Abbie King, Jesper Hansen (UCL Arena Centre); Gift Kalua (UG Student), Alex Drijver-Ludlam (PG student)
This presentation will draw on the reflections of two members of staff from the UCL Arena Centre and two students working with the team as interns on a research project to explore the experiences of staff and students involved in the 1st year capstone assessments. While this presentation will not discuss the findings of that project – which is still ongoing – we will draw from our individual reflections to jointly consider: What are the strengths and weaknesses of collaborative research with students in higher education settings? How can collaborative research be mutually beneficial and meaningful for students, staff and the institution? What are the implications of conducting collaborative research in a remote context? We will also look at how staff can combine an authentic partnership approach when working with student interns by drawing on their expertise and insights to create an enriching experience for all.
This short piece outlines the practices and reflections of a research team at the UCL Arena Centre working on a collaborative research project involving student interns. Here we briefly discuss the project aims and team, our motivations for participating in the project, our reflections on working together, including the implications of conducting collaborative research in a remote context, and some considerations for collaborative research projects with students.
Research aims and team
During the COVID-19 pandemic, UCL cancelled all first-year assessment and replaced them with a single capstone assessment that carried a pass/fail. As this was a unique response in the sector, the UCL Arena Centre is conducting a research project to understand student and staff experiences of the capstone assessment as an emergency response, and explore the potential opportunities for, and value of, a capstone-style assessment for first-year undergraduates more broadly.
The core researchers on the project comprise three members of staff from the UCL Arena Centre (Jesper Hansen, Jason Davies, and Abbie King) and two student interns (Gift Kalua and Alex Drijver-Ludlam). There is also an advisory group comprising senior members of UCL to ensure learning from the project will inform future assessment policy at UCL.
Motivations for collaboration and joining the project
From the outset, the Arena Centre team wanted to involve students in the project. On a very basic level, Alex and Gift provide some much-needed extra resource, but it is so much more than that. Importantly, they help ensure that our approach to data collection and our analysis of the data is viewed through the lens of current UCL students as well as staff. The student perspective is particularly salient for this project since the capstone assessment was a unique situation meaning that it was not possible to rely on a large body of research that might otherwise inform the lines of enquiry. Having students involved means that their experiences inform and add nuance to the knowledge and approaches of the staff researchers. The fact that the students are an undergraduate – and Gift had gone through the capstone assessment himself – and a postgraduate means they have direct experience with the situation being researched, as well as broader knowledge of student-life. Indeed, there is always a huge amount to learn from interacting with the diverse student body who provide insight into a crucial side of UCL and bring an energy to each project which is inspiring.
For the student interns there were three key motivators for wanting to work on this research project. Both Alex and Gift feel strongly about wanting to improve student experience and teaching and learning at UCL and can genuinely see the value in capstone-style assessments. The prospect of being a part of UCL staff’s learning and contributing toward potential changes, especially knowing that the project had interest from senior leaders, made the role particularly appealing. In addition, working on this project has provided opportunities for their skills and professional development. For Alex, working on a project that directly relates to their studies in social research has allowed opportunities to practice and develop their skills. Alex is also working toward a career in social research/academia, so this project has provided insight into the internal workings of a higher education institution as well as career opportunities such as contributing to pieces for conferences and academic journals. For Gift, previously having experience that is quantitative, he felt the need to diversify his research experience by embarking on a qualitative project that he was driven by. Gift has not only gained valuable exposure and first-hand research into qualitative research, but he has also acquired lessons in how other students value particular aspects to education that he had not previously capitalized on and has now applied them to his own learning.
In a practical sense, it was also necessary for us to undertake paid work alongside studying, and it is fortunate that we have been able to do so in roles that relate to our interests, professional development and studies.
Reflections on working as a team
To get going, Abbie and Jesper spent time planning how to create a space for Alex and Gift to embed within the team so that they weren’t just carrying out pre-set tasks on a pre-defined project. It was important that the students had space to ask questions, to inform the approach and add their own ideas. One of the ways that we have created this collaborative and reciprocal environment is through having honest conversations about our respective strengths, weaknesses and aspirations, and having discussions around who can contribute what to the project. This transparency sets the tone that we are all learning in this scenario, and all have value to add and areas to develop. In addition, for Alex, having more than one student intern on the project has been incredibly valuable because it has allowed us as interns to have more ‘stake’ or ‘voice’ in the project, and support each other with our contributions and navigating the project more generally.
One area where Gift and Alex had a huge role to play was the focus groups with students to understand their experiences of the capstone. In fact, for Abbie, working with Alex and Gift has provided important insight into the struggles that students’ have faced this year, which has enabled her to approach the student focus groups with greater care and understanding. Both Alex and Gift took on much of the organisation of the focus groups, including designing the focus group schedule and questions, student engagement and communications, and leading the focus groups.
Working in a team encourages additional motivation and accountability to progress with the project, particularly when there are students invested in the project who are fulfilling their responsibilities too. Abbie and Jesper recognise that the interns add value through their experiences as students, however, they are ultimately colleagues who are equally diligent and committed to the project. Similarly, from the student’s perspective, working in this team has felt genuinely collaborative and reciprocal, where there is mutual trust and respect for each other’s contributions.
Thinking beyond the project, it is also important that students can see how they can get involved in these bigger, institutional-level projects that take them beyond giving feedback, to shaping, leading, making recommendations, and contributing equally to decisions about the future shape at UCL. In the Arena Centre, we are looking at how we can involve more students in this way, and we are excited to see where that goes (and are hoping that Alex and Gift might have some input into what that could look like!).
Navigating the pandemic and remote context
For the most part, working remotely has not been a problem, and there are a few practices we have in place to ensure this remains the case. Most importantly, we have a regular Teams meeting every week which ensures we check in with each other and update on project progress. Using Teams for storing all the project documents and data has enabled us to easily collaborate within documents, and all have oversight over the project so we can access and discuss with ease. We have also established an open dialogue about each other’s personal circumstances and priorities, which has been particularly helpful for the interns, who are managing competing demands such as assignment deadlines. Keeping the timeline loose enough to allow for that flexibility is important, while also being honest about our capacity and renegotiating time frames as a team if needed. As we move into the analysis stage of the project, we are finding remote collaborative working more challenging and are in the process of testing out alternative software or tools that might better enable remote collaboration (e.g. Margin Note, NVivo).
Considerations for collaborative research projects with students
Drawing from our above experiences and reflections, there are four considerations that we suggest for those interested in conducting collaborative research with students in the future.
- Have more than one student on a collaborative project so that the team comprises an equal balance of staff and students.
- Ensure that students come with different skills and experiences that complement each other….and you!
- For staff, approach the project with an open mind and be honest about the fact that you are also learning in this context. Dedicate time to the project via a regular, agreed meeting time. It sends off the right signal that this a valuable project and ensures you are checking in regularly and building up a relationship with the team.
- Collectively agree where each person adds value and discuss what you each want to get out of the project. This will help divide up roles and tasks and ensure that everyone gets out what they need to from the project.