Students, staff and change: academic developers as go-betweens

Vicky Davies, Roisin Curran

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The University of Ulster in recent years “has failed to maintain or improve on its satisfaction levels in relation to assessment and feedback and given gradual improvements in the UK sector, the variance between Ulster and the sector overall has increased in this area” (Ulster ADEC Committee, 2010), and assessment and feedback is elsewhere highlighted as a national concern (Bloxham & Boyd, 2007). In response, the University’s Centre for Higher Education Practice (CHEP) initiated a project which sought to address the issue on a practical level to make current procedures more efficient and effective. A working group comprising both staff and students was set up to examine existing practice regarding assessment and feedback, with a view to drawing up a set of guiding principles for the university as a whole. These were developed based on the Re-engineering Assessment Principles (REAP) (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Nicol 2009) and influenced by the work of CHEP’s then Visiting Professor, David Boud (Boud et al, 2009). A concurrent implementation plan was also devised which sought to engage local champions (staff) and students in a distributed leadership role. A number of useful and tangible outputs have been produced, such as the publication of the University’s Principles of Assessment and Feedback for Learning, formally launched in January 2012, and the Focus on Feedback student guide. Whilst useful reference products, the success of embedding their underlying ethos and values is far from assured, and has led to our questioning the validity of the original project scope and methodology, since on reflection it appears to encompass a “first-order change” (Earl, 2003), with only limited success. Whilst champions struggle with their role to inculcate a paradigm shift in colleagues’ attitude, the roll out of the student-centred initiative has similarly lacked structure and inclusivity. Despite all best efforts to bring together staff and student perspectives, there remains a significant mismatch in underlying beliefs, assumptions, practices and language. It is clear that the original project, although having some positive outcomes, has significant limitations and this we believe is to do with the divergence in staff/student perceptions, and the original timescale which did not allow for sufficient exploration thereof (Marchbank et al, 2003; Little & Fiennes 2008; Norton, 2012). It is our contention that thus far the project has sought to address the question which drove initial action, but has missed an important opportunity to initiate a “second-order change” (Earl, ibid.): a shift in cultural perception and practice which affects the way in which cultural change can be promoted within an institution (D’Andrea & Gosling, 2005). Our seminar discussion will explore: • how to motivate champions and instil confidence in their leadership; • how to further involve students as co-creators and partners in learning; • how to promote an institutional culture of change Furthermore this experience has encouraged us to explore the role that we as academic developers play within this potentially complex and difficult interplay of stakeholders (Roxå & Mårtensson, 2008; Healy et al, 2010; Bovill et al, 2011), to foster a “radical collegiality” (Bragg & Fielding, 2007).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationISL 2012
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Aug 2012
EventImproving Student Learning symposium 2012: Improving student learning through research and scholarship: 20 years of ISL - Lund Uinversity, Lund, Sweden
Duration: 29 Aug 201231 Aug 2012


ConferenceImproving Student Learning symposium 2012
Abbreviated titleISL 2012
Internet address


  • students
  • staff
  • Change
  • Academic developers


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