2 Sep 2016

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Jane Culpan

In this interview we talk to Jane Culpan, a programme leader at Queen Margaret University. She is going into the second year of a brand new degree, BSc (Hons) Physical Activity, Health and Wellbeing, which she has designed with student engagement at its heart.

Jane was offered an opportunity to develop a new degree in rehabilitation, and wanted to explore the bigger picture of how physical activity underpins health and wellbeing. Each year of the degree has a key theme: year 1 – Exercise and physical activity; year 2 - Health issues in the community; year 3 - Health entrepreneurship and community development; year 4 - Leadership and sustainability. Active student engagement is critical to the success of this programme for university staff, students, and the multiple communities we are part of.

1. Your new degree has been designed with a strong element of students participating in and reflecting on their learning. For instance there is a heavy emphasis on volunteering and community engagement, and a requirement to write and reflect on a learning log. Why did you decide to create the course this way, rather than a more traditional format of teaching?

While the experimental academic inside me would like to be able to say that there is no “traditional” format for teaching, most of the modules are in fact delivered in commonly experienced formats of lectures, seminars, practicals etc. However, as you say, there is over 400 hours of experiential learning within modules on volunteering and community engagement.

Significant health inequalities exist within our communities and these are based on the inequitable distribution of resources. The evidence shows that overall, poorer people in society have shorter lives. We urgently need to redress the balance by working in partnership. This will ensure people have both better knowledge and understanding of what is required to achieve good health, and the support they need to make a difference. Aside from gaining a thorough understanding of theory, the direct work with community groups gives students a practical understanding of other people’s experiences. Walking in someone else’s shoes can change their perspective. Armed with this information, students will be guided in developing innovative solutions that can be applied to real life situations – ultimately improving health and wellbeing. Class-based teaching will provide the theoretical basis needed to explore, critique and make meaning from the community experiences.

Community engagement and a focus on prevention, anticipation and supported self-management provide the basis for the skills and knowledge included in the degree. For example, in year 2, students will undertake a Scottish Community Development Council and CHEX programme “Health issues in the community”[1]. Places on this course will be offered to local people interested in community health issues. They will study together with the students. The community based projects arising out of this collaboration will provide the students with real world experience on which they will be able to base further academic study and professional development as community leaders in physical activity, health and wellbeing.

Without giving credit to the many inspiring writers, but acknowledging that I base my thoughts on others’ work such as David Boud, I think reflection deepens learning, promotes understanding and underpins the transformational learning needed for developing successful change agents.

2. We’re interested to hear that one module on employability starts students out with pretty much no core content – they review their portfolio, identify gaps and undertake study accordingly. What do you hope will be the impact of this approach?

A key requirement that employers speak of is graduates' ability to reflect on and evaluate their own work performance and that of others. The focus of this module is not simply a generic tick list of skills needed to get a job but more on the personal development and career planning aspects of employability. It will support the students’ transition out of the degree. The module is structured around the processes for making decisions on “where to next?“ and “how to get there…” Packaged as a credit bearing module students are driven to engage in the topic from an academic perspective and the everyday needs looming in the coming year after graduation. The aim is to develop confidence and capability in being self-reflective.

I hope this approach will give the students a sense of ownership and mastery of the skills, knowledge and aptitudes they have developed over their years of study. That they will know their ability to learn can and will continue to develop, and that graduation is not the end of learning. I believe this student centred approach is critical for developing graduates for the 21st century.

3. What does the degree’s design, avoiding the traditional model of lectures and having learning that you can’t predict or over-plan, feel like to students and staff? Is it exciting or terrifying, or perhaps both?

Great question….definitely both. It is a roller coaster and I wouldn’t change it. I don’t think it is easy being the first cohort of students on a degree like this, but the current students have done really well. We have learned a lot together this first year. I could not have had a better group of students to start this programme with.

Doing something new, that pushes learning practices, will necessarily mean that some things don’t work. The tension is to provide the scaffolding needed to create holding or safe spaces for developing trust and confidence, at the same time knowing that risk, insecurity, and even “pain” are necessary for learning. I do mean this only to illustrate a point by the way.

I liken the process of developing this new degree to getting off the well worn comfortable academic sofa that needs new springs, and finding a new chair that does its job so much better, but is taking a bit of getting used to.

4.  In one of our exercises for creating a Student Partnership, we use the metaphor of a gym – you can’t buy your education in the same way you can’t buy fitness in the gym: it depends enormously on your own effort. Is this the same ethos you hope to impart to your students for when they enter the world of work? It seems there is a logical link between how you engage your students in managing their own learning, and how you expect them as professionals to engage their user groups.

Yes, that is it exactly. The plan is that the students use their own experiences to build an understanding of how others work, learn and play. I want the students as partners in this degree, just as I hope they will work as partners with others supporting health and wellbeing.


Footnote [1] 'Health Issues in the Community' (HIIC) Health Issues in the Community, a national training resource, is designed to help equip health professionals and local people for the real challenges that they face in developing community responses to health issues and becoming more active citizens. It should be of particular interest to agencies that have a remit for tackling health inequalities, promoting community development approaches to health and developing community participation around health. Health Issues in the Community can certainly provide a good starting point for local people or workers who want to tackle health inequalities at community level.


Thanks to Jane 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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