In this interview we speak to Mark Huxham, Director of Academic Strategy and Professor of Teaching and Research in Environmental Biology at Edinburgh Napier University.
1. You’ve been at Edinburgh Napier University for eighteen years, originally teaching biology but most recently as Director of Academic Strategy. What changes have you seen in learning and teaching over those years, not least in terms of the growing importance of student engagement?
We have a much more sophisticated understanding of what student engagement might mean now than we had when I started – I think this is true in the sector as a whole as well as at Edinburgh Napier. For me, this is manifest most importantly in two trends. First student engagement now refers to activities across the life of the institution and indeed beyond it. It is not only about what happens in the classroom, but also in the clubs and societies and through volunteering and work placements. Second the idea of working with students as partners has grown in importance and we have learnt some valuable lessons about how we can improve the experiences of staff and students by working together.
2. Partnership is a key concept in the sector, especially at the strategic level. But presumably it’s also a key characteristic of the classroom too. What, as a lecturer, have you learned from students?
Academics need to recognise the areas of legitimate expertise that their students’ bring to the classroom. The most obvious of these is as experts in the experience of being taught. But we have to create ways in which we can learn from this; it is tragically possible to go for years making the same mistakes as a teacher, with students being too polite to correct you. One of the most important lessons my students have taught me is that making mistakes and not knowing the answer when teaching are fine; revealing one’s own ignorance can be a great opportunity for mutual learning. Students are usually supportive of their lecturers provided they know she or he has their best interest at heart.
Another key lesson is that students want intellectual challenge. Provided they know that the learning is relevant and fair then giving students choices and involving them in decisions about their learning and assessment can lead to harder and more challenging classes. My experience has been of classrooms that can become zones of mutual discovery, where students and lecturers can learn.
3. At a recent public lecture at Edinburgh Napier University you talked about some of your action research on students as partners and your idea of teaching as a very organic process. What are the challenges in this for both staff and students?
The main challenge is that in doing this we are accepting more risk and uncertainty than we are sometimes used to in the safe and regulated world of UK higher education. We are expected to have clear learning outcomes, set months in advance of a module and aligned with quality controlled assessment methods. This can make flexibility, spontaneity and genuine student influence difficult to manage. However it is possible to take well informed and mutually agreed risks and to include checks and balances to make sure things do not go too wrong. The main lesson is around the importance of honest and on-going dialogue.
4. You have a particular research specialism in feedback on assessment. How did that develop as an interest?
The weird thing about feedback is that, to a naïve mind (and mine very much was when I first thought about it as a research environmental scientist) it is a very simple process; someone does some work, you mark it and tell them what they did right and wrong. Well, things are a little more complicated than that, because feedback is a particularly high-stakes and important form of human communication. So I became interested for practical reasons; I was giving feedback to my students and yet seeing them make the same mistakes. Why was this and what was wrong with my feedback? But then I got hooked because of the surprising complexity of the problem.
5. A few years ago we developed a toolkit on feedback on assessment with the University of Dundee which enabled students and staff to work together on feedback. And just recently we visited a university who were looking at generating some honest discussion between staff and students around the expectation levels of both parties around feedback. How can assessment feedback become something truly owned by both parties rather than merely done by one to the other?
That’s a great question and it comes down to dialogue I think. A dialogue implies an opportunity for both parties to speak and shape the views of the other. That means the act of giving feedback by an academic should not be the end of the matter. Ideally, the student needs opportunities to challenge and interrogate that feedback, leading to better understanding by the student but sometimes a change in perspective by the academic too.
6. And finally, what are the big questions and challenges for Edinburgh Napier University in the coming year in terms of academic strategy, and what do you hope students can bring in terms of exploring and answering them?
Partnering with students lies right at the heart of our new strategy. Finding the right ways to do this will be challenging but very rewarding too. A key point is that partnership is about trust and dialogue. This means working with students is not just about listening to student demands and meeting them, but rather having a genuine relationship and feeling comfortable in challenging each other as well as supporting each other. Achieving that will be very exciting!
Thanks to Mark 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.