“Students are now at the centre of what we do” Clare Hardman, Academic Skills Manager
By: Polly Wallace-Kruger
Last updated: Friday, 11 December 2020
The Connector Programme is a way for students at Sussex to inspire and actively make change at the University, developing leadership, teamwork and communication skills – and getting paid at the same time. Student Connectors work in partnership with staff to find strategies and implement ideas that will enhance student life in different ways. The aim is for Sussex to better represent students and provide what they really want and need at university.
Meet Clare Hardman, Academic Skills Manager in the Careers and Employability Centre and Georgia Shakeshaft, Media Studies student and Academic Skills Connector. In this interview, Clare describes how the CEC is working with Connectors to improve academic skills support at Sussex and Georgia explores co-creating with staff and how the role has improved her confidence.
Connector Programme: Tell us about your Connector work – what does it focus on?
Clare Hardman (Academic Skills Manager): We have been involved with the Connector Programme since it was first set up in September 2019. The project came along at a good time for us, just as we were looking for ways to reshape our academic skills offer for students and we wanted student involvement in that process.
The Connectors have helped us to make big changes in our delivery. For example, we are now able to focus more on embedding academic skills and the Connectors have helped us to update training for staff on teaching academic skills and to develop a new Teaching Academic Skills Canvas site for staff. Another big change is that our Connectors are leading on creating peer-to-peer skills resources. For example, this term they launched a new Academic Skills Podcast series for first-year students. They share their own tips, signpost to resources on Skills Hub, and interview colleagues for specialist advice (all accessed via the Academic Skills Resources Canvas site for students).
Georgia Shakeshaft (Student Connector): I work with the Academic Skills Team in the library to create events and resources for students to support them academically at Sussex. The main purpose of my role is to ensure that the team is creating things that students really need, in the way that they want to receive them – which I know from speaking to peers and from my own experience during my three years at university. Another massive part of my role has been both in the creation and improvement of resources – on the website and the Academic Skills Canvas site - which has been especially important as we made the transition to online events and blended learning. On top of my primary role I also do a lot of other Connector projects which is great as I get to be involved with other areas of the university and work with new people.
Connector Programme: What is the co-creation relationship between students and staff like, on The Connector Programme?
Clare: In the Academic Skills Team we work with students a lot. In addition to teaching academic skills we run training for Student Mentors and we frequently consult students via focus groups and surveys. However, the Connector Programme is a new way of working for us.
We are employing students to join our team and our Connectors really care about the work that they are doing for us and they are invested in it. Previously in our student consultations students have contributed great ideas but they didn’t get to implement them. The Connectors can suggest ideas, then either work with us to develop their own ideas or, for example, if an idea is too costly, we can discuss this and come up with alternative solutions.
Another aspect of the Connector Programme is that the students who are employed are part of a much bigger team of Connectors, and this means that they have peer support and can work together to make changes at Sussex and improve the experience for other students.
Georgia: I have loved working with staff in the Academic Skills Team. They’ve always shown a real willingness to learn from us and for them to teach us. There is just a great acknowledgement of how valuable the student contribution can be – we really feel like part of the team rather than just a student focus group. We watch our suggestions play out in real time – and we get to be a part of the whole process; it’s truly collaborative.
“We get to be a part of the whole process; it’s truly collaborative.”
Co-creation is really the buzz word when it comes to the Connector Programme. It’s definition is - student involvement from beginning to end. Students get to experience a university ran with students more in mind than ever. I think it also massively boosts the diversity of voices – holding co-creation so highly. As a disabled student I’m able to speak on those experiences being both a student and disabled and how those interact and what then I specifically need from university and I feel that’s the same for other marginalised groups that are represented in the Connector Programme, and because it’s a paid role, I think those voices are heard more than in any other form of student contribution.
Connector Programme: What impact has your Connector work had?
Clare: The Connector Programme has helped us make some significant changes in our service delivery. We knew we wanted to focus on embedding academic skills in teaching. Years of research has shown this is the best way to help students to develop their skills and this is also what our Connectors had found most helpful in their own experience of learning. What our Connectors have helped us do is to think about how we put that into practice, and what embedding should look like at Sussex. We are working with our Connectors and academic colleagues at Sussex to achieve this change.
“Students are now at the centre of what we do. Our Connectors are passionate and they want to make change.”
Students are now at the centre of what we do. Our Connectors are passionate, and they want to make changes – it is inspiring and exciting to work with them. Their voice reminds us of things that are important to students and helps us to focus on how we deliver our academic skills services.
Georgia: The massive increase in student led content or evident student input in material produced by the university has been really obvious to me personally. You can tell the difference when students have a say in what’s going on. Staff are always trying their best, but they need sort of that ‘insider information’ for all the resources and effort to be put to the best use.
Connector Programme: What do Connectors gain from working on the Connector Programme?
Georgia: I thought I was quite a confident person, particularly as a student and an employee but I think the Connector Programme has improved my confidence in a different way – it’s thrown the ‘fake it until you make it’ out of the window a bit, I now truly believe in the value of my input.
“The Connector Programme has improved my confidence in a different way..I now truly believe in the value of my input.”
Clare: Training and supporting our Connectors is now a large part of what we do every week and the project has also had a big impact on our Connectors themselves. They have enjoyed making a difference to services at Sussex and surprised themselves by improving their grades. Here are some statements from others in our Academic Skills Connector team:
“Being an Academic Skills Connector has allowed me to learn so much. I've discovered many resources that I have been able to apply to my own uni work and make other people around me aware of! Also, it feels super rewarding to be making a difference in improving resources for students, especially in an area that often causes so much stress. It's really nice to see your work being put out there and, hopefully, helping a lot of people!”
“The role allows you to be really involved in the academic support you and other students receive. It’s an opportunity to be creative and voice your opinions for the benefit of all students. Flexible hours mean you can always keep your education a priority and work around it. The Academic Skills Team is a friendly and supportive environment to work in.”
Connector Programme: What ideas and advice would you share with university staff about working with Connectors?
Clare: I think if you can have a team of students to work on a project (rather than just one student) this is great for you, as you get a variety of perspectives, and it also means the students can gain team-working skills and support one another with the project.
I would advise you to think carefully about exactly how Connectors can contribute to your project, so that it really does offer the chance for students to voice their ideas and that, where possible, these ideas can be implemented. Allow plenty of time for training and supporting your Connectors. Just as with any new colleagues, you can expect that you will spend more time doing this at the start.
The Connector Programme: how students and staff make positive change together.
If you have a question about the Connector Programme or would like to get involved, email the team at email@example.com
Follow @studentconnectors_ to see our Connectors at work!