3 Feb 2021

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Ruth Ní Bheoláin

In this interview, we talk to Ruth Ní Bheoláin, Quality Assurance Officer at Hibernia College in Dublin, Ireland. Ruth is an experienced Quality Assurance and Enhancement professional with broad experience in higher education. She chairs the Higher Education Colleges Association’s Academic Quality Enhancement Forum and is an expert reviewer for Quality and Qualifications Ireland.

1. Can we start with our favourite opening question: what does the term “student engagement” mean to you?

To me, student engagement means empowering students to take an active and meaningful role in the teaching and learning environment. This requires us to equip students with the skills and support, and to cultivate the environment needed so that they can participate as recognised contributors to decision-making across the lifecycle of academic programme delivery.

2. Your current and previous workplaces, Hibernia and Griffith colleges in Dublin, are both private colleges. It’s interesting to note that in Ireland there is a mix of public higher education institutions (as we are familiar with here in Scotland) and private ones (which we don’t have such a tradition of). What does this mean for student engagement and partnerships between staff and students? Does the distinction even matter?

I like to focus on how all providers of education collectively come together to put students first rather than the distinction between public and private institutions. Regardless of whether students study in private or public institutions, or a combination of both throughout their educational journeys, they need to be supported, enabled and empowered to be active participants and contributors to the learning environment.

Sectoral engagement has always been a significant aspect of my role in Quality Assurance. This means that I have the privilege of collaborating and engaging with staff who are deeply committed to student engagement and partnership across diverse roles, both within my institution and across the sector, in a wide spectrum of public and private institutions.

National programmes such as the National Student Engagement Programme give us a shared space to come together and consider the diversity of student engagement across all institutions and work together towards the overall enhancement of the student experience.

3. We first met you through our consultancy with NStEP, Ireland’s National Student Engagement Programme, with whom we have continued to work closely. How do you see student engagement changing in Ireland over time, not least as NStEP goes from strength to strength?

Student engagement has been a significant strategic priority in Ireland for some time, notably since Ireland’s Higher Education Authority decided to establish a Working Group to examine and make proposals around the issue of student engagement in HEIs in 2014. This resulted in a publication Enhancing Student Engagement in Decision Making that aimed to assist institutions in the implementation of student engagement across a number of areas. It has continued to inform strategic direction in the sector, including the initial establishment of NStEP.

NStEP launching in 2016 was a significant milestone for student engagement in Ireland. I am grateful to have been actively involved with NStEP in a number of capacities since it launched. I have experienced its benefit first-hand and how its impact has grown over time. Student engagement has really become part of the day-to-day dialogue in higher education and a huge amount of credit is owed to the leadership of former programme manager Cat O’Driscoll and current programme manager Oisín Hassan in securing, safeguarding and continuously expanding that space for constructive discussion and action in relation to student engagement.

4. Indeed we’ve interviewed both Cat and Oisín in the past, so it’s good to revisit developments in Ireland! What have been the highlights of NStEP’s recent work?

It speaks volumes that the programme has expanded in since 2016 to include 26 institutions across Ireland and to have trained over 4000 student representatives in that period. One of the training programmes provided by NStEP is specifically for student representatives who are involved in external QA review panels. In my experience, this has been really transformative for the role of student representatives who are now equipped with the skills they need to confidently and competently fulfill those roles.

What is particularly impressive with NStEP is its responsiveness to the sector and how it continues to stay relevant, build on its existing experience, find further ways to expand its remit and contribute to sectoral capacity in relation to student engagement. At the moment, one of its priorities for 2021 is the development of a digital badge for student engagement as part of Ireland’s National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning’s broader suite of professional development opportunities. I am delighted to be part of the working group for this development badge and it is exciting to see the potential it has to promote student engagement across all aspects of college life and to equip staff with the skills and knowledge they need to facilitate effective engagement.

5. You recently co-authored a literature scoping review on students as partners in assessment (which you’ve also kindly shared in our Resource Library). Tell us a bit about your interest in student engagement in assessment and what you found in the report.

My interest in student engagement was sparked during my undergraduate studies in the National University of Ireland, Galway’s psychology department. I think it's fair to say that I was at least as concerned about how we were learning as to what we were learning. I really appreciated the many wonderful lecturers who took the time to engage in dialogue with me about assessment and who sought out innovative ways to engage us in our learning experience. I didn't have the language then but this is what sparked my overall interest in the quality of our learning experience and ultimately led me to work in higher education.

One of my first roles in HE was working in the Centre for Promoting Academic Excellence in Griffith College. While I was in that role, my mentor encouraged me to pursue a postgraduate certificate that focused on programme and assessment design and an in-depth introduction to pedagogical practice. I have never looked back. I fell in love with pedagogy and how assessment could be designed to empower students and to facilitate meaningful and authentic learning experiences. So when the opportunity arose to work with Dr Fiona O’Riordan, who just so happens to be that mentor I mentioned, and another close former colleague, Rob Lowney, on this literature review, it made perfect sense to me.

