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Making the Student Experience Meaningful

"This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue. There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it."
- Jo Johnson, Universities Minister, summer 2015

Hate it, view it as useful leverage in the research vs teaching argument, or just treat it with a due sense of weariness and foreboding, the Minister’s statement cannot be ignored. The TEF will soon be upon us. Fortunately for us, the “student experience” is an area in which we have had plenty of experience over many years. At a fundamental level, Warwick is committed to the notion that this experience can be improved – the Warwick International Higher Education Academy (WIHEA), for example, has the idea as a vital element in its mission. Like the WIHEA, IATL has a meaningful commitment to the idea of the student experience. And by “meaningful” I intend something more than dragooning students onto university committees, using focus groups of undergraduates to tick boxes, or reacting to the NSS results. From the Student Ensemble, to the Reinvention journal, to the International Conference of Undergraduate Research, to our interdisciplinary modules, to our staff and student funding streams, IATL means meaningful. It’s not real until you embody it. That’s a core principle. You can’t separate brain and body. That’s another. Both of these exist as the foundation of Open-space Learning (OSL), a pedagogy developed by IATL staff, and in the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETLs), CAPITAL and Reinvention, which merged in 2010 to form IATL. Another principle that OSL gives us is that you have to constantly innovate to keep both real and virtual teaching and learning spaces open – the spaces that allow us to treat students as co-creators of knowledge, as collaborators in our exploration of the world of ideas and the imagination. When we talk or write about the student experience, IATL’s focus is on these and related areas. We need to respond to Jo Johnson's language by populating our approach to what we contribute with real theory and real practice. Here are three linked examples:

  1. We have to stop lecturing students, and pretending it’s enough. We cannot any longer expect young people to simply follow us on the path through the woods, merely because we’ve trodden it and it led us to where we are. We have to allow them to discover where the woods are, how the woods form a forest, and ask them to make their own paths. We can offer advice and guidance, but downloading our maps into their minds doesn’t work, and is thoroughly incommensurate with what our students will need beyond university. HE can no longer be constituted as the transfer of knowledge from a master to a novitiate consciousness.
  2. Space matters. Set up a learning and teaching space with a lectern at the front and chairs and desks in rows, and the results will be predictably uninspiring. Equally, set up a virtual space that renders students passive, and you and they are condemned to the download model of education.
  3. Students are not passive receptacles. Give them something to read, watch, or listen to outside the seminar or lecture, and give them something to do when they're in it. Make the task collaborative and challenging. Everything we know from research on learning informs us that this works. Learning is about being and doing.

Nicholas Monk - Director of IATL

Published: 7 October 2015