Students as academic partners

Dr Bryn Alexander Coles, Rebecca Fellows and Aksa Anwar on shifting identities in a Newman University scheme.

Dr. Bryn Alexander Coles

'Students as Academic Partners' (SAP) is exactly what it sounds like. Similar to the British Psychological Society's own Undergraduate Research Assistantship Scheme, the purpose of Newman University's SAP scheme is to provide funding for students to work alongside academic members of staff on novel research projects. Ideally, both student and staff member should be equally involved in the developing the project idea and putting together the grant application. The avowed aim of the scheme is to embed students into academic life, and to integrate them into the academic community at Newman University. Students benefit from being able to work as professional researchers on deeper and more involved research projects than they might otherwise experience, and with consummate positive effects on the students employability at the end of their degree (Cranmer, 2006; Reddy et al., 2013).  Staff benefit from being able to produce high-quality research while at the same time working closely with their student partners. As students are able to immerse themselves in the academic perspective, so too this presents academics an opportunity to immerse themselves in the student perspective. 

I approached two students whom I thought might be interested in working on a project with me. Aksa Anwar was a final year dissertation student I was already supervising. We realised that this SAP project would allow us to collect additional data for her project, developing the work sufficiently for publication. My second partner, Rebecca Fellows, was the student representative for the second year cohort. I approached Rebecca with only a nugget of a research idea, which she was very keen to help develop into a fully-fledged research project. 

The SAP projects were a glorious success in relation to their effect upon the self-perception of both staff and students. This effect might best be understood through reference to the Social Identity Perspective (SIP) (Hogg & Terry, 2000). As should be familiar to readers, the SIP posits that we gain our sense of ourself and who we are not only from the groups that we are members of, but from the interaction between groups we are members of, and the groups we are not (Tajfel, 2010). 

Taking that to heart the notion of our being 'equal partners', I decided to treat my fellows as I would any other academic, rather than treating them as students. Treated as fellow academics, rather than as students, I would expect my partners own social identities to change over the course of the projects life, and that students would move towards the classic ‘scientist-practitioner’ identity (Belar & Perry, 1992; Chwalisz, 2003; Hargreaves, 2007). Indeed, this is what I observed, witnessing a growth in my student academic partners self-confidence in their academic ability, in the independence of their work ethic, and in their comfort in their interactions with myself. 

But what of myself, and my own social identity? I felt a progression occur in stages. Treating my student partners as colleagues was supposed to affect them positively, and to my surprise, it affected me too. Most obviously, with both partners I felt a greater balance developing. We gradually moved from a hierarchical relationship in which my partners expected me to take the lead in the project to a very even-footed one in which we were all confident to contribute our opinions and perspectives. Cultivating this attitude was always my intention, and proved to be very rewarding.

I was also able to cultivate my own trust in my student partners. My confidence in allowing them to get on with the respective projects grew in accordance with their own academic self-confidence and independent work ethic. I feel it is especially interesting to note that this self-confidence and independence seemed to grow more through involvement in the SAP projects than it did through other aspects of the students course. 

I also felt a development of my own role too – from a position of authority based upon expertise to one of equality and balance as students became comfortable with me (and with telling me what to do!), with themselves, and with knowing what they want to do. Yet something remained of my superordinate position – the wisdom of experience. This manifested in being able to look beyond the immediacy of the looming deadlines (the dissertation hand in date, the SAP report deadline) and to look for other outputs and markers of achievement we could follow (one such is presenting results of the projects at the BPS West Midlands Branch conference) (Harrison, 2010). This worked well, as it allowed my student partners to focus upon the pragmatic aspects of the projects, while I pushed (and continue to push) for further achievements. Within these research teams, my leadership became that of leading as a member of the ingroup, sharing the same goals, aspirations and group-orientated behaviour as my student partners (Van Knippenberg & Hogg, 2003)

Yet there was another effect on my social identity too – a sense of a partial return to studenthood. As I engaged with my student partners, on the same terms as my student partners and indeed in allowing them to make key and leading decisions regarding the nature of the project and the direction it was taking, I felt a greater affinity with the student position. As deadlines loomed for data collection, to ensure we would have time to complete all necessary analysis followed by deadlines for submitting the final project I once again remembered the cold thrill of having so much to do in so little time and for someone’s external consumption. I feel that such a modification to my professional identity provides me with invaluable empathy with the student condition, while demonstrating / reinforcing the visceral point that we do not necessarily abandon the groups we have previously enjoyed membership of. Rather, as predicted / described by the SIP, as our contexts and the people we are affiliated with change, so too our salient group categorisation will change. This may move our social identity 'backwards' to a group membership long thought graduated from, as well as 'forwards' (which is not to say that backwards is necessarily a lesser social identity). 