Engaging students as partners in assessment has become increasingly prevalent across the sector. For example, empowering students to have increased responsibility and be decision-makers in the assessment process was a significant component of Ireland’s National Forum for Teaching and Learning’s focus on assessment throughout 2016-2018. The purpose of this scoping literature review was to explore how students as partners in assessment in higher education is addressed in academic literature. It explores key themes such as involving students as self or peer assessors, as co-creators of assessment activities and marking criteria, and the use of collaborative opportunities to co-own the assessment process.

One of the most important key messages for me personally, from completing this literature review is, again, the idea that just because we haven’t applied the language to our practice doesn’t mean we’re not doing it. Lots of assessment mechanisms discussed in the literature review, such as various formats for peer assessment, are used broadly and innovatively across the sector but would not have been labelled as student engagement as such. I hope that this literature review can provide inspiration for how to engage students as partners in assessment, but also give great comfort and validation to lecturers who are already engaging in such practices.

6. You mention peer assessment, which comes up a lot in your report, as does collaborative grading. These are areas where some people question what students can bring to the process, but you clearly find good answers to this. What do you think staff and students can gain from such activity?

It is evident in the literature that we reviewed, that peer and self-assessment and collaborative grading are powerful mechanisms for engaging students as partners in assessment, that contribute to increased assessment literacy. The virtual learning environment can be a powerful vehicle for facilitating these activities and we outline a number of ways that the VLE can be used within the review. As with all learning activities, peer-assessment and collaborative grading is reliant on meaningful design and should be pedagogically informed. Having robust supporting structures in place massively contribute to its success, such as having a well-designed assessment brief, grading criteria, clear instructions and training for both students and staff as appropriate.

Discussing these assessment methods at a high level, it’s worth highlighting that there is evidence of mutual benefit for students and staff from engaging in partnership in assessment. For example, our findings indicate that collaborative grading can provide opportunities for development for both staff and students. Developing a shared language through this collaboration, for example, can increase the validity and mutual understanding of assessment outcomes. The co-creation of assessment tools such as assessment rubrics can help increase that shared understanding and can have a positive influence on assessment literacy for both staff and students.

Typically, in grading processes, a lecturer is fully in control. What we found in the literature is that there can be a tension inherent in changing the power dynamic so that other parties, including students, share the power in that process. I can absolutely empathise with this position because, from a QA perspective, we need to ensure consistent learning experiences and the relinquishing of power in these processes raises queries as to how we can ensure consistency and equity of experience. Our findings indicated that engaging students as partners in assessment can be supported by robust quality assurance structures such as the provision of training, grading rubrics and explicit assessment criteria as mentioned previously. I think collaborative grading in particular is a great example of where quality assurance can help provide structures and facilitate solutions to support the implementation of innovative assessment methods.

7. While the bulk of your research for the review took place before the COVID-19 pandemic, it does mention VLEs as important platforms for partnership in assessment, which is of course especially relevant for this new world. We’ve worked with Hibernia College before, so are aware it is a blended learning college, but how in your experience has the pandemic affected student engagement in quality in Ireland?

Broadly speaking, I think the pandemic has highlighted how much we rely on informal interactions for communication across many domains and have made assumptions in the past about the level of student engagement that is occurring in typical physical learning environments. The need for increased peer engagement highlighted by a recent NStEP publication shows how, sectorally, learning communities and relationships have been hugely impacted by the rapid move to online learning that occurred because of the pandemic. The pandemic has placed a ubiquitous importance on, and enhanced the visibility of, issues that were already arising in higher education and I hope will make us all pause to think about the lessons we need to carry forward with the benefit of this new widespread perspective.

It’s useful to take Hibernia College as an example of how existing structures and digital capacity provided a firm bedrock from which to make necessary changes to accommodate our programme delivery. All programmes in Hibernia College are blended, meaning that their normal delivery format would have included face-to-face days, and programmes also had elements such as work placements and oral assessments that needed to be adapted for online delivery. So we did need to be mindful of the impact that these changes in format would have on student engagement. Luckily, the existing blended format of our programmes meant that we were well prepared infrastructurally to manage this process and the changes were really embraced by both students and staff. Really positive feedback has been received on how discussion was facilitated in a Zoom classroom environment, the use of breakout rooms, online polling and quiz tools, whiteboard tools for collaboration and so on. Our student representatives have been excellent in their advocacy and engagement with programme teams and the College's Academic Board. Some of our student representatives have also become involved in NStEP as trainers and have been involved in the wider rollout of online NStEP training and it is really fantastic to see our students be in a position to demonstrate leadership at a sectoral level.

I believe that the embeddedness of digital skills and literacy across the college community supported the resilience our staff and students needed to continue to thrive in challenging circumstances. It may be a good example of how important it is to keep digital literacy, the digital divide and digital teaching and learning at the forefront of strategic priorities in higher education across the sector over the coming years, as we get to grips with a sector that has been fundamentally transformed due to the pandemic.

If you would like to find out more about Ruth and colleagues’ ongoing work on students as partners in assessment, they are leading a seminar on 11th March hosted by Ireland’s National Forum for Teaching and Learning.

Thanks to Ruth 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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