Ensuring a smooth transition to university life for students arriving on campus for the first time creates a whole host of challenges. It also presents a unique opportunity to educate students on values and ways of working that are particular to the institution.
This opportunity is something that has not gone unnoticed by Louise Banahene and her colleagues at the University of Leeds, who actively use this period to help students embed positive behaviours – which promote a sense of belonging and inclusion for all on campus.
Louise sits down with GoodCourse’s co-founder, Chris Mansfield to discuss how she and her team consciously build for student success, and how their recent partnership with GoodCourse is helping them on this journey.
I’m Louise Banahene, the Director of Educational Engagement at the University of Leeds. I have a varied role, but in its simplest terms, I’m responsible for ensuring fair and equal access to students from a diverse range of backgrounds coming in to study at the university.
I’m also responsible for student success – supporting students once they’re with us here on campus – and I think about that across the whole student life cycle, from undergraduate, to postgraduate taught and postgraduate research level.
We’re very much guided by our Access and Student Success strategy. It’s really about ensuring that your background – or your lived experience – isn’t a determiner of your access to university or how you perform when you’re here.
Our strategy is essentially about enhancing the whole student experience to ensure equal access to study at Leeds and equitable opportunity for those who join us. All students should feel like they belong at the university, thrive when they’re here, and feel valued. This sense of belonging can greatly impact the degree classification students receive and, ultimately, whether students complete their degrees.
Several institutional academic and expert practitioners have helped us inform our strategic goals, and we’re very fortunate to have had this input. It’s really helped us think about what belonging means through a variety of lenses. For example, how it impacts the way different groups interact and how your broader environment – such as your physical space or accommodation – can affect you, too.
Transition provides a significant opportunity for us to set expectations and share with students that there’ll be highs and lows during their time at university, but support is available too. Sometimes our views of university life can be skewed by how it’s portrayed on TV or in films. Often there’s a disconnect between what students think the university will be like and what it’s actually like in reality.
The transition also allows us to show students that there’s a benefit to being at university – outside of just attaining a degree at the end of it. It’s important to demonstrate that there’s a real benefit in the networks and connections you can create at university. I say connections because it’s more than just making friends with students on your course – it extends to networks outside of your course and with university staff members too.
Finally, transition also provides an excellent opportunity to promote a culture that celebrates diversity and encourages students to become aware of other people’s lived experiences. It’s something that I think we have to consciously learn to do as, when we’re left to our own devices, we tend to naturally gravitate toward things that are in our comfort zone.
So a really effective transition allows us to demonstrate the value of that higher education experience, the fact that you’ll meet a wide range of people and that there are a set of values and expectations that can make it an extremely positive experience.
For most of us when we start at university, we’re often thinking about things like ‘what’s my course going to be like?’ or ‘who are my friends going to be?’.
These are extremely natural questions to ask oneself, but there are other important things that may not seem so obvious – things like how you’re expected to interact with fellow students. It’s our job to help students on this journey and share how things like our values can shape our culture and promote respect on campus.
This can be extremely helpful in framing the relevance of our belonging and inclusion work, allowing us to touch not just on how students are expected to interact with their peers in a social setting, but also on how to effectively work in groups and other such things that can enhance the broader student experience too.
We’re fortunate to have lots of colleagues here at the university who are committed to making progress on belonging and inclusion – but a commitment to the cause is only half of the battle. We also have to ensure we can actively engage students on these topics in a way that is scalable, too.
GoodCourse makes it possible for us to engage our student populations en masse amidst a period where they will have been bombarded with information and things they need to know. The fact that the courses are user-friendly, to the point, and delivered in a format that really works for students means that they cut through the noise and allows students to see why these topics are important to them whilst also helping to embed the university’s core values too.
Early interventions and the way in which we interact with incoming students are key to delivering on our Access and Student Success strategy. But, as you say, having multiple touchpoints across the life-cycle of a student’s time at university can be hugely beneficial – we’ve seen this through other initiatives which have benefited from the reinforcement of learning too.
So I definitely see that there is a benefit to continuing that dialogue – something we could well use GoodCourse for. It enables students to think and reflect on a range of important issues, from consent to broader EDI-related topics – on an ongoing basis. And we see this ourselves in our own lives. When you keep coming back to something, that’s when the learning really starts to become embedded – you feel that it’s really making sense to you.
I think it’s really about finding opportunities to work with students directly. Really listen to students and understand how their individual lived experiences shape their student experience. I would say this is key, regardless of whether you’re just starting off in your career or informing your future career choices too.