A guest panel of staff and students responds to reader-submitted questions
In this edition, our panel of chosen experts answer your questions on closing award gaps and celebrating success. The responses cover proposals for a fundamental rethink, reminders to focus on what’s important and practical advice. Sharing their perspectives are Jill Childs (Principal Lecturer in Social Work), Jody Bell (Senior Lecturer in Social Work), Dr Louise Taylor (Principal Lecturer Student Education and Experience, Psychologist teaching on Social Work programmes), Elizabeth Lovegrove (Senior Lecturer in Educational Development). Sola Adesola (Senior Lecturer, Brookes Business School, EDI Lead, and Co-Lead, EDI Research Network) and Mariama Sheriff (Lecturer in Business and Brookes Anti-Racism Action Group).
- What challenges or opportunities are institutions overlooking in their current efforts to close awarding gaps via assessment? Dr Chahna Gonsalves, (Lecturer in Marketing (Education), King’s College London)
Jill: “I’m currently beginning work which is helping me to learn deeply about indigenous wisdom through my work with colleagues in East Africa. These include ideas such as ‘Ubuntu’ (“I am because we are”) and ideas that value eldership. There is much in indigenous thought that could inspire UK higher education and assessment. We’ve built our higher education institutions on a set of westernised Anglo-American assumptions that inform our assessment and we are now discovering some of the limits of these assumptions. Ideas such as ‘Ubuntu’ help us to promote social and economic equalities and the worth of all peoples, to strengthen recognition of the importance of human relationships, and to work towards environmental sustainability. These principles, if we release ourselves from our current constraints of thinking, also have the potential to shape assessment to one that is collaborative and fit for a future higher education system.”
Jody: “Trying to avoid generalising about what institutions are or are not doing, I think the focus on the academic aspects of a student’s life overlooks what it is a student needs in order to be successful. Supporting students with the parts of their lives which impact on their ability to study and be ‘students’ is the area most neglected. At an anecdotal level, the students most affected by the awarding gaps tend to be those who have to undertake paid work to support their families, students without secure housing, students with childcare needs, and those without family networks to support them whilst they are trying to be students. How can a student focus fully on the assessments when the student is focusing on every other aspect of family life?”
“…the focus on the academic aspects of a student’s life overlooks what it is a student needs in order to be successful. Supporting students with the parts of their lives which impact on their ability to study and be ‘students’ is the area most neglected.”
Louise: “The main opportunity that institutions are overlooking is working closely with student partners to co-create solutions that work. In social work, we have successfully been working with student partners who run and participate in our Black student advisory group, the Global Majority Collective. This has been a hugely influential mechanism that has enabled us to make meaningful change in our teaching to become anti-racist.”
Elizabeth: “I think it’s unlikely there’s much that’s being overlooked across the whole sector – anything I can think of is almost certainly being done by someone, somewhere. The issue now is sharing practice as much as we can to make sure we’re all taking advantage of each other’s best practice, as we continue to develop what that means.”
Sola: “There are many opportunities which should be taken up. These include the following. Review ideas or actions taken to address degree awarding gaps – is the action to be taken, research-informed or based on staff/student feedback? Will the activity be collaborative-led or informed by the prioritised group? There’s a need to review and discuss data by ethnicity. We need to enable the identity safety of students – the student’s experience becomes more about shaping and developing of their learner identity and less about confirming or refuting negative associations of their identity. Institutions need to reflect what we can do to address racial inequality using our privilege. If we are serious about closing awarding gaps, what can we measure or monitor within the academic year to know if we are on track? All staff need engaging towards becoming anti-racist”.
“If we are serious about closing awarding gaps, what can we measure or monitor within the academic year to know if we are on track?”
- What do you think are the biggest barriers in terms of closing awarding gaps? Jill Childs (Department of Sport, Health Sciences and Social Work, Oxford Brookes University)
Jill: “I think the consumerist culture that now exists in higher education drives students to expect (and possibly experience) a transactional experience. If we were to think inspirationally, we could envisage an inspired reframing of thinking that could allow higher education to be a life changing experience, an ‘activity of freedom’ (Freire, 1970). The barriers of consumerism are constraining for both staff and students, and authentic work to overcome awarding gaps can’t really operate fully and freely within current institutional and sector constraints. I’m really inspired by South African political theorist Achille Mbemebe’s (2015) work on the idea of developing a ‘pluriversity’. This refers to ideas of transcending disciplinarity and developing epistemic diversity. Once you start thinking what this model might look like in higher education, it really is inspirational and transformative. I’d love to work in a setting where I could truly implement some of Mbemebe’s thinking.”
