A Review of STEM Annual Conference 2012

Nearly a full year ago now, I attended the Higher Education Academy STEM 2012 conference in London.  I wrote a review for the HEA travel fund scheme and have been prompted to post it here by @hannahbubble who found a paper on employability and volunteering by Rachel Bromnick and colleagues from the University of Lincoln.  I was present in the audience for Rachel’s talk and had included her volunteering scheme in the review I wrote.  Posting my review on here now, a year later, is perhaps quite timely as the STEM 2013 conference is coming up in April.  Also, I have recently started to participate in discussions around what can be done to facilitate the transition from college to university study with A Level Psychology lecturers – a topic of much debate at the STEM 2012 conference.

A Review of STEM Annual Conference 2012

Jenna Condie

On March 13th 2012, I attended Day Two of the Higher Education Academy’s STEM2012 Annual Conference.  In comparison to other disciplines and given that the British Psychological Society was a sponsor, Psychology attendees seemed to be under-represented at the event.

I have identified three key themes, which emerged from Psychology sessions and a Computer Science workshop that I attended, and also through discussions with other attendees:

  1. Managing student expectations, and in turn, NSS scores;
  2. Student employability;
  3. Becoming critical thinkers.

In this review, I discuss the three themes and then argue that the need for students to reflect about themselves and their progress underpins and ties the three issues together.

1.       Managing student expectations, and in turn, NSS scores

Addressing National Student Survey satisfaction ratings overarched many of the presentations given and discussions between conference attendees.  Carolyn Mair (Southampton Solent University) presented her research on encouraging students to develop their metacognitive skills in order to encourage more realistic expectations of themselves and their progress with assignments.  Prior to metacognitive training sessions, students tended to be over-confident in their predictions of the grade they would achieve.  After metacognitive training sessions, students were found to hold more realistic expectations of themselves. Carolyn linked this to the possibility that the more students are encouraged to develop realistic expectations (of their course, of lecturers, and of themselves), more realistic satisfaction ratings on the NSS will be given.   The discussion which followed Mair’s presentation revolved around the more we encourage students to reflect about their own thinking and their own learning, the better their experience of university will be.

2.       Student employability  

Increasing students’ employability and readiness for the work place was discussed by Rachel Bromnick from the University of Lincoln.  She introduced an optional module for students called the ‘Learn Higher Award’ (15 credits).  Students had to do 40 hours volunteering throughout the year and then chose which method of assessment they would like to be assessed on (e.g. interview, portfolio, essay etc).  A student from the University of Lincoln also attended the conference and gave his thoughts on the module, highlighting that the benefits of volunteering as a student go beyond readiness for the workplace.  Discussions revolved around how the experience of volunteering or any work experience opportunity are advantageous for personal development and developing psychological literacies.  Students who participated in the optional module also gained the opportunity to develop their professional identities and additional skills that set them apart in the graduate job market.    Other discussions revolved around students having a narrow view of what constitutes relevant work experience for Psychology and the need for students to keep an open mind, and apply their psychology skills in a wide range of contexts.

Within a workshop on encouraging students to use LinkedIn with Thomas Lancaster (Birmingham City University), student employability and creating a professional online identity were raised as increasingly important issues for a digital society.   Thomas uses LinkedIn with computer science students who use the network successfully to identify and secure placements and further work opportunities.  The benefits of creating an online portfolio could also enable the self-reflection Mair called for in her work.

3.        Becoming critical thinkers

The issue of A-levels not preparing students for university study was also a key theme.  Ian Wells (University of East London) talked about his first year module “Thinking like a Psychologist” which was designed to address students’ inability to think critically when they arrive at university.  Rather than learning new skills, Ian argued that some things need unlearning.  The ability to think critically could also link to the self-reflection and students’ expectations.  He advised not to call a module “critical thinking skills” as students do not respond well to the term.  He is aiming to develop an online database of resources for critical thinking skills and invited attendees to collaborate with him on this endeavour.

The Need to Reflect

The issue of students needing to reflect on themselves and their activities filtered through the presentations and workshops I attended.  There seems to be a need to encourage students to talk about their ambitions and expectations by providing more opportunities to self-reflect, opportunities to develop their employability and work-related skills, and by becoming critical thinkers.  Additionally, from the LinkedIn workshop, being part of the network and connecting with one another enabled students to see what others are doing and how they fared with the “competition”.  Creating a professional profile on LinkedIn encouraged students to reflect about themselves and their career ambitions.  Students were also connecting to staff, which was thought to develop a better understanding of each other, which in turn, could lead to a better student (and staff) experience.

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