23 Jan 2018

Interview with Cathy Bovill, The University of Edinburgh

In this interview, we talk to Cathy Bovill, Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement at The University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Academic Development. Previously she worked at the University of Glasgow for nine years.

1. Can you start off by telling us a bit about how you developed your interest in student engagement?

I came from a household with a really strong sense of social justice. My mother and grandmother were active in the international peace movement. I probably didn’t realise it at the time, but I think this influenced many of the decisions I made in my career. I worked for some time in health promotion in a voluntary sector organisation and was very aware of the importance of community engagement and user involvement.

I moved into International Development, where I did my PhD, and again I was drawn by a strong sense of community and user involvement in my work. When I became an academic developer over ten years ago, it seems to me that there was a natural link to be made in focusing on student engagement, and student-staff co-creation of learning, teaching, assessment and curricula.

2. And why do you think the link between student engagement and academic development is important, for both staff and students?

I work predominantly with academic staff in the work I do as an academic developer. Sometimes people find that strange for someone who has written so much about students and staff working together. However, I think there is a great deal of work to be done to provide opportunities for staff to develop their teaching approaches with student engagement at the centre; whether informed by research into student engagement, influenced by student feedback, or in collaboration with students.

Currently, it’s still relatively uncommon for students to be involved in the academic development of staff, but unless we talk more with one another we run the risk of missing one another’s perspectives, and unless we build good relationships between staff and students we run the risk of not seeing one another as human.

This is one reason why the student engagement network I have established at The University of Edinburgh, ‘Edinburgh Network: Growing Approaches to Genuine Engagement’ (engage) welcomes both staff and students and ensures staff and students are able to present their work and share practice and ideas (further information in references at the end).

I co-authored a book with colleagues in the USA, ‘Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty’ (Cook-Sather et al, 2014), and this book was specifically aimed at providing staff with a practical guide on how to work in partnership with students, including lots of examples of how people around the world are doing this. This was very much intended to be a book that could be used by academic developers or by staff directly to think about more meaningful ways of learning and teaching with students.

3. You’ve written and researched extensively on student engagement. Have you seen a growth in the perceived importance and worthiness of student engagement as a focus for research over the years? Or was it always deemed important by academic researchers?

For the last ten years, my research and publications have focused predominantly on co-creation of the curriculum, students as partners and student engagement. However, in the last five years I have noticed a much increased interest in ‘students as partners’ initiatives in particular, and this has created a busy and complex area of research, practice and discussion.

Certainly the idea of co-creation or partnership is not new, but the recent surge of interest has focused far more on student partnership in the governance side of student engagement, with student unions often being the hub of a range of extra-curricular, research, internship and enhancement focused projects. I have a particular interest in the pedagogic side of student engagement.

One of the key differences is that pedagogic student engagement is largely focused on engaging all students in a class and is about a way of teaching and relating between teacher and students. The governance-focused student engagement often engages small groups of students or student reps, so there are many challenges for ensuring work is inclusive.

A recent systematic review by Mercer-Mapstone et al (2017) highlighted that these smaller scale projects are the most common form of students as partners work being described in recent research, I suspect because most funding schemes have pursued this model of small scale initiatives involving individual or small groups of students. In a recent paper by Macfarlane and Tomlinson (2017) the authors critiqued student engagement literature as being under-theorised, and whilst this claim may be partly true, there is certainly some good quality theorised work out there too. So it’s a dynamic, sometimes controversial and developing area in which to be researching and writing.

4. To take one example of your research, you wrote an article recently in the International Journal of Students as Partners about a matrix that illustrates where and how staff and students can work together. Tell us a bit about how and why you developed this.

This participation matrix comes from the international development field (DFID, 2003). In the article, I used this framework to illustrate how in many instances we talk about student partnership as either present or absent and yet often the reality of working in partnership is far more complex. The framework enables us to consider different ‘stakeholders’ and how they might be involved in different ways in a project (inform, consult, participate, partnership, control).

The framework also then breaks up a project into different stages, so enabling different stakeholders to be involved in different ways throughout different stages. It is a really helpful way of either planning partnership work, or of making sense of what is going on in a particular partnership. The key message is that different sub-groups might participate in different ways at different stages of any initiative.

I have also written further about this tool in conjunction with colleagues from the Netherlands and from Newcastle University, by adapting it and augmenting it with action research cycles to provide a model to support participatory building design in education (Konings et al, 2017).

5. What do you think is on the horizon for student engagement? Scotland is often described as world leading in this area, but where are the places we should be going next to stay at the forefront of research and practice?

I think Scotland has some amazing examples of good practice we can rightly be proud of, but we also have a huge amount of work still to do. We shouldn’t be complacent and there are many examples of research and practice from further afield that we can learn from.

The HEFCE-funded Realising Engagement through Active Culture Transformation (REACT) project, a collaboration between Winchester, Exeter and London Metropolitan Universities built on existing good practice at those universities to support another twelve universities to enhance student engagement practices with ‘hard to reach’ students. They reported on this work in a recent special edition of the Journal for Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change, and this included critiques of whether ‘hard to reach’ is a helpful term to use.

Further afield, McMaster University in Canada has been running their Students as Partners Summer Institute for two years now, where students and staff from universities around the world attend in teams to work on progressing development projects. The Australians have funded several National Teaching Fellows* related to students as partners work and have a Students as Partners National Network. The Australian Government has also just funded a scholar to come to work with me at The University of Edinburgh in 2018/2019.

So perhaps the Scottish Government and Higher Education sector could look at some of these initiatives as potential inspiration for funding schemes and for further student engagement work in Scotland.

* In 2016 sparqs supported a successful application for an Australian Learning and Teaching Senior National Teaching Fellowship.


Suggested reading from Cathy:

Bovill, C. (2013) Students and staff co-creating curricula – a new trend or an old idea we never got around to implementing? In Rust, C. (Ed) Improving Student Learning through research and scholarship: 20 years of ISL. Oxford: The Oxford Centre for Staff and Educational Development.

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C. and Felten, P. (2014) Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

DFID (2003) Tools for development: A handbook for those engaged in development activity. London: Department for International Development.

Edinburgh Network: Growing Approaches to Genuine Engagement (engage).  https://www.ed.ac.uk/institute-academic-development/learning-teaching/connect/engage

Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change Special Issue on REACT Volume 3 No 1. https://journals.gre.ac.uk/index.php/studentchangeagents

Könings K.D., Bovill, C. and Woolner, P. (2017) Towards an Interdisciplinary Model of Practice for Participatory Building Design in Education. European Journal of Education 52 (3) 306-317.

Macfarlane, B. and Tomlinson, M. (2017) Critiques of student engagement. Higher Education Policy 30 (1) 5-21.

Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, S.L., Matthews, K.E., Abbot, S., Cheng, B., Felten, P., Knorr, C., Marquis, E., Shammas, R., Swaim, K. (2017) A systematic literature review of students as partners in higher education. International Journal for Students as Partners 1 (1). https://mulpress.mcmaster.ca/ijsap/article/view/3119

REACT project: http://www.studentengagement.ac.uk/newsite/


Thanks to Cathy 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.

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