Jody: “The very nature of award gaps is that there is something fundamentally unbalanced in the structures embedded within higher education. To be able to address this imbalance requires reconstructing, or at least significantly shifting, the status quo. This is time consuming and costly, both financially and psychologically. Without genuine commitment and resources from everyone involved, attempts to close award gaps will be tokenism at best.”
Louise: “Aside from the institutional level changes needed to reduce barriers, including leadership and creating inclusive environments (UUK & NUS 2019), there needs to be a commitment from individual educators to reduce awarding gaps. One way to gain such a commitment is to increase awareness of the issues causing the gap. For example, this could be achieved by creating time to hear the stories and experiences of students from the global ethnic majority, which will increase educators’ understanding of adversities these students face. Hearing students’ stories can also generate empathy, which psychological research shows is related to behaviour change to address the problem (Yin & Wang, 2022).”
“Aside from the institutional level changes needed to reduce barriers, including leadership and creating inclusive environments (UUK & NUS 2019), there needs to be a commitment from individual educators to reduce awarding gaps.”
Elizabeth: “Wider societal issues which are beyond universities’ direct spheres of influence. That’s one of many reasons we need to be working against racism more broadly, across all of our practice, and helping to equip our students to go out into the world and work against racism themselves”.
Mariama: “These can best be overcome by meaningfully engaging course teams in discussing the data from a value-added metric that measures the attainment gap, so as to identify action points. Better communicate learning strategies to students so that they have the opportunity to take responsibility for their learning”.
Sola: “Psychosocial barriers – possible selves, fear of appearing incompetent, stereotype threat. Equitable data – collect data by intersections of student characteristics. How are we collecting our data? Obtain current qualitative experience of our black students on their degree programme. Put in place opportunities to engage students regarding data collected. Advising relationships – do staff have an understanding and awareness of bias and how to mitigate this in the academic advising relationship? If not already in place, to consider staff undergoing training on inclusive advising methods including clear guidelines on what should not be said or done in the academic advising relationship. Cohort and peer connections – we should plan to embed inclusivity skills as part of our inclusive curriculum. We can encourage students to foster friendship among their cohort. We create a system where a student feels they matter among peers on our programme. Curriculum Enablement – do students have choice in their learning? Intentional representation of diversity and inclusion in lecture materials or associated with related professions”.
- Should we be looking at awarding gaps at the level of individual assessment marks? Anonymous
Jill: “Personally, I don’t think this level of nuance is helpful with regards to assessment. Rather, the individual behind the marks is where the story needs to be uncovered. So much of what is behind awarding gaps is informed by structural disadvantage (being in poverty or caring for example). All of my students come to study for a reason and many of them, like me, might not discover that reason until after they graduate. There is often a story of true disadvantage behind gaps in attainment and that’s why the infrastructure in our institutions to support equality and overcome structural disadvantage (for example student support, financial uplifts, mental health support) is so fundamental to success”.
Jody: “Awarding gaps reflect power differentials between those who are able to influence the rules and structures which lead to success and those who are not. Whenever these inequalities in power exist, inevitably generalisations exist. The danger of not looking at individual assessment marks can be that generalisations can lead to the most disadvantaged, in other words those with the least power (the minorities within minorities), being overlooked”.
Louise: “Different modules can have very different assessment requirements which may lead to bigger or smaller gaps. Therefore, it can be helpful to look at awarding gaps at the module level as found in recent research by Oxford Brookes Educational Developer Kat Kwok (Kwok and Alsop, 2021). However, looking at the module level can be difficult if we do not have access to information about students’ ethnicity. We need data that enables us to examine our assessments at modular level to ensure that they do not create ethnic disparities in attainment”.
Elizabeth: “Maybe. Patterns of awarding across different types of individual assessments might help us work out where students need more support (more support for all students, that is; I’m not advocating the kind of targeted support that risks ‘othering’ some groups of students). But any time we look at fine grained data like this there’s the risk of thinking about specific individual students as ‘problems’”.
