Inspiring students through community building

Lindsay Jack
At the EUSA Inspiring Teaching Conference I spoke about ‘Making the Most of Diverse University Communities’.  I want to use this blog post to work through some of my thoughts on community especially as they relate to widening participation initiatives.  Here in the Law School, where I am Director of the Student Experience, we have an excellent programme of widening participation initiatives all of which are designed to encourage and support our students to become members of our community.  But this raises questions about what this means.  For me, community involves two different aspects.  First, it is about a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common, such as all belonging to the Law School.  But it’s also important to think about the sense of community as in the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.  In this blog post I’m interested in thinking about how our various initiatives have helped to shape the students’ sense of community and so improved their student experience.

In the Law School we are very proud to work as part of the widening participation team at Student Recruitment and Admissions.  We have a wide range of widening participation projects which we engage with and I want to single out one of these for attention.  Pathways to the Professions advises and engages local state school pupils interested in studying law.  We work with pupils before they start studying at the University.  This preparatory work is crucial to their sense of community and many report that they already feel like a part of the Law School when they arrive.  Having a sense of community that they bring with them to the start of their studies is an important aspect of their student experience.
LawPALSAnother way in which we hope students feel able to join a community is by giving them an instant peer group through LawPALS.  LawPALS, started in 2006, is the Law School’s Peer Assisted Learning Scheme and the University’s flagship peer support programme.  First year students are automatically enrolled in a group led by two trained Honours Law Student Leaders.  LawPALS aims to ease the transition new students make to the academic, social, geographical and administrative aspects of life in the Law School, and these informal group sessions work well in this respect.  There are weekly meetings in the first semester and the topics covered match the academic timetable, so essay-writing before essays are due, exam revision before exams and so on.  Sessions are kept flexible to allow students’ questions to emerge.  It’s a ‘safe space’ to ask the silly questions – although we assure them that none of their questions are silly.
law school

A further way in which we encourage students to feel part of a community is through identifying with the symbolic space of the Law School.  We encourage them to develop a community based around a sense of place. We are very lucky to be based in one part of the campus in Old College – and fortunate to have our own library there too. The geography lends itself well to inclusion from day one. First and second year lectures are too large for our lecture theatres, however, so we use the ones in George Square. But smaller group sessions (such as tutorials, seminars and LawPALS sessions) are held in Old College and students come to associate the campus with smaller group work – something which is very useful in creating a feel of community.

Every student is unique with their own story.  There is no box within which we can put any of our students.  Some may identify with many communities – be it their country of birth, family unit, part-time job, being a mature student, a student in Scotland, a carer, living in halls, living at home…  Some may not actually be able to easily pinpoint the communities of which they feel part.  What we want to do is ensure students feel they are able to join a community of learners if they choose to.

It’s important that we listen to our students.  We interact with them and take on board that they say.  They help shape the future of the Law School and create a legacy for the next generation of law students.  Students wanted more support in the transition from Ordinary to Honours study so we extended LawPALS to Honours students.  This year, based partly on student feedback through a wider analysis of student support, we introduced a compulsory 20-credit Honours course in Advanced Legal Methods.  We moved away from 100% assessment in many subjects to ensure students had other chances and ways to show off their knowledge.  We listen.

Sometimes we ask a lot of our students.  We expect them to feel part of the university, their subject area, societies and the local community to name a few.  We expect them to come with an idea of community and of who they are, and give them opportunities to discover their interests and develop them.  It’s a very difficult thing to measure – a sense of community – but we hope that we give our students plenty of opportunity to become involved in many varied ways.  After all, we are all different but if we are presented with the same wide range of opportunities at university, then we have the same chance to engage and be involved.  We have the same chance to join and create communities we are proud to be a part of.  We have the same chance to enhance those communities for future groups of students – and staff alike!

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