Catching the waves: surfing, enhancement, and student success

Photo by Linus Nylund, Unsplash CC0

In this post, Gavin McCabe takes stock of some of the Enhancement initiatives he has been involved in at the University over the years and reflects on how to remain open and responsive to opportunities. Gavin is the Careers and Employability Manager from the Careers Service and this post forms part of the 20 Years of Enhancement theme.

As Scotland marks 20 years of its enhancement-led approach to quality in the higher education sector, I reflect on my involvement, particularly around work supporting student development, employability, and personal and professional success. Looking back, there is nostalgia about the various enhancement initiatives I’ve designed or led.  Looking ahead, there is excitement and anticipation about where we are trying to head as a university community in these and other areas. But in particular, I am reminded how essential ‘opportunity surfing’ is to supporting and accelerating our progress against our priorities.

Opportunity surfing

We’re in the sea and know the direction we need to head.  Sometimes our progress is slow and effortful, but if we keep our eyes open and read the waves, we can pick the right ones to catch, to ride, and to propel us forward. The sector-wide Enhancement Themes have often been such waves – they have presented opportunities to harness and build momentum in directions we already wanted to travel as a university. The Enhancement Themes have often raised the profile of particular topics and the need for action, reinvigorated or created fresh opportunities for internal discussions, and helped bring a spotlight to existing practice (internal or external) that can be expanded or used to inspire. For work supporting students’ development, employability, and success, the Enhancement Themes have helped us emphasise and progress key areas that have been critical to our journey so far and that will continue to be essential as we look at transforming our curriculum and student experience for the future…

1.  Taking a collaborative, whole-institution approach

Following the 2004-2006 Employability Enhancement Theme, the Scottish Funding Council allocated each institution strategic funding to accelerate this agenda. The University avoided the trap of seeing employability as solely a Careers Service responsibility, and instead used this funding to support an institution-wide and collaborative approach. An Employability Strategy Group ensured this agenda was steered by and engaged with the breadth of the University, and a staff-facing Employability Consultancy was created to support the design and initiation of new initiatives and enhancements. Although the structures now differ, a whole-institution and collaborative approach continues to be vital if we are to achieve the progress and impact needed for our students. This approach led to the creation, success, and impact of many of the initiatives below.

2.  Contextualising and embedding the skills and mindsets required for success

The 2008-2011 Graduates for the 21st Century Enhancement Theme added weight and momentum to our existing work developing the University’s Graduate Attributes and surfacing and embedding these in the student experience and degree programme and course descriptors. In contrast to some other frameworks, the University’s Graduate Attributes were designed to be contextualised. For example, effective communication will look different across disciplines and contexts – compare veterinary science with history, or formal presentations with customer service. Disciplinary and contextual differences must be recognised and cherished, and this will continue to be essential as we realise our vision of the Edinburgh Student.

3.  Surfacing, supporting, and recognising co- and extra-curricular learning

The 2011-2014 Developing and Supporting the Curriculum Enhancement Theme encouraged a broad view of the curriculum and how students develop their graduate attributes. This aligned with our work harnessing co- and extra-curricular learning to support students’ development and impact. The Edinburgh Award was piloted in 2011/12 and now annually engages around 1,500 students across all levels. It continues to evolve and is an important and impactful tool in institutionally recognising and deepening co- and extra-curricular learning as part of the overall University experience.

Following the Enhancement Theme, momentum around the co-curriculum continued and gave focus to improving awareness and accessibility for students.  As part of this, MyDevelopmentHub was launched in 2017/18 and continues as an important online signposting tool for students interested in any aspect of their development – personal, professional, or academic – improving access to relevant activities, events, and resources.

4.  Strengthening and expanding experiential and reflective learning in the curriculum

The Developing and Supporting the Curriculum Enhancement Theme also helped us add momentum to embedding experiential and reflective learning in the curriculum.  Using insights from the Edinburgh Award, in 2013/14 we piloted our Student-Led, Individually-Created Courses (SLICCs) framework for credit-bearing experiential and reflective learning and assessment.  Over 20 courses across the University now use the SLICCs framework, covering all levels from first-year undergraduate through to professional doctorates.  The framework and accompanying resources are continuing to prove robust, flexible, and effective in allowing colleagues to offer meaningful credit-bearing experiential learning that boosts students’ learning and development – this will be particularly important given the focus on experiential and challenge-based learning as we refresh and transform our curricula.

5.  Enhancing and harnessing the wider student support ecosystem

The importance of the student support ecosystem became more prominent during the Developing and Supporting the Curriculum Enhancement Theme.  We harnessed this and other opportunities to trial and then mainstream the Making Transitions Personal (MTP) Pre-Arrival and Start-of-Year Reviews.  Completed by students across the University at key transition points, the reflective MTP Reviews aim to:

  • deliver valuable insight into our students at critical stages during their journey – such as their hopes and fears, motivations and expectations, development priorities and support needs,
  • accelerate students’ current and future success and foster a sense of belonging,
  • benefit relationships between students and their school/deanery, helping make them more impactful, meaningful, and personal – for example used in one-to-one discussions or informing Welcome Talks and cohort activities.

The wider student support ecosystem continues to be a central part of students’ current and future success, linking together students’ curricular, co- and extra-curricular learning and development.

6.  Deepening expertise and support around reflection and curriculum design

The Developing and Supporting the Curriculum Enhancement Theme increased attention on the support for staff in enhancing the curriculum.  After the Theme this helped give birth to two toolkits on topics essential to student development, employability, and success.

  • The Reflection Toolkit was created in 2018/19 and with over a million visits a year it continues to support students and staff if they are interested in reflection for themselves or in supporting it for others. Reflection is central to effective experiential learning, whether inside or outside the curriculum, and developing our students as reflexive practitioners is a key objective within the University’s Curriculum Transformation Programme.
  • The Curriculum Toolkit was created in 2019/20, supporting curriculum design that embeds student development, employability, and careers. Its ten design principles and accompanying tips, reading, and examples of practice are continuing to resonate strongly with discussions around how we enhance our curriculum and ensure it is fit for purpose, now and in the future.

Although they’re not the only waves that have been caught, the Enhancement Themes have played a significant role in furthering the University’s work on student development, employability, and careers.

At each stage, as a wave approaches it is an active choice about if and how to catch the wave and use it to support our aims and priorities.  The opportunities are plentiful, both externally and internally from work on transforming our curricula and our approach to student support.  The question is how we best engage with and use these opportunities, and keeping our energy up so we can try to enjoy the ride.

Surf’s up!

photograph of the authorGavin McCabe

Dr Gavin McCabe is a Careers and Employability Manager in The University of Edinburgh’s Careers Service and previously led the Employability Consultancy, in both roles leading and shaping strategy and activities around students’ employability, development, and graduate attributes. Gavin co-leads the Student-Led, Individually-Created Courses (SLICCs) and GEL-Lab initiatives, co-authored the Reflection Toolkit, provided subject-matter expertise on graduate attributes for Skills Development Scotland, and led the design and delivery of strategic institution-wide initiatives such as the Edinburgh Award, Making Transitions Personal, and MyDevelopmentHub.

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