In my opinion, involvement in the SAP project has provided a wealth of benefits to all those involved. Through this scheme, our academic institution increases its research output. We also increase the employability of our graduates, having equipped them with the skills, confidence, and knowledge to be able to plan, conduct and deliver their own research projects (Cranmer, 2006; Reddy et al., 2013). Our student partners gain greater autonomy, and have been able to develop their social identities towards the ‘research practitioner’ model of a professional psychologist (Belar & Perry, 1992; Chwalisz, 2003; Hargreaves, 2007). And I feel myself, as an academic to be closer to the 'coal face' of both research and the student experience.  Ironically, I feel my identity enhanced both professionally as an academic, and through a greater affinity with the student experience. I came to understand that the biggest difference between myself and my student research partners was that of ‘vision’. I was not solely focused on the immediate research outputs. Rather, I gazed dreamily upon what could be achieved with the data and reports afterwards. What was important was what came next, after the projects were completed. The experience has had a lasting effect upon my social identity, in allowing me to incorporate and internalise more roles into that of my ‘lecturer’ persona (Crosby & Harden, 2000), helping me move from being ‘an educator’ more firmly to a research-practitioner, someone who leads heutagogically from within rather than dictates from without (Hargreaves, 2007) – the mark of an effective educator (Rho, 2008). 

Rebecca Fellows

When applying for the ‘Student as Research Partners 2015’ (SAP) scheme at Newman University, as a second year student, the term ‘research partners’ presented apprehension. Studying Psychology as an undergraduate for the past two years has provided daunting challenges on both an academic, personal and professional level. When applying for this project, the prospect of moving from a 'student' social identity to one of a research partner seemed alien. Upon completing the SAP scheme, self-reflection has occurred naturally regarding the research process and I feel a change regarding my social identity is evident. Lairio, Puukari and Kouvo (2013) highlight that a student identity develops through the learning experience dependant on individual choices made; the interaction with opportunity and reflective activity. The SAP project experience has allowed me to develop my personal student identity through the interactions and challenging experiences it presented in a positive and constructive manner.

I began the SAP process as an undergraduate student, holding solely basic knowledge and experience in both quantitative and qualitative research. Furthermore, various extra-curricular roles were included in the make-up of my student identity including that of a Curriculum Representative and Peer Mentor. These group memberships were of importance at the beginning of the SAP project gave a range of identity resources upon which I would draw throughout the SAP project (Stets & Burke, 2000), and were of particular importance when considering my level of confidence within the project. My prior experience within these roles, of completing daunting projects, gave me both comfort and confidence in being able to reach the end of the project. Personally, the successful completion of the project and submission of the final report was set as my main goal. Furthermore, the SAP experience, along with my other group memberships, have presented engagement with academic practice external from the traditional lecture experience (Krause and Coates, 2008). The increased student-staff interaction lead to a change in my self perceived in-group membership, allowing me to cross intergroup boundaries between student and researcher (Crisp, Walsh & Hewstone, 2006), and providing a dynamic undergraduate learning experience.

Embarking on an unknown and new academic experience was my main source of apprehension. Based on my previous experiences of working with the academic staff, it was initially believed that the staff partner (Dr Alexander Coles) would be the ‘superior’ individual in the partnership due to his extensive knowledge and experience. When reading through the contract regarding the SAP project it became apparent that Alexander and I were expected to work together on equal footing, whereby Alexander would provide guidance where necessary. This concept of partnership seemed alien as this had not been experienced prior to the project. The main feeling, however, was excitement to gain the experiences the project proposed to provide a solid foundation for the third year dissertation and potential postgraduate study. In this sense, I still felt my social identity focused around my role as a ‘student’, as it was this experience and role which gave direction and meaning to my SAP experience. Despite being treated as an equal partner by Alexander, insecurities remained due to the apprehension of embarking on a professional piece of psychological research not contained within the degree assessments. The externalisation of the project from current academic studies emphasised the identity alterations whereby when working on the project I felt I embodied a 'researchers' identity rather than a 'students' identity (Grier & Johnston, 2012).

Throughout the process of the SAP project, change occurred whereby my prior ‘student’ identity grew more towards that of a ‘researcher’ identity. As time and experience progressed, the partnership became more balanced whereby I felt more confident that Alexander and I were of equal footing. The main reason for an increased level of comfort in the partnership evolved from the actions Alexander took in order to treat us as equals in the partnership. By treating me as a researcher, rather than as a student, Alexander helped to strengthen my growing professional identity. To exemplify, we discussed ideas, thoughts and feelings at regular intervals throughout the process whereby we communicated as two professionals rather that a professional and a student.

