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IATL's Work in Student Engagement

Students are uppermost in our minds at the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) but, more than this, we build their participation into all our activities wherever and whenever possible. We have both undergraduate and postgraduate students on our Management Committee and Students' Union representatives on our Steering Committee. We have initiated numerous research projects where undergraduate students have brought their own experiences, attitudes and leadership styles to make the projects richer and more insightful than we thought possible. We support the Student Ensemble: a group of students who create performance events in experimental, collaborative and participatory forms. For the past 5 years we have supported student-led and student-run conferences such as the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR) and the International Conference of Undergraduate Research (ICUR), giving students a first taste of presenting their research to their peers, and students continue to edit and decide the direction of our undergraduate journal Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, which is in its 9th year. We have also funded many student research projects through our funding streams, giving students, particularly undergraduates, the rare opportunity to conduct their own original research, initiating projects which inspire them. The staff projects we have supported, such as the Library's Student as Researcher project, have had, and continue to have, a direct impact on students' experiences at Warwick. Since 2012 IATL has also been involved with an HEA project through which we have run the UK Engagement Survey (UKES). Our view is that discovering how engaged students are with their own studies, rather than concentrating purely on their levels of satisfaction, is absolutely vital. If nothing else, the questions being asked through the survey indicate that there is an expectation that students should be fully engaged with the experiences they are having whilst at university, and the survey results enable us to feed back to faculties and departments, as well as to discover where students feel we need to improve at Warwick.

IATL was formed in 2010 when Warwick's two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs), the CAPITAL Centre and the Reinvention Centre, were brought together. At the heart of both CETLs was the commitment to encourage and support undergraduates in their early research endeavours and to engage them with critical and creative activities that enhanced their academic experiences at university. This was done through, amongst other things, the provision of funding, the creation of our undergraduate journal Reinvention, the creation of the Student Ensemble and the close involvement of students with our work through numerous student-led and student-run projects. This commitment to the 'student-as-producer' (of knowledge) has continued and been built upon in the past 5 years. Our priority to ensure that students are not only given opportunities to contribute to the academic community in which they learn, but to make these opportunities as fully supported and realistic as possible, is vital to IATL. If a students' first experience of writing for publication, presenting in public or undertaking research is a negative one, that can have a long-term and damaging impact; providing experiences that are not realistic can give students confidence but are ultimately meaningless when that individual comes to use the skills they have learnt in ‘the real world'. We also ensure that the opportunities we offer are open to all students, not just those who are already excelling and confident in their academic abilities. Through structured training, support and guidance we hope to ensure that no one is excluded and everyone feels they can participate.

We shall now focus on two areas of student engagement supported by IATL which we hope will illustrate our continued commitment to and support of student engagement activities and give an idea of the kind of work we do with students and the structure and support we offer. The first, the Reinvention journal, is in its 9th year. The second, the International Conference of Undergraduate Research (ICUR), stemmed from our work on Reinvention and is now in its 4th year.

Reinvention is an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal, dedicated to the publication of high-quality undergraduate student research. Our editorial board is staffed by a student Editor and (currently) five Assistant Editors, as well as a Book Reviews Editor, drawn from the undergraduate student body of the University of Warwick and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. We publish the work of undergraduate students from any academic discipline, from any university in the world, with our peer-reviews individually solicited from academic experts in the field corresponding to each paper. This combination makes the journal unique in the world of undergraduate publishing.

Since founding Reinvention we have worked with more than 30 student team members who have inspired us with their dedication and enthusiasm. All of them have shared a commitment to the idea of undergraduates as full participants in the world of academic research and publication and have brought the perspectives of their varied disciplinary backgrounds to the project. Our Editors have helped to shape the policies and guidelines of the journal and have then passed on their accumulated knowledge by training new members of the team. When they join us, many of our Editors and Assistant Editors have little experience of evaluating research as part of their course but through our student-led training and hands-on experience, they quickly become adept at assessing submitted papers and working with the student authors on revisions and responses to peer review feedback.

