Moving on and, hopefully, expanding in Cluj, Romania

Cluj univWith a view to disseminate, and possibly replicate the SPEAQ student mentoring project within the Faculty of Letters, we organized a meeting with a group of first year students from other departments of the faculty, on April 11th, 2013. They belonged to specializations with different numbers of students, ranging from a dozen to more than a hundred, which would enable them to test their organization skills and the feasibility of such a project at micro and macro level.

The main topics we tackled were the following:

  • an overview of the SPEAQ project, including the SPEAQ blog;
  • the presentation of the peer-to-peer mentoring programme within the Applied Modern Languages Department, as piloted during this past academic year;
  • a debate concerning their first week at the faculty, as seen in retrospect, focusing on what would have made their life easier if some particular issues had been addressed, in due time, with the help of peer mentors;
  • a list of the things they wished they had known before and during the winter exam period, with a view to adapting the information provided by the student mentors to the different stages of the university year.

As the discussion unfolded, they were asked to fill in their requests in an imaginary first-week-timetable. This brainstorming session revealed an ideal “getting acquainted with the faculty” timetable, one of whose versions could look as follows:

Monday A crash course in topography, so that the faculty should be less of a “terra incognita”
Tuesday Reading the timetable – why are the weeks called “odd” and “even”?
Wednesday Where do I belong? Are practical course groups formed according to some alphabetical order criterion?
Thursday How do I join and access the faculty libraries?
Friday What are the credits and the contracts? How do I apply for a scholarship?

The clearest signs that these students found the initiative useful and are eager to put into practice a peer-to-peer mentoring programme in their respective departments were the detailed questions they asked regarding the impediments we had faced and the fact that they shared the idea with their own teachers the very next day. We would be happy to witness an “upgraded” version of our initiative following next autumn.

Iulia Bobaila,
Assistant Lecturer, Babeş-Bolyai University

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University of Trento, Italy – An aMEISing story!

UNITN_logo TRENTOIt was a slow start to the year at Trento, mainly due to bureaucratic hiccoughs: the institution of the Student-Teacher Committee, central to one strand of the mini-project at the School of International Studies (SIS) was delayed until February. Nonetheless, to kick-start the project, some informal meetings were held with the student members of the committee, all students on the Master’s in European and International Studies (MEIS).  These students have taken their role to heart and had held meetings with all the students enrolled at the SIS to discuss quality issues. This enthusiasm met its reward first in early March with a formal meeting with the Degree Director, and subsequently on seeing some of their feedback and suggestions included in the first ever report to the newly created Italian QA Agency, submitted in March. The Committee finally met for the first time on April 29th.

The second strand of the mini-project, focusing more directly on enhancing the experience of international students in the Italian HE context, is also well underway.

Interviews in February with Quality Management and staff of the International Office and the Head of the International Student Welcome Office identified areas of improvement from the administrative point of view.

In mid April a focus group for all international students enrolled at the SIS, EU and non-EU, was well attended and another meeting is fixed for mid May. Some of the issues raised by the students were in part due to a misunderstanding of the Italian HE system by international students or simply due to poor communication or lack of information. Others were of a more technical nature, but the exchange of information at least helped students understand why things are as they are!

A group of highly motivated MEIS students asked if they could run some ‘mini projects’ of their own, mainly regarding enhancing communication. Since Easter they have been working on:

  • Creating an Alumni Network
  • Improving the information for prospective students on the website
  • Creating a FAQ page for prospective students
  • Interviewing students, former and current to identify other critical points
  • Inviting advice from former students to current students on employment prospects
  • Enhancing information about the School and its Programmes intended for the general public and future employers
  • Setting up an SIS Student Facebook page
  • Drafting a mini-guide to Studying at the SIS and in Italy for international students
  • Making a short video for the website

These projects, along with the students’ proposals for the MEIS itself, will be presented to all SIS students and staff at an open debate on 14th May entitled ‘Prepare to be aMEISed’.

