expense of, disciplinary excellence. Indeed, feedback from students clearly indicates that they greatly value our research-led approach to teaching and learning. Our approach has been to see student satisfaction and disciplinary excellence as things that can supplement each other – since engaged and challenged students with a sense of ownership and pride in their course and department are likely to be more satisfied. Student feedback has also pushed us to undertake a range of activities that clearly support the Education Strategy. For example, our students have pushed us to think about and to implement curriculum changes that better reflect the diversity of the student learning experience. In 2018, for example we established our Liberated Curriculum Working Group which has sought to foster discussion around how we might redesign modules and reading lists from the perspectives of groups traditionally marginalised within the discipline of politics and international studies on the basis of their race, gender and nationality. In this sense, as a department we have come to better recognise the role that intercultural dialogue plays in the student learning experience.

The response of students / staff has been …

The impressive NSS results speak for themselves. This positive feedback is supplemented and backed-up by positive student feedback gained through other routes such as feedback lunches and SSLCs. External examiner reports have commended the feedback we provide to our students. We have worked in partnership with students to communicate how excellent our teaching, feedback and support is. This has led to nominations and successes in staff and WATE awards.

Our next steps will be …

We are never complacent and have identified a number of areas in which there is much more work to be done. We are seeking out ways to further develop work around employability – and trying to think about how best to leverage our excellent relationship with our students once they leave Warwick (e.g. via alumni events). We will be holding our first alumni and employability event this term and hope to do much more in this area. We are always thinking about how we can improve the student experience for students on joint degrees and we have been developing ideas about how best to do this. We are also looking to develop academic support much more – for example, we have set up an online study choices guide.

To find out more, you can contact …

Dr. Justin Greaves https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/pais/people/greaves/

Other information

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/pais/study/studyundergrad/