As one former Editor, Jure Jeric, has said: "I was amazed by how much responsibility students are given, but it never felt daunting, rather challenging and extremely rewarding."

Through the journal, we also interact with hundreds of student authors from institutions around the world. Each student receives thoughtful feedback on their work from our editorial team, whether their paper passes through our editorial board review or not. If papers are passed to peer review, the undergraduates receive some of the most thorough and challenging feedback on their work that they have ever encountered and the experience of critically engaging with their research and writing, with the support of our editorial team, is one that they find to be uniformly rewarding.

This process of writing for publication has profound effects on the students involved:

"The most difficult part of the publishing process was responding to the reviewers' feedback. Usually, the feedback for class essays don't have any consequences. Responding to feedback was therefore something completely new. I had to think critically about my own work, a skill which hasn't been particularly emphasised during my undergraduate studies."

We also provide training sessions on writing for publication to students at Warwick and Monash, which cover what a journal article is, how it is structured, how to examine one's own writing critically and make revisions, and which give an insight into the world of academic publishing.

As a result of our work on Reinvention, the first International Conference of Undergraduate Research (ICUR) took place in 2013. Following a conversation between colleagues in IATL and at Monash the decision was made to extend the dissemination opportunities we offered and students from Warwick and from Monash campuses in Melbourne, South Africa and Malaysia took part in a day of conference presentation panels, training sessions and a joint keynote - all connected via state-of-the-art video conferencing facilities. The conference expanded in 2014 to include students at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU), both in Singapore, University of Washington, Seattle, and Baruch College, City University of New York, in the USA, as well as the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth. Our most recent ICUR took place over two days (42 continuous hours) on 29-30 September (beginning actually on the 28th September, local time, on the west coast of the USA!) and expanded again to include student presenters at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in the USA and Kyushu University in Japan.

ICUR gives undergraduates the opportunity to present their research to an international audience, via a competitive application process that includes training in writing an abstract, with opportunities to revise and resubmit it. We also provide training seminars on writing a presentation, voice and delivery for a local and remote audience, and communicating with a multidisciplinary audience. Students develop confidence in their own research as well as in presentation skills and are able to network and build relationships locally and internationally through participation in the event. Every undergraduate who attends, in every location, is given what is likely to be their first experience of an academic conference, as well as the opportunity to reflect on best practice in presentation and networking, and participation in a lively and inquisitive community of students where discussion and Q&As take place between international settings.

"After attending the ICUR, I understand how important it is to become an active member of the academic community as I was able to speak to people about a subject that I am passionate about. With this opportunity, the research that all the students conducted can help improve and contribute to their field of study. Undergraduate research is the first step towards making a real difference in the world, be it internationally or just in one's own community."

"I listened to 2 presentations, the topics were about pollution and healthcare and poverty respectively. The presentations were very different in that the first presentation focused heavily on data research while the 2nd presentation focused mainly towards the ethicality aspects, which was much more qualitative by nature. By bringing together multiple disciplines, it is an eye opener for me in discovering multiple research methodologies."

"I had not previously considered myself "academic enough" to be able to present at an academic conference, or to mix in these circles. This proved me wrong, as I didn't feel out-of-depth, and everyone was really welcoming to my research."

"Being able to ask students on the other side of the world questions about their research. Through this technology, I have been exposed to research fields that would have otherwise been hidden from my knowledge."

As ever, the students we work with sum up their experiences better than we ever could! Through Reinvention, ICUR and all of the other student-led and student-run projects in IATL, our work has been informed and enriched by undergraduates and postgraduates, so passionate about their research, their writing, their performances, their projects that we can only recommend that others take the highly rewarding step of including students in their projects and experiencing the results for themselves.

If you are reading this as a student and would like to work with us please do get in touch and if you are a staff member and have your own experiences of working with students we would love to hear about them.

Caroline Gibson – IATL Academic Manager (job-share) and Manager of Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research
Emma Barker – Managing Editor of Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research

Published: 3 December 2015