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Published Date

11th April 2017

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Ulster University was one of 13 institutions involved in the Change Programme which sought to improve the strategic approach to the engagement, belonging, retention and success of first year students through the implementation of interventions in the areas of induction, active learning and co-curricular activities in seven selected discipline areas.

Central to the What Works? Model, Thomas (2012) is the positioning of student engagement and ‘belonging’ at the heart of improving student retention and success.

One of the key principles of the Change Programme, is that students should be actively involved in not just the identification of areas for enhancement but also the identification and implementation of the solution.



Dr Roisin Curran

Project Description

In recent years, awareness of the benefits of student-staff partnerships across the UK and beyond has increased with many institutions promoting practices which shift from a transmission mode of learning to an interactive collaborative ethos where all participants, i.e. staff and students each contribute to, and benefit from learning situations (Cook-Sather et al., 2014; Crawford et al., 2015; Curran & Millard, 2015; Healey et al., 2014).

However, there can still be reluctance or a capacity deficit on the part of both staff and students on adopting a partnership approach, and as Healey, Flint & Harrington (2014) highlight ‘that the understandings of the impact of partnership work – for students, staff, institutions, society more broadly – remain relatively poor, and there is a need for a greater evidence base around the benefits of partnership’.

This case study provides the basis for demonstrating how staff-student partnership as an ethos creates a more favourable learning environment in which individual learning is optimised by developing student capacity to engage and staff capacity to be engaging.


The focus of this case study is to explore the impact of a staff-student partnership approach in an institutional-wide Change Programme (2012-2015), What Works? Student Retention & Success, (SRS) aimed at improving student retention and success.

Evaluation Approach

In order to better understand the ‘lived experience’ of working in partnership and how it impacts on the individuals involved, one-to-one hour-long semi-structured interviews (n=14) were conducted with staff (n=7) and students (n=7).  Trigger questions were used (see table 2) and the interviews were recorded, transcribed and analysed using a six-stage approach to qualitative data analysis as detailed by Braun and Clarke (2008).

Evidence of Impact

One of the most transformative outcomes of staff student partnership can be realised through the increase in student motivation and the knock-on effect on their peers, as one student commented:

There is an idolisation of professors as experts especially for a first year student. With our programme in particular the large number of course representatives involved in staff-student partnerships has meant that it has translated into a lot more questions being asked in the classroom.  It rubs off on the other students – when they hear questions being asked, it gives them confidence to speak up?  In the past there would only be 30 seconds of questions, now it could be up to 20 minutes and I think it’s down to the barriers being broken down. After the first meeting, there seemed to be a whole change in the class. (S6, M,1)

This is an important consideration in terms of the potential of partnership working for the engagement of all students and one that must be considered in terms of sustainability.

Reflective Commentary

Reflections on supporting academic colleagues and students to engage in staff student partnerships, and drawing on the data presented presents a convincing evidence-base that a partnership approach provides a learning opportunity for both staff and students –where each can see things from the others’ perspective and the barriers to learning can be reduced.  It is not suggested that staff-student partnership is a panacea for all the challenges with ‘engaging students’ but it is enabling in terms of motivating students to engage and prompting staff to create learning climates based on trust and shared responsibilities.

The changes in attitude and behaviour by both staff and students is potentially very powerful and can contribute to a change in culture if it can be adopted more widely throughout the institution. It is also desirable to think about partnership in terms of ‘engagement through partnership’ where the engagement is for all students, rather than the engagement of some already ‘super-engaged’ students.


This research has informed the development of the Ulster Student Learning Experience Principles, in particular, Principle 1; the Ulster Learning Model. These are due to be launched in January 2016 and it is envisaged that staff will use these to inform on-going curriculum design and delivery.  In addition, a Guide for Staff and Students on Engagement through Partnership has been developed which draws on this research and an evidence base of effective practice across the Ulster What Works Change Programme.  Practical recommendations for staff and students are outlined which promotes partnership working for the engagement of all students. This Guide is available on the Student Engagement pages of the CHERP website.



This case study was part of a three-year What Works? Student Retention & Success Change Programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, co-ordinated by the Higher Education Academy (now, Advance HE), and Action on Access.

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