Mini-series: Empowering students matters

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder, Unsplash CC0

In this Mini-Series on Embedding Belonging in the Classroom, Lorna Quickfall from the School of Economics, explains to us the relationship between empowering students as confident learners and students’ sense of belonging…

Here at the School of Economics we are taking a holistic approach to embedding belonging in the classroom.  In my relatively new role as Manager of Student Welfare, I am taking a two-pronged approach. The first is working with the staff and student community to enhance a sense of belonging through events and opportunity to share experiences; and the second, with individuals through coaching.

The coaching is proving to be very successful. Every community is a sum of its individuals, and this may be one of the keys to its success. In hearing the staff and student voice, it is important to hear individual voices.

I am not a clinician, my background is in education of individuals coping with a mental health illness. I offer conversations, not counselling.  In life, things are always going to get in our way. There is no ‘good time’ to write an essay or study for an exam. We are humans, social animals, who live entangled lives effected by and effecting others. On an international level Brexit and Coronavirus have us on alert. On a personal level, we get sick, relationships break down, we miss family, friends and home, we are overwhelmed by the demands of a rigorous academic degree, social life, and navigating our path to the future we desire.

I use the CLEAR model of coaching, which involves listening to students talk about what they are currently going through. This is frequently about much more than being worried about an upcoming exam, although this might be an antecedent. I help students to explore what is going on for them, and what tools and strategies might be of assistance. I cannot solve what is going on in the lives of my students, but I can offer ways to navigate these barriers in order to maintain their journey. I empower students to identify their own actions, which are reviewed in time.

Common themes arising are overwhelm, isolation, study skills and homesickness. These are all very real and valid issues that can have a massive impact on someone’s ability to concentrate, study, and meet their academic potential.

Students report numerous benefits from the coaching. What emerges over and over again are two words: structure and accountability. The move from secondary education, which is very rigid and structured, and a home life with a structure provided by family culture, is very disorientating. Having one big target of “get a degree, you have four years” is incredibly difficult to achieve. It’s a rather large mountain. Coaching does not give students a leg up, but it gives them tools to build a ladder.

In terms of accountability, our students are so eager to please. The life stage of a student involves a cycle of learning new information, processing new information, demonstrating understanding, and reward for achievement. What coaching provides is low stakes accountability – I have no authority for these students, our conversations are just that, and their actions are their own to do or not do. However, students report either looking forward to coming back to tell me how well their actions have gone, or challenging themselves to meet difficult actions because they do not wish to tell me they didn’t try.

Students also report that following the coaching, they have been able to change their mind set, improve confidence, and have strategies to achieve their goals. Many students are surprised at the big difference little changes in routine can make to their overall well-being.

I also work with academic staff around themes emerging with individual or cohorts of students, and how they can improve their pedagogical practice to meet the needs of students. One example of this is the creation of a critical skills reflection tool for use at the end of lectures or tutorials. It can be difficult for any student, but especially those for whom English is an additional language, to have tools to ensure they understand when they have been analysing, versus when they have been using evaluative skills.

Through listening to and validating individuals, and empowering them to be confident in themselves, we aim to create a ripple effect to continue to embed belonging in the classroom.

Lorna Quickfall

Lorna is the Manager of Student Welfare at the School of Economics. Lorna brings many years’ experience as a teacher for young people experiencing mental health problems to the university. Lorna helps students to identify strategies to overcome barriers to reach their goals in education. Lorna works proactively with the School and wider university communities on issues of inclusion and wellbeing. She is one of the developers and facilitators of the recent ‘Am I the only one?’ series at the Chaplaincy. Lorna is currently undertaking a Masters in Professional Education at the University of Stirling.

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