The role of students in pedagogical research projects: Subjects, participants, partners, consultants?

Involving students in pedagogical research can take many forms. Students are often the subjects of our research, and may participate in our studies. However, by working with us as partners, we can benefit from their expertise, transforming their role into consultants. At the end of an HEA-funded project on student engagement with feedback, Naomi Winstone (Director of Undergraduate Studies; Lecturer in Psychology, University of Surrey, N.Winstone@surrey.ac.uk) and Mike Parker (Undergraduate Research Assistant) reflect on the role that students have played in their project, and what both the students and academics have gained as a result.

 

When do students become educational experts? Typically, when we carry out research into teaching and learning in higher education, we, as academics, position ourselves as the experts. Research strives to uncover ‘hidden’ student behaviours, or develop interventions that can be ‘done’ to them. Generally, it is assumed that we know best and therefore the students are merely the passive subjects of our research. Even if we collect data from students themselves, are we still viewing them as participants in a research sense, rather than as active participants in the process? 

Students as consultants

We are currently nearing the end of an HEA-funded research project aiming to better understand the psychological bases of feedback reception. When preparing our bid, we were aware of the importance placed by the HEA on ‘students as partners’ in learning and teaching. Nearly two years later, the role of students has been far more complex than we had originally envisioned. Originally, satisfying the ‘students as partners’ agenda to us meant making students a core part of the research team. To work alongside us, we employed a graduate research officer, an undergraduate student for the entirety of their professional training (sandwich) year, and second year undergraduate ‘research apprentices’. Students were our partners- but would they play a stronger role?

One of the first pieces of empirical work we conducted was a survey and series of focus groups with our undergraduate students, to better understand what they do when they receive feedback. Students were the subjects of our research- we wanted to gain insight into what they do at that moment they first set eyes on our feedback forms. This wasn’t purely observational; students were also the participants in our research, by taking part in focus groups, surveys, and lab studies. Crucially, academics were not the only ‘experts’ in the analysis of the findings, where we simply imposed our disciplinary expertise as an interpretation of our behaviour. The students on the research team were often quick to disagree with our interpretations of student behaviour and to offer their own interpretations instead. We also took our agreed interpretations back to other groups of students (which was a useful reflective exercise for them too), in order to check the validity of our conclusions. This is where the students shifted from merely being participants to being partners in the analysis, and, furthermore, consultants in crystallising our understanding.

The student perspective - Mike Parker

I joined the research team for my placement year, with the aim of embedding a student’s perspective into the project.  I was surprised at just how involved I got in the project, as I had a hand in pretty much every study, intervention, and event that occurred. But this involvement also meant that my perspective was applied as often as possible.

Differences between the student and lecturer perspective emerged whilst analysing focus group data; what was the reason underlying a student’s poor engagement with feedback?  I, because of my perspective as a student, saw it more as a feeling of helplessness, rather than an unwillingness to engage. We discussed this as a team, bringing in our different views and reaching a richer understanding of what the student’s comments meant, that might have been absent without the conflicting viewpoints.

I was also tasked to write a feedback guide for students. The idea was that it would be written by a student, for students. To that end I tried to keep my language as student friendly as possibly, which given my position meant checking that I could read it! I also asked our volunteer research apprentice to proof read it and check she could understand the wording as well. Between us, we also collected definitions of different feedback terms from lecturers, which we then turned into concise and student friendly definitions.

It was also helpful to see the staff’s, lecturers’ and tutors’ side of feedback and assessment. When writing advice for students, I tried to bear in mind lecturers’ workload! The end guide should therefore be balanced in its concerns for both students and tutors.

Role reversal

By recognising that students are experts too, and recognising this in making them our ‘consultants’, it was for us a powerful perspective-taking process. We came to see that many assumptions we might make about the causal factors underlying student behaviour can be viewed in a very different way. Whilst we did not always agree, it was powerful reflection. We realised that we as academics can often behave in a very ‘student-like’ way when we ourselves receive feedback, and that this is not a result of a lack of engagement or ‘laziness’, but a result of some powerful psychological influences that impact on our ‘recipience’ of performance information.

Not only have students taught us something, their consultation on this project will enable them to ‘teach’ future cohorts of students. Our student research team have produced a guide on using feedback effectively, written for students, by students. Much of the material in the guide comes from different phases of our project, where we have consulted students on their perspectives.

Of course, what we have undertaken is a research project, and we have at all times been academic supervisors for those students working with us. However, whilst we have applied our expertise to the project, treating students as consultants in pedagogical research projects means that we can benefit from their expertise too. It also builds strong spheres of engagement between staff and students - we are frequently asked by students about what is going on with our HEA project, and they value the fact that our research is not only aiming to improve their educational experience, but is involving them in the process of doing so. Participating in this way means that students also have the opportunity to benefit from their participation, whereby they are able to surface and reflect on their behaviours. For example, upon participating in one of our studies, one student commented: “Just talking about how feedback could be beneficial in this way has made me realise that I should probably make better use of it”.

 As has been argued strongly in research with children, we can benefit from seeing our research as not being conducted purely ‘on’ our target group, but also ‘for’ them. By conducting educational research ‘with’ and ‘for’ students rather than ‘on’ them, do we have the potential to engage in some powerful perspective-taking, and learn from what they can teach us?

Discussion

When researching students' behaviour, does including students as collaborators add authenticity to our interpretations, or partiality?

If you would like to contribute to the discussion you will need to first log-in to your MyAcademy account. If you don't already have an account, you can create one here: https://my.heacademy.ac.uk/welcome/.