OPINION: Community-based opportunities enhances students’ academic experience

Posted on: 22 February 2022

At Student Hubs, part of our broad data collection involves collating and analysing our mid-year feedback, providing a snapshot of our impact in-year, what the differences are to the previous year, and allowing us to develop and shape our approach for the following term. This also means we’re able to be agile in the delivery of our work, developing and shaping our approaches for the following term without waiting for the end of the academic year.

You can see our recently released 2020-21 Impact Report for a fuller picture of what we collect, but our mid-year feedback has shown a significant increase in one key measurement which we wanted to explore further: how involvement in Hub activities by students enhanced their engagement with their university course. We thought it would be useful to reflect on the increase in this figure, the comments students left with their feedback, and what this might mean for the sector.

We saw 42% of students agreeing that participating in their Hub activity enhanced their engagement with their university course in our mid-year end of programme impact forms. The type of activities students participated in are varied: they include our range of volunteering projects (e.g. tutoring in schools, leading activity days for young people, engaging older residents in communities) or our skilled placements, where students are trained to act as consultants for local community organisations and present solutions to challenge briefs they share at the end of a termly project.

2020-21 was the first year we began collecting responses to this question, and in that year we saw 33% of students agreeing that engaging with their Hub activity had enhanced their engagement with their university course. We were pleased with this data, but without any additional space for comments, we were missing context for these responses.

This year, we have updated our impact forms to ask for students’ responses to this question, which enables us to dive deeper into their thoughts when completing this section. As shared above, 42% of students agreed that participating in their Hub activity enhanced their engagement with their university course, with 13% of respondents disagreeing, and the other 45% neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the statement.

So what did students have to say about how their involvement in their volunteering project or skilled placement supported their engagement with their university course? We saw three key comments and reflections that were shared.

The opportunity supported their skills which enhanced their academic experience

We saw many comments about how the students’ activity enabled them to develop skills, which is a core part of our theory of change (pictured below) and our methodology in designing student activities. Students cited project management, time management, their research and analytical skills, their teamwork, confidence and communication skills as benefits they had received from their activity which they may not otherwise have developed from their university course alone.

Theory of Change

Many reflected that volunteering provided a practical way for them to apply the theory and skills learnt from their course, which meant they could take their experiences and reflections back into their academic work.

“Volunteering did help me build social skills, problem solving skills, leadership skills, organizational skills, coordination/communication and time management skills. These are a few essential skills for me as I am currently studying Business Administration course and aim to be an entrepreneur.”

“I study psychology and take modules surrounding education and childhood so it was interesting when I would note things mentioned in class being applied to real life settings.”

Having a variety of experiences at university enables students to channel more energy into their course

Many students commented about how finding a balance of activity between their studies and their opportunity actually enabled them to feel more enthusiastic and dedicated to their studies. Taking part in their activity gave the students a new perspective to their course, and helped them to plan their lives outside of their studies.

“It gave me extra motivation to pursue my goals, hence I’m studying harder.”

“Volunteering has enabled me to give myself more of a schedule and a routine, and by having time focusing on something other than university work, I feel more enthusiastic about my studies when I return to that.”

“The programme has motivated me to follow a more organised routine in terms of studies. I also feel more accomplished at the end of the week after my sessions and that I have contributed to the students’ studies positively [as part of our school tutoring programme, Schools Plus], which also motivates me to be further engaged with my course.”

Belonging and wellbeing enhancements through the activity enabled students to get more from their university course and overall university experience

At Student Hubs, we believe that a focus on wellbeing and belonging is vital for the enjoyment and engagement students have during our opportunities, and its importance in university experience for students is one of the key reflections from the Student Futures’ Commission’s recent body of work.

We have been collecting data on wellbeing and belonging for several years, with our 2020-21 impact data showing that 84% of students agreed their wellbeing had been enhanced through participation in their Hub activity, and 66% of students agreeing they feel a sense of belonging in their local community.

This means it’s not surprising to us that we see students commenting about the relationship between wellbeing and belonging through participation in our opportunities, and how this related to their engagement in their academic studies.

“It has impacted my wellbeing in a good way and given me more confidence in my studies.”

“Being on the committee helped me feel more confident socializing with people after the awkwardness of the pandemic, so when lectures started being in-person again it was easier to connect with people on my course and feel a sense of belonging.”

“It made me feel that I was doing something beneficial and helped me settle into the community better.”

What does this mean for the sector?

In my work as Partnerships and Development Director for Student Hubs, I often have conversations about how volunteering, placements and community-based learning can provide positive and surprising outcomes for students.

Student Hubs has run volunteering opportunities for students for nearly 15 years, and whilst we know the immense benefits, we also know how challenging the term ‘volunteering’ is. Many do not see the benefits of it, or think it’s a nice to have for students privileged enough to get involved, but not taken very seriously.

Our stance continues to be that community-based opportunities for students has to be a priority as we move forward, now more than ever. Our five values at Student Hubs are bold, ambitious, social, motivational and long-term: we need all of these values if we are going to commit to the work of mainstreaming these type of activities for students, as we know how valuable students find them, and how much students stand to gain from a community-based approach. We want to create future leaders and active citizens through our programmes, and students who are imbued with the values we have at Student Hubs could make a significant difference in their communities, their careers, and in how they continue to engage with social and environmental challenges.

However, to enable all students to benefit from these opportunities, more has to be done to reach those who may struggle to reach community-based opportunities at this time. This includes embedding this approach into the curriculum, breaking down the barriers to engagement for volunteering, and supporting the confidence of students to take part in placement-based opportunities which may feel challenging and unfamiliar. All of this and more encompasses the university experience for students and future graduates, and taking a bold approach with what participation looks like (both across academic engagement and extracurricular engagement) is what is needed to spark the change and development we need for students in higher education to become truly active citizens.

About this report and data collection

Our mid-year feedback reached 24% of our student volunteers this term. This evaluation is based on outputs and outcomes data collected throughout the academic year from August 2021 to January 2022. The evaluation included: monthly outputs monitoring throughout the academic year; data collected from outcomes surveys of student participants in programmes at local Hubs. Please note, all percentage figures have been rounded to the closest whole figure.

If you would like to find out more about how Student Hubs can support with your university reaching this vision, whether through our Hub model, our consultancy or training and webinar opportunities, please get in touch with Fiona Walsh at fiona.walsh@studenthubs.org. We would love to have a conversation about our work, the benefits we see for students in supporting community-based volunteering, skilled placements and in-curricular activities, and what support your staff and students need to reach a university experience which will best equip them for their future careers.

Fiona Walsh

Fiona is Student Hubs' Partnerships and Development Director. She leads on university sales, alumni and corporate fundraising, marketing strategy and external relations. Fiona started her social action journey as a student volunteer with Southampton Hub.

Tags: Community, Higher Education, Impact, Opinion

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