Throughout the process, a variety of milestones arose which variously managed to challenge or reinforce my new researcher identity. My personal confidence levels dropped when difficulties arose managing the balance between the SAP project, academic study and personal commitments. During the busy time periods, whereby the concept of balance was near impossible, stress levels were heightened and the project appeared overwhelming to a second year undergraduate. This difficulty was experienced by both Alexander and I; therefore where necessary we worked together to ensure the work load was balanced in accordance to each partner’s varying commitments. In reflection, the stressful time periods have presented a learning experience inaccessible to other students – even when conducting research projects as part of our degree studies. Time-management, communication and organisation were critical skills to ensure movement towards completion which were developed and utilised under intense pressure. On the other hand, the researcher identity was emphasised when the research was accepted to be presented via a poster at the British Psychological Society West Midlands Branch's Annual Conference (2015) (Harrison, 2010). This acceptance increased personal confidence and served to validate the research we had been conducting, as other professional academics showed interest and even excitement in our research. This really helped me feel attached to me developing professional identity. 

Completion of the SAP project, and submission of the final report project presented a mix of emotion. I felt a feeling of relief initially, due to the stress and the tight time constraints. On the other hand, pride overwhelmed me too, for what both myself and Alexander had achieved together as a research partnership. Upon submission, my confidence levels were greatly increased. The main goal of the project had been accomplished successfully. Furthermore, although Alexander was my research partner in the current context, Alexander’s continued treatment of me as a researcher, and his continued feedback on my development and submission was of high importance in retaining my new found confidence, pride and social identity. Furthermore, while I still feel I currently possess a primarily student identity, this identity has developed into hybrid student/researcher identity, due to my new found skill base and experience. I anticipate that my future experience in research projects, for example through the final year dissertation, will test my researcher identity externally from the SAP project and its research team.

In future I shall aim to continue to develop my student identity through group membership and experience on future projects. To conclude, I believe the SAP project has been extremely beneficial for all involved whereby the experience of working with an academic member of staff has been a challenging and rewarding learning experience. As a second year student the project has provided skill development in preparation for final year studies and future career progression including communication, confidence and reflective skills. Importantly, the completion of the main goal has embodied belief into the student identity which was absent prior to the project. Consequently, this belief will reflect in the self-determination to reach the personal goal of chartered psychologist entitlement.

Aksa Anwar

In the final year of my undergraduate degree, my tutor and myself became involved in the Students as Academic Partners (SAP) programme, alongside my degree studies. For me, the SAP project provided an opportunity to extend my dissertation research, collecting and analysing additional data in order to create a more complete, more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon I was interested in. This meant that I was familiar with methods of collecting data and did not feel like the project would be much different to my dissertation. Therefore, I considered this project as a method to assist in developing my student identity and moving towards considering myself as a professional academic. Once I began working on the project I began to move away from my identity as a student (Pratt et al., 2006). I was now more reluctant to ask for assistance before I had attempted a task for myself and felt I had exhausted all options. Although I found that I was usually able to independently apply the learning from my dissertation to the project I had not confidently embraced the scientist-practitioner identity (Belar & Perry, 1992; Chwalisz, 2003). I looked for assurance and guidance from Alexander. I found myself conducting additional independent research ahead of our meetings, in an attempt to address this perceived deficit. 

I felt a change in my identity from being a student once I had completed and handed my dissertation in as this was the final deadline for my undergraduate degree. I now began to feel more like a researcher as I was working on additional data that I had collected alongside the data for my dissertation.

Though I now felt more confident about my capabilities, I still felt that I needed advice and guidance on certain aspects of the report with Alexander. However, there was no expectation of being graded on effort or work by him. Rather, there was now an expectation for us both to deliver a research report with potential to be published, and to be reviewed by senior members of the University. While I felt extremely nervous about this, I also found that it further focussed my attention towards the project report. This also helped me further shift my position from 'student' to 'researcher'  (Grier & Johnston, 2012). I felt that I was contributing equally with Alexander. I was able to give suggestions and direction for the project rather than only following instruction (Kasworm, 2010).

The final SAP meeting really helped to fix new researchers identity. This meeting was a lot more informal, and took place after the deadline of my dissertation – when I had only the SAP project to work on. I was again complemented for the workload and scale of my project. A further boost came when I was accepted for the BPS West Midlands Branch annual conference. Being accepted for the conference made me feel that my research was a valid and real piece of academia. I no longer considered myself as a student any more. I was sure that I was a researcher at this point (Harrison, 2010; Kasworm, 2010).

I feel that I have a transitional identity now, as I am a postgraduate student but don't feel the same as I did as an undergraduate. I have engaged with the research process, and acquired new responsibilities and abilities, bringing with them new roles and self-categorisations such as a student rep for fellow part-time students in the class (Stets & Burke, 2000).  Similar to how Berzonsky and Kuk (2000) describe the difficulty students face in transitioning towards the university context, I now struggle to transition within the university context – from 'undergraduate' to 'postgraduate', with a flavour of 'researcher' thrown in for good measure. 

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