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Exploring Differences

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"This activity provides space to consider how our differences affect our experiences, and how we can support one another within the university community. It supports students to better understand and empathise with the experiences of others, particularly relating to the struggles new students may face."

Desired outcomes for the activity

This section summarises the knowledge, understanding, or skills that students are expected to acquire by the end of the activity.

This activity aims to help participants:

  1. Understand how students may differ and/or feel different from their peers.
  2. Explore the issues or barriers students may face as a result of their differences.
  3. Investigate ways in which students can support their peers and/or help to overcome barriers experienced by their peers.

The activity

This section explains how to conduct the activity, and might include a step-by-step description or session plan for the activity.

The activity begins by posing the question ‘What might make someone feel different from their peers?’. The facilitator should provide three or four examples which showcase the broad set of possibilities e.g. first in family to attend university, having an accent, LGBT+ identity, and speaking English as an additional language (EAL).

The activity will build up a three-tiered ‘spider diagram’ – the responses to this question should be placed in the first tier. This activity works best when participants are divided into small to medium groups (4-8 people).

After perhaps 10 minutes (or when the facilitator notes that groups are beginning to struggle for ideas), the groups should be invited to feed back their suggestions to the whole group. The facilitator should composite the individual group responses onto a whole-group diagram, since subsequent questions will build on this layer.

Foreshadowing the next question, the facilitator may want to ask participants why they included specific suggestions. (‘And what made you choose that?’ ‘How do you see that contributing to a feeling of difference?’)

The next section of the activity asks ‘What issues or barriers might they face as a result?’ (of each difference). Groups should be invited to add any differences contributed by other groups that they would like to explore to their diagram also. The facilitator may choose to pick one or two differences to model or explore with the whole group. For example, someone who speaks English as an additional language may have difficulty understanding others (particularly when they speak fast, or use idioms/slang), find themselves misunderstood by others, and face the additional barrier of being academically assessed in a second or third language.

The small/medium groups should then spend 10-15 minutes exploring the associated issues relating to the differences on their diagram, adding them as the second tier of their diagram. This is followed by an invitation to feed back to the whole group, during which the facilitator may choose to further explore particular issues or barriers with the group which are felt to require a focus in their specific departmental or group context.

The final question, for which the responses form the third and final tier of the diagram is ‘How can we support them, or help to overcome those barriers?’. You may wish to limit or expand who ‘we’ refers to – does it refer solely to students as their peers, or also to the university as an institution? Again, modelling or exploring an example as a whole group may be beneficial.

This third question can be explored initially in small/medium groups in the same way as the prior questions, but facilitators should allow enough time for whole group discussion of arising suggestions.

The activity can lend itself, if desired, to the creation of a ‘group charter’ or pledge relating to proactive inclusive behaviours and community values.

Activity resources

This section includes copies of resources used in the activity, and any relevant background research or supplementary reading.

For face-to-face sessions this activity is best conducted using large flipchart paper and marker pens.

Padlet is a useful platform on which to conduct this activity if it is to be delivered virtually. This is a sample padlet set-up for this activity – use the ‘remake’ option to duplicate it as many times as necessary to set up padlets for your small/medium groups.

A collaborative padlet has been set up to capture outputs from different instances of the activity. Participants can add their contributions directly, or facilitators may do it on their behalf following the activity. (This padlet is helpful for facilitators’ preparation and choosing examples or prompts.)

Reflection on the experience of planning and/or delivering the activity

This section includes a reflection by the member of staff or student who submitted the activity, on their experience of developing and/or facilitating the activity.

This activity has previously been used to train mentors taking part in peer mentor projects, as it supports students to better understand and empathise with the experiences of others, particularly relating to the struggles new students may face.

However, it is expected that the activity would benefit students as peers more generally, by providing space to consider how our differences affect our experiences, and how we can support one another within the university community.

It also provides an opportunity to discuss inclusion more broadly than activities based upon the 9 protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010, including differences specific to the student context e.g. first in family to attend university. Experiences facilitating this activity suggests that it provides a more ‘organic’ and intuitive introduction to the topic of ‘inclusivity’, than other more direct approaches. By first building a better understanding of the concept of difference, rather than pre-supposing an arbitrary or narrow set of differences (e.g. the “9 protected characteristics”), participants find the discussions better rooted within and more broadly encompassing of their own experiences.

Should you wish to include a focus on particular differences, based upon pre-identified priorities or concerns, ensure they are included in everyone’s first tier diagram (e.g. by including them in the initial facilitator examples of differences) and they will naturally form part of each group’s subsequent discussions. The facilitator may then linger on discussion related to these differences in each feedback round.


If you would like to know more about this activity, please use the contact details below.