Mariama: “Universities should come together and engage in a joint project so that there is better understanding of students’ backgrounds and needs, and so a better sense of the recommendations that should be made. This project should involve both staff and students”.
- The awarding gaps we have in higher education are between different groups of students. Whilst it is important to try and narrow gaps, ‘grouping’ and ‘labelling’ can be problematic (for example in terms of stereotyping). How can we overcome this challenge? (Ben Walker, Oxford Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development, Oxford Brookes University)
Jill: “I think we can adopt actions that are positive to try to increase attainment in all students. One of the fundamental problems in higher education is its alignment to privilege. In order for any real transformational change to occur then something needs to be given up in terms of the current status quo and that’s challenging for institutions to digest. So, ideas around overcoming awarding gaps by grouping or labelling students are actually red herrings and surface interventions against a backdrop of addressing what is a more fundamental, much more challenging shift in thinking. Surrendering privilege is the true solution. That’s when real transformation can occur”.
Jody: “By being brave! Questioning and challenging existing assumptions, especially your own, is essential. Stereotyping is an inevitable outcome of trying to take shortcuts in translating the complex and uncomfortable nature of awarding gaps into something more manageable and comfortable. Terminology such as ‘BAME’ is an example of this. Repeatedly relying on such shortcuts reinforces the homogenisation of difference. The next time you find yourself tempted to use such terms, or hear someone else using such a shortcut, consider how you can change the narrative. Perhaps, consider exactly which minority group is being discussed. Encourage yourself and others to be specific. Rather than grouping everyone who appears to have a hereditary background from outside the UK together into one supergroup and assuming they have similar experiences, take the time to outline who is actually being affected and how”.
“Repeatedly relying on shortcuts [such as ‘BAME’] reinforces the homogenisation of difference.”
Louise: “I agree that labels and grouping are deeply problematic because they assume homogeneity among an extremely diverse group of people who comprise the majority of the world’s population. Labels that include the word ‘minority’ are particularly oppressive (such as Black, Asian, and minority ethnic or BAME), as explained by students in our research (Bunce et al., 2021). I recently heard an alternative label used to describe ‘BAME’ people: people from the ‘Global Ethnic Majority’ (GEM). While this still faces the same issue of homogenising, is can be considered as more empowering. Ultimately, what we do to address known ethnic disparities is more important than spending energy debating labels that don’t change racist behaviour”.
Elizabeth: “By explicitly adopting intersectional approaches. No student is a member of only one group, we don’t always know all of the issues which apply to each student. So, although there are some ‘groups’ we are more likely to focus on in our analytics, we need to be clear that these groups are never clear cut, that they never tell the whole story, and to remember that this high level data and analysis is not useful when thinking about individual students”.
- How do I get my international and home students to integrate and work together? Anonymous
Jill: “Post Brexit I feel passionately that, in working with mixed international and home students, we need higher education to overtly value diversity and internationalisation for all the richness it brings in our staff and student cohorts. We’re currently running a peer mentoring project which matches students in Burundi with students in our programme in Oxford. In supporting these students to work together we needed to draw on their commonalities as well as differences. Developing a culture of common purpose where students can thrive and feel a sense they belong is hard to achieve but I think those parameters are at the heart of any real collaboration”.
Jody: “Ask them what they need. Do not assume that what works for one group works for another group. Even if it has worked repeatedly in the past, it does not mean it will work in the future or with every group of students. Building communities of learning and supporting students to build shared identities is something only its members can create. That sounds easy, but we know it is not!”
Louise: “First, it’s important to consider the rationale for working together. Students can feel safer when they are in a group with other students who share similar demographic characteristics (Tatum, 2021). So, depending on the task, sometimes it may be appropriate not to work together by disintegrating ethnic boundaries. However, if it is appropriate to break down ethnic divides for an activity, I have successfully used an ice-breaker called ‘Getting to know you’. This helps to break down ethnic divides or other unhelpful stereotypes and enables students to know each other on the basis of shared interests and characteristics (for example, do you love or hate marmite?; do you prefer singing or dancing?). Perhaps you could try it?”