Students’ views from Cluj, Babeş-Bolyai University, Romania

Cluj univAs a follow-up activity to the peer-to-peer student mentoring project proper, which engaged second-year mentors and first-year mentees, we organized a focus group with the second-year student mentors on April 4th, 2013.

Yellow, blue and green post-its were waiting patiently to be filled-in with the mentors’ expectations, disappointments (accompanied by suggestions for improvement), and pleasant surprises from the activity they had just completed. Honing one’s communicative skills, a heightened sense of responsibility, and living a new experience came top of the expectations list, as well as the prospect of making new, real friends – there is life beyond Facebook after all! Nostalgic stepping into a first year student’s shoes was also on the wishlist, as well as a genuine desire to practice altruism.

When hopes are high, some degree of disappointment is inevitable. We discussed what could be done to improve the schedule of the mentor-mentee meetings, to raise the mentees’ awareness regarding the way they relate to their mentors, with the possibility of selecting, at the beginning of the university year, those first-year students who are willing to be guided. Thus, the misperception of a yet-another-compulsory-activity would be avoided and the mentor would not feel his/her counselling position dangerously questioned.

Other issues concerning the mentors’ selection, the type of extra input needed from the teachers or/and the secretary office, so that a better structuring of the activities be achieved, triggered a lively debate. Its consensual and heartening conclusion was that no reward should be promised to the mentors, otherwise one cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. The student mentors were adamant about not allowing opportunists and “C.V. builders” to interfere with an activity which draws its strength from volunteering.

The good news is that, the answer to the final question, “Would you do it again?” was a unwavering “Yes”… provided their suggestions for improvement were taken into account. Had it been only a quick test of student mentor assertiveness, this argumented answer shows that a first lesson in critical thinking has been learned.

Iulia Bobaila,
Assistant Lecturer, Babeş-Bolyai University

News from the University of Deusto, Spain

Deusto univWe have been busy in Deusto since January.  Our idea for our project relates to Modern Language students’ participation in enhancing the quality of their own degree. We wanted to see why the students’ dissatisfaction with a number of aspects of their Bologna degree had not been detected by the feedback questionnaires sent to them at the end of the first and second semesters of the first two years of their studies. In order to do this we decided we would look into the various feedback questionnaires sent to different stakeholders and see the quality issues covered as well as those uncovered. Comparing these questionnaires with the questionnaires a group of students had produced themselves to get feedback from their classmates regarding the weaknesses of their degree would give us interesting information about the different meanings/dimensions of quality.  Accordingly, at the end of January we had a meeting with members of the quality unit to share with them the objectives of the project, ask for their approval and require a copy of all questionnaires sent to the different stakeholders. To our surprise we found out that the quality unit members had no objection to the project and to providing a copy of the various questionnaires. In February and March we analysed the different official questionnaires looking for the different quality dimensions and contrasted them with the unofficial questionnaire designed by the students; we also had several meetings with some students and with the head of department.   We are now contrasting the different dimensions on quality with the different stakeholders. The project is generating interesting interaction dynamics.

Mariluz Suárez Castiñeira,
Director of the Institute of European Studies, University of Deusto

Where has this year gone?

Workshops

The workshop has been developed by two of the partners (Universities of Jyväskylä & Deusto) and run in a number of different trial versions which have fed into a final version which will be run at the European Quality Assurance Forum conference in Estonia in November 2012. Following this a final version will be translated and uploaded to the SPEAQ website. These workshops have been very interactive and have proven to be a useful way of encouraging discussion among staff and/or students.

Data collection

To date the project has completed an initial data collection exercise through a series of student focus groups (facilitated by the European Students Union), meetings with institutional quality managers in the partner institutions and discussions with subject teachers in a range of disciplines, using a set of questions devised by the project team.

Synthesis reports

Three synthesis reports, summarising the results from all partners, have been prepared and some key emerging themes have been identified: a need for better communication around quality issues, improvements in the collection and use of feedback, more engagement of students in quality enhancement, increased opportunities for sharing good practice, professional development for teachers, applied learning (including employability), balancing teaching with research agendas, sharing and collaborating with others outside the institution. It has been encouraging to see that some of the core aims of this project are reflected in this data, these being to connect the three quality circles and to give voice to the views of all stakeholders in the quality process.

