In this post, Sam Fawkner, Emily Birtles and Giulia Pinton introduce current initiatives in Moray House School of Education and Sport, which aim to create a sense of belonging and community for students. This post is part of the Building Community Learning and Teaching Enhancement Theme.
Moray House School of Education and Sport (MHSES) is a large school, with a diverse offering of programmes to engage with an equally diverse cohort of student. For many years, we have worked hard to create a sense of belonging and community for our students, and to make sure that every student matters. Our successes have often been at programme level; our challenges have been more apparent at the level of the whole School.
In early 2020, just as we were starting to realise the true nature of Covid-19 and the impact it would have, three new MHSES roles commenced. They proved to be pivotal in our response to Covid, and have contributed to a transformation of our approach to building community across the School.
A new Deputy Head of School, with a specific responsibility for Students, allowed for leadership across the School, with immediate action in establishing a working group and action plan to address the challenges of student experience during the ever-changing parameters presented by Covid. A key priority was having an opportunity for a range of relevant colleagues from across the School to meet regularly to discuss student experience, support and wellbeing (this included our Learning and Teaching and Student Administration leads, Senior Personal Tutors, Coordinator of Adjustments and Student Disability Contact, Director of QAE, Director of Internationalisation, and members of the Student Experience and Support office). This became a hub of activity; an opportunity to respond to student voice, raise and discuss immediate concerns and identify key actions alongside a collaborative community of colleagues. The clear need for such a forum has been evident, and the Student Experience and Support Group is now established within the MHSES governance structure, with an ambitious but coherent action plan.
Student SharePoint and bi-weekly student round up
Communication with students and providing opportunity for students to feel more connected to each other and the School were, and continue to be, priorities, and the work of the new Student Experience Coordinator and the Student Engagement and Events Officer has been pivotal. First and foremost, in consultation with a student voice panel, it became evident that a single, coordinated approach to sharing information with our students was needed. Thus, the Student SharePoint, and bi-weekly student round up were established. This continues to be expertly curated, adapted, and enhanced by our Student Engagement and Events Officer, with input from across the School, both staff and students.
Communicating with our students, and sharing with them the myriad of opportunities available to connect with each other and the School, and with the wide range of wellbeing support on offer to them, is both a passion and a conundrum for the team.
Of course, central to working in partnership has been involvement of our students. Over the past 24 months, we have been lucky to work with some fantastic students to ensure that we have a range of community events that are both student informed and student-led.
MHSES Community Café
The student-led MHSES Community Café was created to help students feel more connected. The café had nearly 200 (PGT) student members by the end of 2020/21, and led to two successful spin off series:
1) Student Practice Worth Sharing (a ‘child’ of our hugely successful staff Practice Worth Sharing programme) where students and staff are able to discuss collaboratively and share experiences on a range or topical issues, from mental wellbeing to academic misconduct
2) The Feelings Club, which is a space for students to talk about how they have been feeling, the things that are difficult, and the things that have gone well. We have also been able to make regular mindfulness sessions available to staff and students since the onset of the pandemic.
2021/2022 brought additional challenges, with students studying by different methods and in different locations. Having learnt so much, though, in 2020/2021 about the importance of a clear and coherent approach to communication, and how to deliver community building activities online, we were well-placed to ensure that we could respond to what students wanted. We have extended some of the online community sessions where possible to be delivered hybrid. In partnership with Active Lives, we also now have regular ‘feel good walks’ starting from the Holyrood Campus, delivered by staff and students from MHSES.
Furthermore, we recently introduced our Community Champions programme, which recruits student champions from across the School. They focus on different themes designed to promote community and sense of belonging, and to ensure that students are at the centre of the work that we are doing in this space.
This group of students was created as part of an internship position, which investigated the feasibility of implementing school wide community roles within the School. Our student intern collected information, opinions, and recommendations from relevant stakeholders at MHSES and across the University (including Student Experience and Support Office, MHSES programme reps, EDI committee and Racial Equality Subgroup members, PGR staff members, CEID staff members and students, School reps, EUSA, SQAEC staff members, and the student voice intern).
What emerged was the importance of a shared vision and interests, and the recommendation to create student leadership positions to boost the pride of being part of MHSES student community and the excitement towards engaging with it. It was also suggested that more community initiatives could come from the students, but that the division between programmes and across levels of study may be a challenge. Therefore, a team that has oversight of the cohorts would be in a better position to coordinate this. In light of these recommendations, a Community Champions team was formed.
The Community Champions come from different programmes and levels, and constantly work together in collaboration with staff members and other students. Their main aim is to promote the School initiatives, disseminate information in various groups that they are part of, produce content that is relevant to the students and that can be published on social media and student roundups, organise events, suggest relevant topics for Practice Worth Sharing, and more.
This is a small selection of community building events and wellbeing initiatives that we have established in partnership over the last 24 months. Our on-going challenge is making sure that we provide the right opportunities for students to be able to connect across the typical silos of programmes and cultures. Students often tend to engage mainly within their programmes and may feel their voice gets lost at a School-level. Responding to students’ needs and providing them with diverse spaces to express their ideas has been our objective. Involving students will contribute not only to keeping the focus on what matters to students, but also to continuing to build on a united and cohesive community, and the successes of our work to date.
Most of the community building events and spaces have been well-received across the student community. Examples of student feedback includes:
I have to say I love this activity very much. Thank you so much for providing us an opportunity to practice English, meet new friends, and share things with each other.
Thank you again for this activity, this is one of the important things for me to do every week.
I really appreciate that we have this café. It makes me feel connected.
Sam is Deputy Head of Moray House School of Education, and has specific responsibility in the School for Students. Sam is also Senior Lecturer in Physical Activity (PA) for Health in the PA for Health Research Centre and a Senior Fellow of the HEA. Her teaching and research focusses on the role of physical activity in promoting well-being in all ages.
Emily is the Student Engagement and Events Officer at Moray House School of Education and Sport. Emily is based within the Student Experience and Support Office. Emily works in many areas across the School with staff and students identifying areas to develop or improve the Student Experience.
Giulia is a PhD student, researching the experience of international students with interculturality and is a student intern who has been working in collaboration with the Student Experience and Support Office.