Elizabeth: “Get them used to being allocated into groups by you, rather than choosing their own. You don’t need to do this in a social-engineering style (‘one home student, one international student, one home student…’) – random allocations will naturally mix groups up and get students working with people they don’t know as well across all the spectrums. As with everything, the more they do it, the better they’ll get at it”.
Mariama: “To help with managing expectations, use induction as a way to promote working in international groups. Icebreakers can help with this and an introductory talk can be used to raise awareness about the upcoming importance of working in groups. (Don’t be afraid of adding an element of fun when doing this!)
In consultation with the students, create ground rules appropriate to their teaching and learning context, for example, having a supportive attitude when working in groups. Place these ground rules in a visible spot on Moodle as a reminder of their importance.
Create flipped learning activities that give all students the chance to gather their thoughts before class and consider what language is available to them to communicate these thoughts. Flipped activities should have SMART goals and the educator should make explicit/help students identify which learning strategies can help them take responsibility for their learning.
Towards the end of the module, ask students to produce a short unassessed reflexive task and give them the freedom to choose the genre (for example, a song, a dance, a poem, a self-addressed postcard, a forum discussion post, a short oral presentation). In this task, they have to reflect on areas such as the soft skills they have developed through working in groups, including international groups, and how working in such groups has supported their learning. To prepare students for this task, at the start of their learning journey, students could be asked to think about their response to the following questions: What is group work? and How can it benefit you? As the module progresses, students should keep a note of what they observe about their changing notions to the questions and their own actual development in this area.
Use scaffolding to make assignment briefs easy to follow. Like the ideas above, this is beneficial to all students – changes that benefit international students benefit home students”.
Sola: “It’s important to manage students’ expectations from the outset and engage them in small activities across the life of the module so they can build their competencies in working in international groups. To help with this, use a fun induction activity that facilitates working in international groups. Induction should also be used to raise awareness about the importance and benefits of working in international groups. In consultation with the students, create ground rules appropriate to the teaching and learning context, for example, having a supportive attitude. Create flipped learning activities that give all students the chance to gather their thoughts and consider what language is available to them to communicate their final thoughts. These activities should have SMART goals and the educator should make explicit which learning strategies can help students take responsibility for their learning. Towards the end of the module, ask students to produce a short and unassessed reflexive task (written or spoken) where they have to reflect on the soft skills they have developed through working in international groups. To set this up, ask students to keep notes from week 1 about what they observe about their development. During the module, the educator can provide class feedback on how well the group work is going. Use scaffolding to make assignment briefs easier”.
Bell, J., Childs, J., Dibo, A., Mohammmed, O, Muchari, S., Ndabarushimana, A. and Pike, N. (2022) Learning from Ikibiri and Ubuntu to decolonise social work research in higher education [Manuscript submitted for publication]. Department of Sport, Health Sciences and Social Work, Oxford Brookes University
Bunce, L., King, N., Saran, S. and Talib, N. (2021) ‘Experiences of black and minority ethnic (BME) students in higher education: applying self-determination theory to understand the BME attainment gap’, Studies in Higher Education, 46(3), pp.534-547, https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1643305
Childs, J. and Clarke, L. (2022) Viewpoint: Decolonising the social work curriculum – a university’s journey. Professional Social Work. Available: https://www.basw.co.uk/resources/psw-magazine/psw-online/decolonising-social-work-learning-%E2%80%93-university%E2%80%99s-journey (Accessed 19 January 2023)
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
Kwok, K. and Alsop, S. (2021) Access to attainment: What are the responsibilities of universities towards their diverse communities? An exploration of the relationship between module characteristics and module mark differences between student ethnic groups. (Report). SRHE. https://srhe.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Kwok-Alsop-SRHE-finalreport.pdf
Mbembe, J. A. (2015) ‘Decolonizing the university: New directions. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education’, 15(1), pp. 29-45. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022215618513
Tatum, B.D. (2021) Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? And other conversations about race. London: Penguin
UUK/NUS (2019) Black, asian and minority ethnic student attainment at UK Universities #ClosingTheGap (Report). London: UUK.Yin, Y. and Wang, Y. (2022), ‘Is empathy associated with more prosocial behaviour? A meta-analysis’, Asian Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajsp.12537