Reflections on a staff/student research partnership

A blog by Sophia Lambert (MA graduate, School of History, 2022) and Rachael O’Connor (Associate Professor, School of Law).

This blog follows on from a presentation made by Sophia and Rachael at the 2022 Student Success Conference, where they explored their shared and diverse experiences of working together on a student-focussed research project during the summer of 2022.

Sophia’s reflections

Working with Rachael this Summer as a Student Research Experience Intern to finalise the reverse mentoring scheme was a fantastic opportunity to explore my sense of under-representation as a mixed-race, first-generation university student from a deprived area in South Yorkshire. 

Through my discussions with Rachael, I used my experiences as an under-represented student and Rachael’s findings from Phase One of her LITE project to establish the scheme’s aims. For example, some under-represented students can feel isolated at university because they can’t see anyone whom they can identify with. Therefore, we decided that two of the scheme’s main aims should be to create a community of under-represented students and provide a platform for participants to share their experiences and opinions.

During my internship, I also conducted my own primary research into academic personal tutoring (APT). I had three main motivations for my research project: to better understand APT in my faculty (Arts, Humanities and Cultures), to hear students’ suggestions about how we could improve APT, and to better understand the barriers to student engagement with APT. It also was important for me to give students a voice by using their suggestions to shape the content of the reverse mentoring scheme (Phase 2 of Rachael’s LITE project).

I interviewed 16 Undergraduate and Postgraduate students from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures. It was important to me to include a range of perspectives and experiences of APT, so I recruited students who had yet to build a relationship with their tutor, those with little contact with their tutor, and those who self-identified as under-represented.

The conversations I had with the students were extremely insightful, and I also felt that some of my experiences were reflected in what they told me, making me feel a lot less isolated. Some of my research findings really surprised me. For example, I expected everyone’s experiences of APT to have been negatively impacted by their sense of under-representation. However, some students said that their tutor listened to them and expressed a willingness to learn about the challenges and barriers they face due to their sense of under-representation.

One of the main themes that arose from my interviews was that students felt that APT was too formal, which caused a barrier between staff and students. Therefore, Rachael and I ensured that we created a relaxed and informal environment during the reverse mentoring scheme for example, by suggesting that participants should meet in a café on campus to create a level playing field, avoiding academic offices.

Although I found the conversations very informative, I found this part of the project emotionally draining at times because of the sensitive issues students raised around issues including racism and mental health. Therefore, I would recommend carefully considering the researcher’s own wellbeing when designing a project similar to this, as well as that of the participants.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on the project with Rachael. It’s fantastic that we’re going to see some meaningful changes at the University following the reverse mentoring scheme, and the future is looking bright!

Rachael’s reflections

I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to work with Sophia to further refine and develop my LITE project: Using reverse mentoring to explore academic personal tutoring in partnership with students who self-identify as under-represented.

Phase 1 of the project was a year long process which involved interviews with staff who have the role of APT Lead in Schools and Faculties across campus, as well as working with a team of 15 students from across campus who self-identify as under-represented to co-design a staff/student reverse mentoring scheme (Phase 2) (the student consultation team). Sophia joined me at the end of Phase 1 as a student who also identifies as under-represented. This was important as it meant right from the outset, Sophia has a vested interest in the project and, although her sense of under-presentation was and remains unique to her, she had a shared identity with the other project members on some level. This enabled Sophia to make a really valuable and authentic contribution to the final design of the project which is now running in Phase 2.

I want to reflect on the importance of that here. Often, when academic staff members are looking for student research assistants or interns, they may think only about skills. Can you conduct a literature review? Can you analyse data? Can you write up reports? Of course, these things may be vital to the success of a project. However, I strongly believe that in projects such as mine, that are about people, about equality and about changing things for the better, it is imperative that student researchers are invested in the values of the project too, just as much as the staff leading it. Whilst there were many very good applications for this intern role, Sophia’s passion for making a difference and for ensuring all students have equivalent opportunities came across strongly. She shared her own experiences of under-representation coming from a low-income household as a mixed race female and had thought about how she would apply these experiences to the project (and she did so brilliantly throughout our time working together).

I believe that Phase 2 of the project (the staff/student reverse mentoring scheme) has benefitted hugely from Sophia’s input. She supported me to analyse data and findings from the student consultation team. She helped me to see a different perspective on ideas and potential for how ideas could be translated into practice. The independent primary research Sophia undertook also contributes to the University’s understanding of student experiences of APT, particularly around issues of non-engagement as an under-represented student. It was clear from the impressive number of responses to interview requests Sophia gathered even during the summer break that her authenticity and connection with the project was a huge asset.

I’m so pleased that since the project, we’ve been able to present together at several conferences and Sophia has also supported me with editing a journal article about Phase 1 of the project. I take Sophia’s reflections about wellbeing very seriously and have learned a lot from discussing this with her – I recognise now that the risk of this is increased when we really embed student researchers into project like this and they are potentially exposed to distressing reflections from fellow students. The criticality of being a supportive and authentic supervisor in these circumstances cannot be underestimated. Making clear from the outset and regular reminders throughout the relationship that your door is always open are vital. 

I really encourage colleagues and others working with students as research assistants to think about their project values and the importance and potential benefits of students feeling embedded into and part of the project personally, rather than just being on the periphery and helping with research based tasks. There is real benefit to making these values an explicit part of the recruitment process when advertising roles and in interviews for roles. It’s in this shared space of understanding, empathy and common desires to make change that change can really happen and mutually insightful staff/student relationships can blossom, like the one that Sophia and I share.