Evelien Bracke describes a project designed to raise academic aspirations among students at Swansea.
How do you encourage students to reach for academic excellence? In spite of academics providing constructive feedback on each assessment, it is rare that students significantly outperform their average achievement, and many find they get stuck in the 2.1 category. Discussions with undergraduates suggest that often such students do not know what an outstanding piece of work looks like.
It was this issue which led me to set up Gorffennol, the Swansea History and Classics online student research journal. I had heard of – and looked into – other such journals (e.g. Trinity Saint David and Sussex) and thought it would be interesting to adapt their format to help raise our students’ understanding of academic excellence and thereby raise their aspirations to reach for it themselves. Peer learning is a valid way of complementing learning from staff feedback on an individual basis.
I set certain conditions: assignments need to attain more than 70% to be published, and we want a good spread between different years (from year 1 to MA) as well as a mix of all our subject areas (Egyptology, Ancient History, Classics, Medieval History, Early Modern History, and Modern History). We decided on the name Gorffennol – which, in Welsh, means ‘Past’ – as it was a means to unify the various parts of our department while establishing our place in the Welsh educational context.
I received start-up funding from the Swansea Academy of Learning and Teaching to develop a one-year pilot, with ten student editors proofreading the essays. I decided to publish two issues per academic year, as well as a blog, with blog posts written by both staff and students from our department. It creates a sense of unity and continuity in our department’s research culture.
It is too early to notice any quantitative impact on student marks, but qualitatively it is definitely having a noticeable impact. Undergraduate students are starting to understand their own work in terms of research and students are proud to submit assignments. Moreover, the editorial team comprises students from all levels and subject areas in our department, and their collaboration has increased the unity in a department with a range of different areas of expertise. It is not just about showcasing excellence, but also about raising student employability and sharing the contributors’ success. One of the contributors recently told me an employer he had an interview with used the essay he had published in Gorffennol as discussion point.
This year we are also publishing the first of a series of special issues: outstanding undergraduate dissertations, again from the full range of subjects, will be published as one issue. For the future, we are planning to publish postgraduate dissertations as special issues, and organise an undergraduate research conference.
For any department considering setting up a subject-specific student research journal, be aware of the initial staff input and organisation that is required: not only regarding concept and formatting, but also management of students and liaison with colleagues. Even when you take a step back and let students take ownership, it is still important to make sure the students feel supported in their venture, and can consult with staff on a regular basis.
Gorffennol can be found here: http://gorffennol.swansea.ac.uk/. A student report on the launch, and the powerpoint of the presentation, can be found here: http://gorffennol.swansea.ac.uk/?p=330. The second issue is expected in January 2016. You are welcome to email Evelien Bracke (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any queries about Gorffennol.