How A Student Shadow Board Can Support A Learning Community

Higher education has undergone tremendous change in the last year and a half. The student experience might be permanently altered to some degree, and yet, how involved have students been in co-developing what will become the ‘new normal’? In this blog, Dr Stéphane Farenga shares how the application of meaningful co-participation theory has led to new practice in his academic school and the establishment of an innovative Student Shadow Board. This staff-student partnership is resulting in deeper student involvement and co-working with staff in fostering an inclusive learning community.
In an earlier blog, I wrote about how Participatory Pedagogy had the power to really change student engagement. In essence, platforms could be established to counter inequalities in the student experience by embracing a more equal, democratic relationship between staff and students. Three principles (co-participation, sharing of knowledge, co-creation of new knowledge) are used to elevate students to experts in order to avoid deficit models and confront hegemonic practices and knowledge, such as modes of teaching, assessment and support. This allows students from under-represented backgrounds to reflect on inequalities in experience, offer purposeful responses and co-develop meaningful policies and practices to enhance their experience.
This past academic year (2020/21), I used these principles and approach to create a Student Shadow Board—the first of its kind at the University of Hertfordshire. The Student Shadow Board (hereafter, ‘the Board’) centres on shared decision-making, responsibility and negotiation for teaching, learning and student experience matters[1]. The Board’s vision is to be a collaborative, reciprocal platform between staff and students, through which all participants can contribute equally to scrutinising decision-making affecting the student journey[2]. The Board is underpinned by the following beliefs about why involving students in shared decision-making is important[3]:
  • Students should have a say in their experience
  • Students can contribute to teaching, learning and student experience matters
  • Students are a diverse group and HLS must recognise this by listening to diverse voices
  • Students will learn new knowledge and skills through participation
  • When students influence their experience, it makes it more relevant and fosters belonging

The Board’s scope is to function as a non-executive style board and operate in parallel to senior committees. It scrutinises relevant ‘student experience’ agenda items, student experience action plans and data (i.e. NSS and awarding gaps) to ensure student voice is fed into those groups’ decision-making.

Students who applied to the Board are representative of the wider student body demographics and come from different degree programmes and levels. Topics covered in monthly Board meetings included: wellbeing, welfare, academic and career support; awarding gaps and the action plans produced to reduce them; how students are communicated with; periodic review of degree programmes.

The Board has attracted attention for its ability to engage under-represented students who might otherwise be marginalised by executive decision-making affecting the student experience. It has challenged perceptions that some data or strategy should be beyond the realm of students’ influence. For example, awarding gap data and how universities are dealing with these are considered potential tinder boxes for fear of students expressing disappointment or anger at unequal outcomes. By tapping into those Participatory Pedagogy principles listed above (co-participation, sharing of knowledge, co-creation of new knowledge) and embracing the Board’s vision and purpose (collaborative, reciprocal platform between staff and students to equally scrutinising decision-making), students were able to understand sensitive awarding gap data, the context of these gaps, how and why action plans had been developed and their expected rollout. In this example, feedback from the Board has already led to new plans for how awarding gaps might be communicated to the wider student body and how further student feedback could sought.

The Board has also left a strong impression on its student members, highlighting increased trust between students and institution, and a greater of sense that student voice is relevant:

“I really like [the] set up and that it’s big on student voice, that we are being given opportunities to speak out, to have a conversation with other students and staff members regarding issues, that we are involved in the changes that are happening in the School. You do feel your opinion, your voice matters […] I’ve seen a lot of change since we started.”

For more information on how the Board is being implemented, please contact Stéphane:

Post by Dr Stéphane Farenga - Director of Student Participation and Success, University of Hertfordshire


[1] Bovill, C. (2020) Co-creating Learning and Teaching: Towards Relational Pedagogy in Higher Education. St Albans: Critical Publishing Ltd. [2] Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C. and Felten, O. (2014) Engaging Students As Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey bass. [3] Bron, J., Bovill, C., Van Vliet, E. and Veugelers W. (2016) “Negotiating the Curriculum”: Realizing Student Voice. The Social Educator: Journal of the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia, 34: 39-54.
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