Higher education has seen tremendous change in a very short space of time. The student experience might be permanently altered to some degree, and yet, how involved have students been in co-developing this ‘new normal’? In this blog, Dr Stéphane Farenga shares how a student engagement theory – Participatory Pedagogy – can be applied to establish equitable student-staff partnerships, leading to the co-generation of meaningful practices to support the student experience.  

What is Participatory Pedagogy?

Participatory Pedagogy is a research theory that attempts to counter inequalities in student experiences by embracing a more equal, democratic relationship between staff and participant, based on three principles: 1. co-participation in the research; 2. the sharing of information, mainly from researcher to participant; 3. the co-creation of knowledge (Burke, 2012).

I used Participatory Pedagogy extensively in my EdD research into the student experience of incoming under-represented students (i.e. low income, from low participation to HE areas and BAME backgrounds). It helped me build trust with my student participants and engaged them as co-creators by giving them shared ownership of the research. In the words of Kiki, one my participants, the research “helped me build my confidence […] I [now] know I count and what I say counts and what I feel counts.” That is a powerful statement and speaks to the experience she went through during the research.

How does Participatory Pedagogy support this kind of experience?

Participatory Pedagogy is based on education and engagement theory developed by Paolo Freire, who helped emancipate oppressed peoples in 20th Century Latin America. Applied to a higher education research context, it is as a practical theory for researching the experience of students, particularly those who may be marginalised, such as those under-represented in HE. Those three principles mentioned earlier (co-participation, sharing of knowledge, co-creation of new knowledge) are used to elevate students to experts in order to avoid deficit model and confront hegemonic practices and knowledge, such as modes of teaching, assessment and support. This allows students from under-represented backgrounds to reflect on inequalities in experience, offer purposeful responses and co-develop meaningful policies and practices to enhance their experience. 

How exactly does this play out in practice?

Those of us working and researching in widening participation can sometimes forget that most students have not been exposed to the big, structural challenges and inequalities of our sector. For example, in my institutional policy work on understanding and reducing awarding gaps, I find students are often unaware that these gaps exist. This lack of knowledge is completely understandable. However, if we want to engage students in helping us solve these challenges, we need to share this knowledge with them so that they can reflect on it in the context of their own experience to co-generate solutions. This is where Participatory Pedagogy comes in to play: it gives you the pedagogical structure to engage students. Instead of ‘researching the student’, you give the student the tools and knowledge they need to ‘research themselves’. This can take many different forms. I interpreted it to mean exploring societal and educational structural inequalities with my research participants (e.g. neoliberalism in education) and sharing aspects of my research (e.g. research questions, methodology, theoretical frameworks). Does it take time? Absolutely. We spent several hours reflecting on this material before even doing any data collection. But how else are participants to truly engage with the research, to drive it and eventually co-generate knowledge to if they are not exposed to the structures that affect them?

What does this have to do with a pandemic?

Our sector is in uncharted territory. The entire student experience, from teaching to support, has been flipped online. Students’ experiences have been profoundly changed, and yet, to what extent have we engaged with students in going about this change? Do they feel like they ‘count’ in this moment, in the way that Kiki did? My own anecdotal evidence, from my institution and contacts in the UK and USA, suggests they do not. Student feedback on the learning experience in this pandemic is not entirely positive; lecturers and deliverers report low engagement in online spaces; students’ video connections in online settings remain largely switched off. There are many possible reasons for all this, not least the rushed nature (and delivery training) of online teaching and students’ understandable anxiety about their lives (and of those around them).

With online learning and support set to be part of a new normal, now is the time to put co-participatory structures in place that allow staff and students to form this new experience together. Students may be experts of their own experience but we still need to share with them the challenges of establishing a fully online university experience. How else will we ensure it works for all students, especially those from under-represented backgrounds? The recent regulatory focus on awarding gaps and students’ plight against institutional racism has woken us up to the reality many students face. This new normal is set to add an unforeseen twist on this experience. However, there is value in using a model like Participatory Pedagogy as a platform for students, especially those potentially marginalised, to share their experiences and help shape their future experience. 

What can we do to put this structure in place now?

As part of instigating meaningful co-participation, I have developed this step-by-step guide for staff-student partnerships, based on Participatory Pedagogy principles:

  1. Form student-staff partnerships and share with students the unequal nature of student outcomes. Review the student experience in relation to those inequalities.
  2. Identify any teaching, learning or support practices that rely on deficit-model constructs of skills and knowledge that under-represented students are expected or assumed to have but that are not explicitly referenced.
  3. Apply a ‘students as experts’ approach by a) allowing students to self-evaluate their experience; and b) assessing current curricula and practices to determine how (or if) they support the achievement of educational, career and professional goals.
  4. Co-develop practices designed to enhance the student experience and the ability of students to achieve personal goals.
  5. Undertake evaluations of ensuing practices and the overall co-participatory process. Maintain established partnerships to review new practices and/or identify new areas to review.

Ultimately, forming co-participatory partnerships with students should be prioritised to develop practices that support the student experience, while ensuring students feel valued and retain ownership of their evolving HE experience. 

Dr Stéphane Farenga is a FACE Executive Member and Deputy Head -Widening Access & Student Success at the University of Hertfordshire

Image credit: Nicole Baster

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