Room E – MONDAY 16:45-17:45

Colin Bryson, Ruth Furlonger and Fae Rinaldo-Langridge

Combined Honours Centre

Newcastle University, UK

Colin is a lecturer who believes in students as partners. He introduced a holistic student engagement strategy in 2009. Ruth is a recent graduate from Combined who was truly engaged as an undergraduate in this agenda and subsequently now works as a staff member to take that forward.


This paper evaluates an initiative to develop strong student engagement, and thus foster transformative learning (Bryson, 2014). Within a context where there is already a holistic student strategy in place and the ethos and practices of students as partners, we introduced first year students to the pedagogies of partnership.


The notion of student engagement (SE) has been embraced by universities in recent years, certainly so in the UK. We believe that SE is fundamental, as it is the pre-requisite of transformational student learning (Bryson, 2014); and that ‘becoming’ is the true purpose of HE (Fromm, 1978). However the transition to university often results in SE during first year being more about settling in rather than students becoming strongly engaged through participation in the sort of activities that induce transformative learning, such as ‘students as partners’ (Healey et al, 2014). Can the early stage of the student life-cycle accommodate such radical approaches? Are the students ready?

Multidisciplinary studies present an even more challenging transition as social and academic integration (Tinto, 1993) is made more difficult by issues of identity and belonging (Thomas, 2012). In Combined at Newcastle we have introduced a holistic SE strategy to address such issues. We have been successful at building a community and alleviating these tensions. However for first years there are fewer opportunities and less involvement in roles such as reps, mentors, ambassadors and consultants; that involve the true principles of partnership: co-ownership, equalisation of power relations, participative democracy and full membership of an educational community (Dewey, 1916; Freire, 1972). Prior to this initiative, students undertook a fairly traditional first year curriculum.

This paper evaluates our attempts to extend partnership approaches to the first year and takes a critical look at outcomes. In 2014 we introduced a compulsory module into the Combined Honours curriculum which focussed on interdisciplinary perspectives. Such a module was proposed by students and very much co-designed by students (but again second and third years). It is non-traditional in approaches to assessment and curriculum; emphasising student empowerment and reflective learning. Evaluation evidence was gathered through; interviews at beginning and end  with students taking/not taking the module;  a cohort survey eight weeks in and again at the end of the year; feedback gathered from peer  mentors,  and from focus groups as part of a review of the first year; in addition to feedback from the staff.

Interim analysis shows that this approach has had a more mixed reception compared to similar, earlier initiatives (in later stages of the degree). There was a polarity between students who have really engaged with this and students who expressed a sense of disempowerment and frustration (Mann, 2001) notwithstanding the advocacy of other students, including peer mentors. This creates major tensions in our ethos of mutuality and partnership! It would appear that an acclimatisation process is required; relationship and trust building, matching and adjusting expectations through discourse. That is not easy to achieve so early in the transitional period. Sharing and equalisation of power (especially when assessment is involved) and responsibility (when not all students desire more of that) is a fraught and challenging process. We will consider this case study in the light of previous literature and research (e.g. Cook-Sather et al, 2014), sharing lessons learned and discussing ways forward for the first year experience.

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