Meeting in Innsbruck

All the SPEAQ partners met in Innsbruck, Austria, for our second project meeting. It was a very productive encounter which generated lots of great ideas. Partners were able to exchange views and tips on activities that had already taken place, which proved crucial for the continuation of the project. And thanks to our Austrian partner’s brilliant organisation, we were even able to enjoy some of the delights that the Austrian city has to offer.

Conferences

Three presentations about the project have already been given at international conferences (Belgrade, Istanbul, Cluj-Napoca) with two more scheduled in November 2012 (Tallinn, Malta). Once the project activities have been completed and the results of the institutional projects evaluated an academic article will be written and submitted to an international journal.

Students: Do you have a voice within your university?

The student focus groups consisted of small group meetings led either by a student member of the European Students Union or by a staff member (where a student was not available). Participants were invited to respond to a number of questions relating to their learning experience, their understanding of the concept of quality in higher education and their influence (voice) in the quality process. The set of questions used with students was designed to encourage positive comments rather than complaints and a full list of questions is available on the SPEAQ website, some examples of which are given below:

  • What is the most rewarding learning experience you have had on your programme/course and why?
  • What makes your experience as a student a valuable one?
  • Do you have a voice within your university? Are you listened to? If so, how is your opinion heard/acted upon? Where is your voice heard? By whom?
  • What can you contribute to enhancing the learning experience?
  • Who are the quality managers in your institution?

Each partner submitted a summary of the main outcomes of their student focus group to the European Students Union which has produced a draft summary report of the key findings from each of the focus groups.

In all focus groups, communication is identified as an important element of a good institution. However, according to the participants in the discussions, communication is the most common problem. Students require better communication teacher-to-teacher, teacher-to-student, student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-administration through regular meetings, round table discussions etc. In addition to communication, students are looking for an opportunity to apply their learning.

In terms of their understanding of the quality processes within their institutions it was found that in general students do not know who the quality managers in their institutions are and there is considerable variation in the effectiveness of class representatives and students.

Finally, when asked about quality enhancement students appear to have ideas about how the learning process could be enhanced, but are not so creative when it comes to their personal involvement. 

The SPEAQ workshop: what does quality mean to you?

The workshop has been developed by two of the partners and run in a number of different trial versions which have fed into a draft version which will be run at the European Quality Assurance Forum conference in Estonia in November 2012. Following this a final version will be translated and uploaded to the SPEAQ website.

These workshops have been very interactive and have proven to be a useful way of encouraging discussion among staff and/or students. Participants are encouraged to explore quality from a number of perspectives and in many cases discussions have continued beyond the time allotted for the activity. It has clearly stimulated thinking about quality and feedback has shown that participants appreciated being given the opportunity to explore quality in this way (from their own perspective) and responses from students have been particularly enthusiastic. Some students were surprised to be asked about what they contribute to quality as they more usually think of themselves as consumers (receivers of quality) rather than having a role to play within it. Other participants gave suggestions for the projects to be carried out in the second year. Some examples are: supporting students in their first year of study and improving end of module/course feedback questionnaires. The workshop uses a dialogue sheet to stimulate discussion.

The workshop uses a dialogue sheet to stimulate discussion. This tool provides a focus for discussion with participants being asked to consider what questions they might ask to evaluate the quality of a number of everyday items and services. They are then asked to reconsider their questions in the context of higher education and decide on a set of questions which are useful for the purpose of evaluating quality in education. They are then encouraged to think about which questions might relate to their own experiences as student, teacher or administrator and discuss how they might answer them from their own perspective. This helps to relativise quality and to show that all participants have a role to play in quality assurance (and enhancement) and how similar or different these roles might be. As this workshop was quite experimental and was delivered in contexts (countries) with different working practices the way in which the dialogue sheet was used was adapted by each partner. The final workshop will try to take account of these differences and allow for adaptations.