The ability to deeply understand student or user experiences first requires sustained dialogue and collaboration. […] The most effective way to know what students need, expect or desire is to engage with them in genuine partnership.

Working in partnership with students, as Dr Mollie Dollinger notes in her recent article, is key to understanding their needs and experiences. Surveys and analytics can give us a broad picture, but ongoing interaction and authentic listening provide direct access to the suggestions, ideas and issues students experience in their studies.

As a FFYE (First and Further Year Experience) transition coordinator in the Faculty of Health, I act as a conduit between nursing and midwifery student representative groups and faculty subject coordinators across first, second and third year study. The aim is to build and nurture these relationships, make sure students’ voices are heard and ultimately to facilitate a supportive learning environment for all.

Acting on issues and clarifying confusion

In practice, I meet with students every two weeks and we discuss issues they want to raise on behalf of the student community. This includes concerns and problems they may be having, as well as reflecting on things that are working well. These conversations were used to make changes where appropriate, but also to deal with smaller issues before they escalate.

In large student cohorts, incorrect information can travel so quickly through social networks, creating unnecessary confusion and anxiety. This has been especially apparent this year with the move to online learning, so in the meetings with the student representatives we’ve tried to address issues directly and get the right information back to students quickly. 

In one such example, students had created their own Teams site to facilitate swaps in their clinical placements. It was assumed that once the swap had been agreed, they could turn up at the new venue without doing anything else. I explained to the student representatives the process of clinical placement and why this could not be done so easily, and they very quickly closed the site and were able to explain to their peers the necessary process for clinical placement swaps. 

In another example, students were concerned about the complexity of their Science subjects and the challenges of learning online without face to face support. To address this, they asked for tutor-led study groups to be formed by the Science faculty – a complex task which would need additional staff to be hired and new timetabling for both staff and students. When we talked through the broader implications, student representatives were able to understand why their request was not a simple one. 

Whilst we couldn’t offer exactly the solution requested, we brainstormed ideas as a group and decided to try self-organised study groups, led by the students. This meant students could work together, share resources and support each other in their studies, fostering a sense of community and cooperation. I liaised with the Science teaching team so they were aware and could encourage and support the study groups.

Building solutions in partnership with students

This year in particular, the student representative groups have helped us to respond to input in constantly-changing circumstances. When we moved very rapidly online, for example, we wanted to learn as much as we could from the experience and adapt the learning environment as needed. 

Student feedback indicated issues with communication and preferences around how they wanted to connect, so the student representatives and I worked together to generate ideas for keeping students connected socially, not only through their study. The students also expressed a clear preference for Teams as a connection platform, which informed the decision for every subject to use Teams as the main channel of communication.

Collaborative action was also taken when students shared their anxiety around preparing for clinical placement. In a new approach this year, the student representatives ran a survey to capture and summarise their concerns. The results from this and students’ reflective feedback were both used in the preparation of Clinical Placement Workshops delivered in partnership with UTS Careers and UTS Counselling. 

The impact of integrating student input in this way was clear. Over 96% of first-year nursing students attended the workshops, with tremendously positive feedback. Students’ confidence in being prepared for clinical placement rose from an average of 18% to 70% feeling ‘very confident’ after the workshop. Not only did the workshops provide them with tools to manage professionally and personally whilst on clinical placement, but they also fostered a sense of kinship, with one student commenting:

The interaction with other students allowed me to de-stress about being nervous, as we are all in the same boat and have similar worries.

Positive partnerships create meaningful change

Student feedback from this process consistently tells us that they have really appreciated having their voice heard and being part of a conversation, rather than simply exchanging a sequence of demands and responses. Working directly together, faculty staff can hear their needs and respond more quickly, without waiting for the results of a semester survey. In turn, students can see the complexity of the work required and the impact of decisions and changes more widely. We can each see and appreciate the others’ perspectives and collaborate on meaningful solutions, not just quick fixes.

Based on the success of the program, next steps will look at expanding the model into other schools within the faculty of Health and into other faculties within the university. The model has included first, second and third year student representatives, with the aim to include all students throughout their studies, including postgraduate stages. 

You can read more about FFYE and student partnerships in ‘5 things I have learnt about working with students as partners’, written by Georgina Barrett-See after attending a First and Further Year Forum last year. This UTS resource on successful student transition also shares the framework and guide to teaching students in their first year at university.

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