By Dr. Debbie Custance, Academic Director of TaLIC and Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Once a year, Goldsmiths’ Senior Staff head off for a two-day residential in which they brainstorm, plan, share and network. I was invited to join them on the second day for a session on planning for the next Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF 2020).
We were assigned to tables of around 10 people and asked to discuss what we were currently working on and what we plan to go on to focus on in the future that is relevant to the TEF. Rather than providing a full account of our conversation, I thought that it would be more interesting to pick out a number of examples of good practice and novel ideas that emerged during the morning’s discussion.
Building Learning Communities
One aspect that emerged as a priority around my table was building learning communities. Staff were very concerned that their students report not feeling part of a community. Part of the problem is that many students commute to College and nearly all of them have to juggle their time between university and one or two part-time jobs. They come to class and have to rush away again. It is very hard to build a community under these circumstances.
The Department of Visual Cultures went so far as to move staff out of an office to share offices with colleagues so that they could free up space to create a common room. Staff and students now have a space within the department where they can gather informally outside of timetabled teaching. Visual Cultures also set aside £500 that students could bid for to conduct an activity or project that would enrich engagement. The winning bid this year was for a student-led festival. These are truly lovely initiatives, but it is difficult to measure their impact.
One of the problems faced by students is that university life, especially in London, can be lonely. It can be hard to meet people. I know that I would not have stuck out my university studies if I had not made a group of very close and supportive friends. In fact, when you are living away from you’re your friends become a substitute family – ‘framily’ in modern parlance. International students face the added challenge of adapting to an alien culture, so that finding a framily can be very difficult.
The Confucius Institute set up a learn.gold (this what we call Goldsmiths’ Virtual Learning Environment) area that is a language network site. Students who wish to learn and/or teach a language can meet through this site. It has been a tremendous success with a very high number of active users. The added benefit has been that students are making friends through the site. It has become as much a social network as a language one.
The language network has got me thinking – are there any other activities that we could facilitate in this way? Nearly every major city in the UK has a ‘Meet Up’ site: check out MeetUp London. Anyone can set up a MeetUp group based around an activity. There are walking groups, art groups, theatre groups, music groups, museum visitors groups, baking groups – in fact practically any activity you think of, there is a group for it. Perhaps we could set up a MeetUp Goldsmiths site or even a MeetUp University of London site? We could hire computer literate students to help set it up and manage it.
Liberating the Curricula
Another burning issue that emerged from our discussion was liberating the curricula. Several departments are working with students to explore decolonising the curricula. Media, Communications and Cultural Studies set up a staff-student working group. One of the results from this was that they added an item onto their module evaluation forms that asked about Liberating the Curriculum. They decided to pose the question so that was framed in a positive way, “How can the module be improved in this respect?” This moves the focus from what is wrong to how it can be put right.
The Music Department has also been discussing liberating the curricula with their student. They held an open forum on the subject. As a result, the department created a new staff role of Diversity and Representation Officer.
Student Wellbeing and Mental Health
Non-continuation was also an issue of great worry to many departments. The Department of Educational Studies is very vigilant in meeting with students who wish to interrupt or withdraw to find out exactly why and what can be done to help. They have identified mental health and financial issues as the main reasons that students drop out.
The Psychology Department agreed that anxiety and depression were at a worryingly high level amongst their students. They have come up with a highly novel way of addressing student wellbeing. They launched a Mindfulness and Magic project with their undergraduate first years. Students either learned mindfulness techniques (taught by a Psychology third year undergraduate who is a specialist in the area) or they taught each other how to perform magic tricks. The magic activity has the added advantage of building learning communities. Since it is the Psychology department, they have naturally collected data and should soon be able to report their findings.
I am from the Psychology Department and over the past two years, I have run a project with three student collaborators on the effect of mindfulness practice versus interacting with a dog on levels of anxiety and one’s perception of how much your university cares about you. We found positive effects for both dog interaction and mindfulness compared to students who received no intervention. However, the mindfulness condition showed longer-term positive effects. I gave the students in the mindfulness condition a five-minute podcast of a mindfulness meditation that they could take away and use afterwards. The attendees at the Away Day were surprised to learn that both the Student Union and the Accommodation Office offered dog interaction sessions during last year’s exam period. Based on my research, I suggest that we also offer mindfulness sessions with free podcasts for the students to take away so they can keep practicing.
I loved the fact that most of our discussion during the TEF session was not so much about the TEF, but about a genuine concern for student experience, rights and wellbeing. I don’t know if these initiatives will translate into improved NSS scores. With the continued SU recommendation for a boycott, I fear that we will not be able to detect positive effects through the standard metrics. Not being able to measure the results is disheartening, but it is clear that staff all across the college are working hard and constantly seeking ways to enhance their students’ experience.