Participatory research, calls for participants, and ‘the usual suspects’

In my post on ALPS last week, I wrote about how participatory research can be a beneficial active learning experience for students. In a recent project that I ran at the University of York, student partners came away from the research process reporting that they had a much stronger knowledge of research methods and delivery than they had before. However, as I also noted in that post, this is, for both methodological and practical reasons, an exclusive form of learning.

Nicole Brown (an Associate Professor at UCL’s Institute of Education) has made the case that student partnership research is vital in developing and delivering innovations in teaching, which in turn can boost student engagement and satisfaction. Brown is not alone in this assertion – a quick Google Scholar search will return a wealth of literature that details the benefits of student partnership research. Importantly, this literature also shows that, largely, students simply enjoy getting to be involved in the research process.

From this, an important question emerges – which students get to be involved in participatory research? Answering this question is important both to the students that get to be involved and to the conclusions that will result from the research. 

The first answer here is perhaps the least surprising one – it is the students that want to be involved in participatory research that should get the opportunity. Panitz’s principles of collaborative learning stress that ‘Participation is voluntary and must be freely entered into’. This is a principle that any ethical review should also insist upon for a student partnership research project, but it is nonetheless worth noting.

However, this principle alone does not answer the question of ‘which students get to be involved in participatory research?’. What happens on the project that has space for three student partners and gets one hundred expressions of interest? And why are those students the keen ones in the first place? Could it be that a large number of students, who could make great contributions and benefit from participation, didn’t feel welcomed to or suitably informed about the project to consider applying?

These are questions that are worth considering before the onset of student partnership research.

The fund that supported my project over the last semester had some interesting and useful guidance on recruitment of participants:

‘It is important for projects to think about how you’re recruiting and what barriers there are for certain students. Be mindful about your promotion and comms (eg consider info sessions about your project; promote your project as flexible and for everyone etc) and your selection criteria (eg emphasise factors such as collaboration, diverse experiences, empathy etc.)

It is important to be mindful about recruiting the ‘usual suspects’ and/or the loudest most confident voices – eg already super-engaged students, such as Reps.’

For those that might not be familiar – ‘Reps’ are Course Representatives, students who volunteer to represent their fellow students in aspects of departmental governance. Whilst Reps might be a quirk of the UK higher education system – I actually have no idea if this is a feature of UK academia alone or is something that is a universal practice, I’d be very interested to know if someone does know more – surely what is, hopefully, a universal phenomenon is the super-engaged student. 

Many, if not all, of the readers of ALPS will have in mind at least one super-engaged student; the person that nods along throughout lectures, contributes to every seminar, shows up to department events and generally, positively contributes to a department’s learning community. It is quite likely that a call for participation in participatory research is something that, again, the super-engaged student will respond to (perhaps because they are the one student who actually regularly checks their email!). These students make vital contributions to the teaching and learning experience. However, there is good reason to say student participatory research should not only consist of participants that can be classed as ‘the usual suspects’ of super-engaged students.

Mercer-Mapstone, Islam and Reid have argued that going beyond the ‘usual suspects’ is crucial in ensuring that student partnership research can reach its full potential for innovation and impact – through supporting equity and diversity. Without centring concerns for equity and diversity, the ‘innovations’ that result from student partnership research may simply be replicating the societal conditions that lead to marginalisation. 

There are also ethical issues that are worth bringing into consideration. If an individual or a group of students are routinely showing up to department events, volunteering to contribute to departmental governance, and are otherwise extremely committed to department life – this is something that might be adding undue pressure to them. Perhaps they are people that struggle with saying “no” to requests to help out… but who then might also, as a result of this, become the students that struggle to hit deadlines and do the best they can in their studies.

This is a concern that is compounded as students in contemporary higher education don’t only have to worry about finding time for their studies, other departmental commitments, society activities, friendships, etc. As a result of the financial constraints in both the sector and in the UK as a whole, many students are now also in paid work alongside their degree. Data from HEPI reports that in 2023, for the first time, a majority of undergraduate students in the UK were in part-time work. Again, driven by the cost of living crisis, an increasing number of students class themselves as ‘commuter students’ – almost half of all students this academic year – meaning that they live away from campus and likely have to spend more time travelling to and from university.

This creates a complex web of considerations that any academic must consider when embarking on student partnership research. Drawing on my recent foray into this approach to pedagogic research, what follows are some of the actions that I included in my calls for participants.

The first call for participants went out via email, which included the project information sheet. For both ethical and practical reasons, the call was sent from a member of the department’s Professional Support Staff, rather than from me as the researcher leading the project. In this call, the note was added that the project was looking to engage a diverse range of perspectives and, therefore, especially encouraged those not previously involved in department initiatives and projects to consider applying. It was hoped that this note might be enough to give someone who was on the fence about submitting an expression of interest the encouragement they needed to do it. 

Given the widely-held suspicion that many students aren’t regularly checking their emails, I also went beyond the email call for participants and promoted the call on our department’s student community-focused Instagram account to boost awareness. For this call, I recorded a minute-long video, describing the project and, again, encouraging a diverse range of students to consider expressing their interest in participation.

Students who were interested were then encouraged to express their interest through completing a Google Form. This form was constructed to gather data needed to consider suitability for the project (e.g. degree programme, year group, etc.) but also included questions that emphasised the time commitment (‘Student Partners will be required to undertake a total of 20 hrs hours of work… Are you able and willing to take on this amount of work?’), to help overworked students take a moment to consider whether participation really was something that they had time for.

Finally, compensation for participation. Whilst compensation for student participation in research is not the norm across all fields, I do think that there are clear benefits to paying students for their time in participatory research. Especially when participation might go beyond the quick filling out of a survey, students will often have to make calculated decisions about how their time is best spent. Providing hourly pay can help assure that students who might otherwise need to engage in other paid work can still consider participation and, if they do so, provide a useful perspective. 

These small practices are by no means presented as the right approach or a “silver bullet” to diversifying engagement with student partnership research. Instead, these are thoughts that I had in response to my first experience with this form of research and a few details of how I approached the challenge. In the end, the project had an absolutely fantastic group of student partners – only one of whom I already knew. They all contributed great ideas and a lot of enthusiasm for the project and have impressed on me how vital student partnership research can be to the development of our teaching and learning practices.

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