Croissants and Coffee: Engaging students and building a sense of community in the Department of Politics by Emma Mayhew

Last year I wrote all about the pedagogical value of cake in my seminars. This year I want to extend this notion and talk about the value of croissants and coffee as a means to encourage student engagement and develop further a sense of community in the department.

I knew from my experience with cake breaks that most students have a view on all aspects of their university experience-how their degree programme works, module choice, content, assessment, feedback, teaching and resources. I wanted to find more ways to get to these views because I wanted to understand the student experience more deeply from part 1 all the way through to the postgraduate level.

Politics Breakfast JanuarySo, together with part 3 student Florian Marcus, I decided to run a series of ‘breakfast liaison clubs’ within the department. Of course they weren’t really ‘breakfast’ clubs- they started at either ten or eleven in the morning- but we did provide free croissants, Danish pastries and orange juice. Because this was a joint staff-student initiative focused on finding out what students thought and engaging them in curriculum design, we were able to attract funding from the CQSD/RUSU Partnerships in Learning and Teaching Projects Scheme (PLanT).

We quickly learnt a number of key lessons-mini chocolate croissants are far more popular than plain croissants or jam Danish pastries but more importantly than that, even when you provide free food and drink not all students will turn up and those that do are typically highly engaged, high achieving and satisfied with their programme anyway.

The students who came did give us some great feedback that we could work with, mainly on contact hours, the nature and amount of assessment, e-submission and assignment feedback. These students did report that breakfast clubs were a great opportunity to talk to lecturers in a more informal setting, to get more advice on dissertations, on postgraduate studies and future careers. Florian and I were able to report all of our experiences at the first RUSU sponsored Partnership in Teaching and Learning Conference in March while Florian took the lead presenting at a PLanT T&L showcase in June.

Great, we thought, but there was something else that we needed to reflect on. We had identified early in the project design process that a useful offshoot might be that these kinds of events would be feeding into a sense of community within the department but actually, what was initially an accidental consequence, grew in importance as we moved through the project. By the end the importance of community building became as, if not more important than the idea of listening to students and engaging them in curriculum design. So as a result of this project we started to think about more natural, organic community building and the benefits that a stronger sense of community brings to all students, particularly those who need stronger support systems around them.

We had a few ideas on this but the introduction of Enhancement Week gave us the space in the academic calendar to actually do something. We’re delighted that we have been able to fully fund a number of trips next year to Parliament, the National Portrait Gallery and to the Imperial War Museum. In addition our new Part 1 students will enjoy six hours of team-building events, three of which will be run by a former military figure in the grounds surrounding HUMSS. And we’ve had lots more ideas. These, together with the continuation of our now famous seminar cake breaks, should all feed into an environment of student engagement and an even greater sense of supportive community within the department in the new academic year.

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