Reflections of an Edinburgh Award tutor

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY.Since academic year 2011-12, when the Edinburgh award was launched, I’ve always asked the students in my award classes whether they agree with a statement from a paper by Simon Barrie, 2006;

….generic graduate attributes have come to be accepted as being the skills, knowledge and abilities of university graduates, beyond disciplinary content knowledge, which are applicable in a range of contexts and are acquired as a result of completing any undergraduate degree. They should represent the core achievements of a university education”.

At least 80% of my students have agreed with the notion that graduate attributes (GA) – and not subject specific content knowledge – should represent the core achievements of a university education. Although this figure is purely anecdotal, I was originally surprised with this response from the students – but now, some 6 academic years later, I’m not.  The commitment that I have seen our students apply to their extra and co-curricular activities – and the deep reflective learning practices that they have developed – along with an understanding of those GA that are developing in their degree related work, are markers for individuals building employability and preparing for the transition to the labour market.

It has been wonderful to see students develop during their participation in the award, not all staff get to witness this change at such close quarters – almost in real time.  The final element of this is most certainly reading their reflective essay submissions.  These facilitate an honest understanding of their engagement with the extra and co-curricular and provide an insight into their personal growth.  The award has democratised the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR), by allowing an increasing number of activities that can be included on the transcript as opposed to a limited selection of Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) related opportunities.  As a result, more students have an entry on their HEAR that refers to an extra or co-curricular activity.  The award has also brought a certain professionalism to the training, delivery and organisation of the various extra and co-curricular activities available for students to take part in.

I am also very much focussed on who takes part in the award.  That is, what is the likelihood of a widening participation (WP) student taking part in an extra or co-curricular activity and then also taking part in the award?  Despite the number of barriers to participation that exist (Speirs & McCabe, 2016), those students with WP markers are more likely to take-up the Edinburgh Award than the equivalent general UG population.  This is a great step forward in regards to the equity of student experience for the WP student.  Our WP students have taken part in a wide variety of activities that support the local community through WP outreach and community engagement as well as supporting learning and teaching through peer assisted learning on campus.

One final thing that the award affords is the opportunity to work with a class of students from diverse subject areas that would not normally ever find themselves in the same classroom.  Each of these students from different social backgrounds and from different parts of Edinburgh, the UK and the world.  The developing conversations and discussions that we have are as rich and as enlightening as you might imagine they would be.  The last question that I ask the students is whether their university should offer the award at all, is it of value to them?  The certificate?  Not really is the answer.  The process and experience?  Most definitely.

Neil Speirs

Dr Speirs works on a number of Widening Participation projects as a practitioner and researcher. His particular interests include: peer related pedagogical practices, retention, returning adult learners, early years engagement, equity of student experience and the academic underachievement of males.

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