12 Feb 2016

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Libby Curtis

In this interview we talk to Libby Curtis, who is currently Associate Head of School at Gray’s School of Art, at The Robert Gordon University, a position directly relating to the enhancement of the student experience and strategic operations of the School.

Libby trained as a Jewellery Designer and secondary school teacher in the late 1980s. Whilst setting up her design business soon after graduation, she combined teaching in secondary education with the setting up of artist studios. Exhibiting and teaching led to strategic and operational leadership roles undertaken in both the Scottish and English education sectors in both Further and Higher education. These concentrated on curriculum development, organisational change, enterprise education, widening participation, and enhancement activities working collaboratively with a number of HE institutions in Scotland as both consultant and project lead.

Her current interests lie in enhancing cultures of Student Partnership within the School.

1. There have been a number of developments in Gray’s School of Art’s student engagement activity in the past year or so. Can you summarise a little of how and why this came about?

Things began in October 2014. We in the School had an awareness of the University’s Student Partnership Agreement, but apart from student reps, committee reps and so on there was not a sense in the school that the partnership approach was all that evident – you could say we had representation but not partnership participation.

At that time we were doing a significant review of courses in terms of student satisfaction. This was through our Student Experience Questionnaires predominantly and the National Student Survey. We were questioning whether the granular approach of just responding to feedback was actually the most effective thing to do. We wondered whether we should be developing more of a culture to enable students to think and comment on issues before we got feedback on it. Effectively, we wanted to have much more of a conversation about things.

Based on some of our existing feedback, we decided there were three critical things to developing that culture and trialling a new approach. One was a staff-student partnership agreement, the second was to review our assessment and feedback collectively in the school, and the third was to relaunch our Personal and Professional Development activities. We wanted to engage ‘Student Partners’ to do this. These were a group of 30 students that were nominated to participate.

Through this activity we were able to create two useful products – one was the staff-student partnership agreement for the School; the other was the PPD launch and process that is now School-wide. We were also able to use the consultation regarding assessment and feedback to inform our staff development events. The process of engagement over these projects has meant that the Student Partners are more experienced in working with staff on joint initiatives; this had provided a grounding for the School’s Institution–led Subject Review.

At that time of initiating the projects, we were just trying new ways of working together – they were strategic in terms of what we were looking at, but in terms of how we went about it, it was like any design project in that it was collaborative. The student feedback was that they enjoyed the process and felt included.

2. You mentioned the team of Student Partners you created last year across the different subject areas of the School. How does their role differ from others such as course reps, and what has been their impact?

The course reps already sit on panels, committees and so on. We didn’t want to use them too much and increase their time commitment, and we wanted to expand the number of students in the School that had connections with different roles and opportunities. The reps are a required function but the Student Partners are a more dynamic role in that the projects will change year on year. We might try out different approaches to developing collaborative work with them; we might vary the times in the year, and it’s very much an evolving practice. We also hope there’ll be a mentoring approach – for instance we originally drew from our second and third years; their activity rolled over into the next academic year when they became third and fourth years. We hope that next semester we will introduce another group and the third years will mentor them. This process is more dynamic than representation alone – it should develop real products and outcomes, rather than just feedback and representation.

3. You mentioned your Institution-led Subject Review, which Gray’s is facing next month. We’ve been learning a lot from the Student Partners in recent months as part of our research to inform a forthcoming guide on engaging students in internal review. Why do you feel it is important to have students so heavily involved in your own review?

I think it’s really important that students see what the staff need to do for a review process like this. They need to understand that the staff aren’t just delivering courses within the microcosm of Gray’s. They need to understand and appreciate the depth of analysis that goes into creating new courses, revising existing courses, and so on.

They’ve found it quite surprising and interesting that staff have been active in so much, and a lot of our Student Partners have attended staff discussion meetings – it’s important for them to see the context of these discussions. They too have their own discussions with their student groups. In past Institution-led Subject Reviews, students were consulted – we ask, they answer – but this time they’ve been more deeply involved and have had access to the review’s strategic materials, they’ve set their own agenda and priorities, and it’s interesting to see where they’ll go with it. It teaches us a lot about their level of autonomy, their understanding of their course, and what the most important issues are to them.

4. Is there something about the nature of your subject that makes student engagement work in a particular way? For instance, your students will all be very creative and reflective individuals, and often work closely with staff in small groups or individually – does that make it easy to spark conversations around enhancing the learning experience?

I think it probably does. We’re used to working with the students in groups - a small group might be 5-30 students, where we can develop a conversation with them, run a workshop with them, and give a lot of responsibility for students to come up with their own responses. We encourage students’ self-criticism of their own work – when we’re in studio with them, we’re not lecturing from the front – we will have dialogues in very small groups and often one-to-one. There is a lot of questioning about approach, integration of ideas, application of technologies; there’s quite a bit of reflection built into the way we teach. I think this has helped in developing the Student Partner activities at Gray’s.


Thanks to Libby 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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