In this interview, we talk to Chase Greenfield, Academic Representation Coordinator at the University of St Andrews Students’ Association, where he has worked since August 2021. Previously, he worked in the USA as the Student Engagement Coordinator at Montana State University Billings, a Regent for the Montana University System, and as the Business Manager for the Associated Students of the University of Montana (which is the American equivalent of a Sabbatical Officer position). Chase holds two Bachelors of Arts Degrees (one in Philosophy and one in English Languages and Literature) from the University of Montana and a Masters of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews.
1. Can we start with your experiences in the USA: how would you explain how student engagement and representation is understood and practiced in the USA to someone in Scotland? And how is it different from what you’ve experienced in Scotland?
That’s a great place to start. Firstly, I’d say the term “student engagement” is quite a bit more narrow in focus in the USA than it is here in Scotland. In the States, “student engagement” refers to getting students involved in activities and societies and extra-curricular activities rather than engaging them in elements of the learning and teaching experience. Students are involved that way too, just through “representation” structures or by participating in accreditation and assessment practices (which are akin to quality assurance and enhancement in Scotland).
In general, I’d say students in the USA are engaged in similar conversations and priority areas as in Scotland, just at a different level. Few Students’ Associations in the US have a Course Rep system, for example and therefore the focus is often about University-wide learning or student experiences rather than changes in a specific module or programme of study.
A couple of other interesting differences on the representation side: US Sabbs (usually called “Executives”) do not take a year off from their studies! They take modules/courses while working representatives. Most US Students’ Associations are also incorporated within the University rather than being separate charities. And lastly, education is managed separately from the rest of the government (meaning there is no Education Act provision for Student Unions, for example); this creates a much more campus-focused representation structure and the US equivalent to the NUS isn’t as prevalent in discussions.
2. What’s the impact of that system? Is there still an ability for students to make change in learning? For example, what kind of things did you do in your various roles in Montana?
Absolutely. Students do still play a role in improving learning. There are a few structural and cultural differences that add context to this however.
For example, in the US, all students have to take what’s called “General Education” (Gen Ed) classes during their first two years of study. These are a series of requirements across disciplines that students need to complete, and vary by University (most cover the basic subject areas: mathematics, sciences, arts/humanities, and so on). Many US Students’ Associations are involved in the regular review their College/University’s Gen Ed requirements. For example, student representatives weigh in on what modules should and should not count toward fulfilment of a Gen Ed requirement, or debate the learning objectives and teaching methods of Gen Ed modules with academic staff. I co-led the redrafting of one of our Gen Ed requirements called “Democracy and Citizenship”; alongside staff members, I modified the learning objectives to incorporate a stronger focus on current and historical issues as well as on learning about underrepresented groups. Every student who graduates from UM now has those competencies and knowledge bases, as they’re required to take at least one “Democracy and Citizenship” module over their undergraduate studies.
In general, I’d say curriculum is a bit more centralised in the US than it is in the UK. (Modules are only rarely team-taught, for example; usually one staff member teaches a module the entire semester.) For that reason, curriculum is the prominent area where students and reps can provide input and make changes, whereas other aspects (for example, teaching methods, or assessments and feedback) are a lot more module/staff member specific and tend not to have the same level of student input and review as they do in the UK.
As a Rep, I was really involved in a few different academic-facing projects, including reviewing individual courses as part of annual assessment processes, serving on a task force to define “liberal arts” and their role in a UM Education, and co-leading a “programme prioritisation” effort.
3. Tell us about your responsibilities at the St Andrews students’ association. How do you work with your student officers, reps and indeed the university staff?
My role’s primary responsibility is to support our Sabbatical Officer for Education (called the Director of Education or “DoEd”) and our other academic-facing representatives. I do this in a variety of ways, starting with giving them all their induction training. Throughout the year, I provide insights into national conversations (such as the move to a tertiary quality framework) and year-on-year context from within the institution as well. My role also serves as a bridge between some University departments and Student Representatives; I work closely with our Quality and Policy team as well as our Careers Centre (among others) to help student leaders achieve their goals and to communicate University priorities to students as well. For example, right now I’m working with our DoEd and policy team on reviewing the way academic representatives engage with University Committees.
Lastly, my role is in charge of managing a LOT of elections!
4. You’ve been very active in our work at sparqs, as a member of the working group that created our new Professional Standards Framework for Student Engagement, our PGR work, being a regular participant in our Student Engagement Staff Network (SESN), and much else besides. How important has the national level been for you?
Coming from the US, it was really important for me to key into a national network through sparqs. Having only a postgraduate’s experience of Scottish education, there was a great deal of context and application that sparqs helped me to acquire early (shoutout to Simon, who I credit with my induction to the Scottish Quality Framework!).
I’ve really enjoyed being a part of national dialogues, especially on the Postgraduate Research student experience. As part of that group, I built out some models of Postgraduate Representation across UK Students’ Associations that I use in conversations with PG Reps quite often.
Working on the Professional Standards Framework was a fantastic experience in learning about the roles equivalent staff play in Associations and Colleges/Universities generally and has provided a road map for the skills and knowledge I want to acquire and hone as I continue my career.
5. You and a colleague recently presented at SESN on your work on your Student-led Teaching Awards, with a major research project on the themes from your latest awards, and now have a fabulous set of resources about that in our Resource Library. What was the highlight of that research for you in terms of understanding what makes a good learning experience?
Thanks for mentioning this. Our project on Student-led Teaching Awards led to many fascinating observations from students and put a name to many good practices I had experienced or witnessed but never formally recognised.
It was particularly fascinating to see how much students value learning from each other, or even educating their teachers. The theme “students as collaborators and contributors” in our research actually suggests that engaging students as partners (to borrow some sparqs language here!) in their educational experience significantly enhances learning and the perceived quality of the instruction.
The entire process was a fascinating exercise in listening to students. I feel like it’s given me a whole new language to talk about education and pedagogy with!
6. So what’s the next steps? Where do you hope to take the outcomes of this research?
Having already talked to Academic Representatives, we’re now working on presenting our findings to Teaching Staff and University change-makers. Internally, we’d like to build our findings into an optional training course for staff members and graduate teaching assistants, where they can learn more about student-identified practical steps to strengthen teaching. We’re working to get the right University stakeholders supportive and are hoping to run a pilot course in one of our Schools in semester two.
Externally, we’d like to share our findings and help other Students’ Associations to create a cyclical teaching awards process, where student nominations are used to inform in-the-classroom practice.
Thanks to Chase for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.