Building community with students

Today, I’m eating sausage butties [for American readers, like a hot dog, but Britisher] to help develop our learning community. This is the second of our breakfast chats with undergraduate students this semester, designed to provide another channel for talking in a more informal setting.

The idea is that builds on our frequent observation that students often appear to be concerned about talking with us about how things are going. Naturally, we use all the conventional mechanisms that one finds in a British university – boards of study, staff-student liaison committees, individual personal tutor meetings and the like – but still that doesn’t seem to cover the gap.

In particular, as the person responsible for handling all applications for extenuating circumstances (e.g. extensions on coursework submission or non-attendance due to illness), I find that in almost all cases that do get to me, I find myself explaining that claiming extenuation isn’t a sign of weakness. I often have the impression that students think we keep a list of ‘troublemakers’ or talk about ‘problem students’ with our eyes a-rolling.

To be clear, we don’t: instead, we have a very strict process, designed to ensure confidentiality of information and equity of treatment for all applicants for extenuation.

The issue is that evidently we have students who don’t even get to applying. In the cases I know about [sic], that seems to be because of fears about ‘getting an unfair advantage’ or hesitancy about talking to us at all. This means that a perfectly valid mechanism to support their studies is closed off to them.

Hence the breakfast. We spend a lot of time trying to build community and to show students that we’re just people. If we can demonstrate that we are friendly and approachable, then we’re more likely to be approached.

Naturally, it doesn’t help with those students who don’t come to anything we organise, but that’s a different story. Breakfast now beckons, so wish me luck with my social skills.

3 Replies to “Building community with students”

  1. Question about possible cultural differences between the USA and the UK: here I find that students with legitimate extenuating circumstances (chronic illness, family disruption, etc.) often do not contact me with a request for any sort of arrangement until too much time has passed in the semester. They miss multiple classes and assignments, and don’t acknowledge that they are completely underwater when they should. Then I’m forced to electronically make the rounds on campus, contacting various deans, to find out what can be done so that the student has a chance to salvage the semester — because it’s not just my class that the student is having a problem with, it’s all of them. Do you see the same sort of self-delusion among students who would benefit from speaking up sooner rather than later?

  2. Sadly, I do. I think it’s the feeling that things might be going right, but rather than point this out, you try to sort it out yourself. No-one likes to draw attention to their problems or difficulties, especially when it might start out as something small and manageable.

    It’s with this in mind that we want to make it acceptable for students to feel they can talk to us at any point, on anything. But it’s still a struggle sometimes.

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