Inclusive learning is about more than keeping up with the trend; it’s about feeling passionately enough about equal opportunity and success that you are willing to change the way the system works in order to get there. For Gillian Knight, Director of Education at Royal Holloway, University of London, inclusive learning has been at the heart of the Higher Education (HE) journey.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sat down with Gillian to discuss her journey into HE, developing inclusive curriculums, and how she approaches community-building on campus.
I moved into HE from being a Cancer Research UK scientist, partly for job security but also because I wanted to work closely with students. As soon as I started, I realised how much it had changed since I was at university and it was a real eye-opener trying to teach and engage students.
I wanted to ensure that we were delivering education that was fully accessible to all students; we’ve had an increase in the number of people attending university and have seen an increase in students entering HE with diverse backgrounds. This led me to becoming interested in how to teach STEM so that all students can succeed, regardless of their background.
I have always enjoyed the management and leadership side of HE — working with colleagues to enhance student experience and education. As Director of Education, one of my key aims is to ensure professional services and academic staff work together to deliver the best student experience possible.
Designing and delivering education which provides students with the skills to move on to the next stage of their career is very important. I was fortunate to be awarded a National Teaching Fellow (NTF) in 2021, recognising my inclusive education approach to STEM but before that, I hadn’t really thought I was doing inclusive education. For me it was about designing teaching in such a way that all students can access and understand the content, figuring out where students were struggling and how to redesign the educational material accordingly.
When I was at the University of Derby we had a number of students who had come back to university from work, and it was about making sure they were recognised and felt at home in the community among younger students, and that they had the same opportunity to succeed. When I worked at Aston University, on the other hand, we saw that students came in with different knowledge, so it was about making sure everyone was on the same level and understanding after the first year of study.
For example, one of the pieces of work we did in our computer science area was identifying which students didn’t have the sufficient background knowledge needed to succeed by running diagnostic testing with them. We then aligned these students with final-year peer mentors who we trained, and those students taught the first-year students some of the background mathematical knowledge they needed and it was hugely successful.
In my experience, the most important thing is to listen to students and find out what they need because they are the ones experiencing it right now. That is inclusive education to me.
Creating a community can be a challenge because it depends on what students view as a ‘community’. It can also depend on the kind of student base you have. Here at Royal Holloway, we have on-campus delivery mechanisms that help build this community, whereas at Aston we had more of a hybrid delivery of campus and online mechanisms. One of the key things to consider, regardless of the student cohort, is making sure that students have a community with each other where they can discuss their courses and support one another.
In terms of strengthening the community between students and academics, it’s been important at Royal Holloway to strengthen our tutoring and academic advisory roles, which is where faculty staff can gain more of an individual relationship with students and begin to support them more with personalised learning. When you build those relationships with your students then you can also understand where you need to improve across your course.
During the pandemic, we’ve had to get a lot better at keeping a sense of community when learning is online, and now we are integrating more of the in-person mechanisms back onto campus again. The Student Union is really key to this as well, building a student community and having a space for these conversations to happen is essential.
I was at Aston during the pandemic, navigating that shift from on-campus to online learning. It was a huge learning curve but there have been so many positives to take away from it.
It’s hard to become an independent learner using quite different learning styles; it’s already something students struggle with when coming from school, but the online aspect at times made it even harder. We tried to have interactive learning where possible which definitely helped with engagement. We worked very hard at Aston and Royal Holloway to recreate some of the more hands-on experiences online, but this is an area where we have struggled to always maintain student engagement.
One of the key things to consider, regardless of the student cohort, is making sure that students have a community with each other where they can discuss their courses and support one another.
However, I do think there were strengths when it came to online lectures and flexibility because it means students could go back and refer to material for assessments, and that is where engagement was much stronger. Now at Royal Holloway, we are looking at the Covid strategies and continuing to develop the mix of digital delivery and on-campus activities moving forward, to ensure all students can successfully engage with the university experience.
Understand your students and who you’re teaching, and make sure your curriculum relates to their needs.
Professor Helen Higson and Professor Sarah Haynsworth, I admire these women because they were exceptional at their jobs but also they really supported their staff. They made everyone feel valued and like their opinion mattered.
Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy is a book that I always enjoy reading. I find the idea of humans thinking they’re the most intelligent lifeforms to being proved wrong with no time to deal with it not only amusing but also quite poignant. It demonstrates to me the importance of knowledge and education — that we should be always continually learning.