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MSc Dementia students co-create symposium as opportunity for peer-to-peer engagement

Course directors saw student engagement scores in the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) increase by over 45% in one year after involving students in the design of research symposium.

Image of two students looking at a piece of paper

18 February 2020

Dr Jen Agustus, course co-director of MSc in Dementia: Causes, Treatments and Research (Neuroscience), describes how involving students in the creation of a symposium enabled peer discussion, provided authentic research communication opportunities and dramatically improved PTES results.  

The project in a nutshell

Feedback from our Masters students showed they lacked opportunities to engage with each other and the curriculum. 

After attending an ARENA Two training event on student engagement, I decided to put my learning into practice; I worked with MSc Dementia students to design a Student Project Symposium as a new engagement opportunity within their curriculum.  

Together, we developed an afternoon event based on a conference format that gave research project students the opportunity to present their work as either a poster or a brief oral presentation, and engage in peer-peer discussions during a networking session. Students then voted for the winner of the ‘Best student presentation’ prize.  

We invited some of our early careers researchers working in the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, to provide feedback on the presentations.  

The event brought UCL’s Connect Curriculum to life; we adopted a true conference format and invited early career researchers to attend, to create an authentic research environment where students developed real-world skills and felt valued as part of our academic community.  

Poor student interaction and engagement  

When I started my role as course co-director for the MSc in Dementia: Causes, Treatments and Research (Neuroscience) in December 2018, survey results showed student engagement was a weak area for us. There were not enough opportunities for students to discuss their work with each other.  

I knew I wanted to provide more peer-peer interactions for the students; it is too easy for our MSc students to become isolated and lose their course identity when they move from the taught phase of their MSc into working full-time in their research lab.  I proposed a student discussion event during the non-taught phase – just as students start to fully engage with their research projects. 

I wanted a chance for students to re-connect with each other, learn about each other’s experiences and hear about the research that is on offer across the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology. – Dr Jen Agustus

Developing the idea

I was inspired to involve students in the event design after attending a student engagement session as part of my ARENA Two training.  

I realised the importance of including students in the design process to ensure their needs were met and to encourage maximum participation. This was first time that students had been involved in designing part of the curriculum for this MSc course and I was impressed with how this empowered students to really connect with the event. While I strongly encouraged participation, I was very keen for the students to keep a sense of ownership. We worked to provide an environment that students wanted to engage with, rather than one where they felt pressured to take part.   

All 19 students conducting a research project as part of their MSc in Dementia: Causes, Treatments and Research (Neuroscience) were invited to contribute to the design, delivery and feedback of the event. Part-time students on the MSc course not currently completing research projects were also invited to attend.  

In the research lab, our students usually work independently from their peers. They rely solely on their supervisory team for feedback about their practical work and written thesis. The idea of creating a symposium, or mini conference, stemmed from the drive to provide authentic research experience.  

As part of my own master’s project and PhD rotation project, I was required to give oral presentation to my peers and I felt this helped not only developed my research communication skills but also my feeling of being part of a research community –  something that was previously lacking in the MSc in Dementia: Causes, Treatments and Research (Neuroscience). – Dr Jen Agustus 

This event also gave students a chance to practice communication skills ahead of their viva voce examinations at the end of the course. We based formative assessment of the presentations on the viva marking criteria to ensure that students could use the feedback to better prepare them for their summative assessment. 

Co-designing the symposium 

After the ARENA training session in March of last year, I put together a series of vote up/down questions on Moodle, where students could suggest ideas and vote on aspects of the event design (e.g. learning outcomes, contents, format, timing, attendees).  

Allowing enough time for students to respond was very important. I allowed 4 weeks and prompted non-respondents weekly. The course student reps were important for gauging the general appetite for the event and encouraging students to engage in the design process. 

We identified a need for improved communication skills and opportunity to share experiences.  

My main time involvement was organisational: creating the vote up/down questions in Moodle, prompting students to engage, curating responses, converting responses into plans, discussing final plans with course reps, organising event schedule, inviting staff, generating scoring sheets and feedback forms, printing posters, organising refreshments and a prize, collating scores and feedback, and disseminating feedback.  

I had confirmed all 15 presentations and completed all the organisational tasks by mid-May, ready for the Symposium at the start of June.  

It really didn’t take too long to introduce a new student engagement opportunity like this; I didn’t need to make any formalised changes to the research project module.  

My Course Co-Director and three early career researchers also attended the event and provided formative feedback on the students’ presentations. 

This initiative…was designed to give students a chance to practice some of the essential communication skills they will need as scientists - in distilling, presenting and defending their own experimental work 'live' to their peers, and also likewise challenging those peers in a lively and constructive way…We look forward to consolidating this important resource in future years, as one of relatively few opportunities students have to hone these core skills in a supervised and supportive environment. - Professor Jason Warren, Professor of Neurology and Honorary Consultant Neurologist, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology  

 We also provided refreshments to encourage informal discussions after the presentation sessions and a student prize to develop a community feeling. 

Student feedback  

The overall student engagement score in our PTES results improved from 58% to 76% in one year.

In this studnet engagement section of the survey, students are asked to rate the following statements in relation to their course:

  • I am encouraged to ask questions or make contributions in taught sessions (face to face and/or online) 
  • The course has created sufficient opportunities to discuss my work with other students (face to face and/or online) 
  • My course has challenged me to produce my best work 
  • The workload on my course has been manageable 

 Our score for ‘sufficient opportunities for discussing work with other students’ increased dramatically (from 25% to 81%) after the symposium event.  

I also gathered student feedback after the Dementia MSc Student Project Symposium using five-point likert rating scales (strongly agreed, agreed, neutral, disagreed, strongly disagreed).  

  • All attending students strongly agreed they enjoyed hearing about their peer’s work and that the event should be repeated for the next intake of students.  
  • All presenting students agreed or strongly agreed they improved their research communication skills, and that the opportunities to present their own work and engage in informal discussions was valuable.  
  • All presenting students agreed or strongly agreed that the feedback from staff members helped them to identify their strengths and areas for improvement. 
It was great to have Jen consult us throughout the process of organizing the event. It really felt like she wanted us to put together an event for our benefit as students. The symposium itself was a great opportunity to practice our presentation skills and get feedback from peers and professors who we wouldn't otherwise see often. I would definitely recommend doing the symposium in future years! - Elise Chan, 2018/19 graduate from MSc in Dementia: Causes, Treatments and Research (Neuroscience) 

Future plans 

Given the success, we will repeat it this year and involve the new student cohort in the event design.  

I will use the same Moodle questions, but the actual event will then be tailored to respond to our current students’ needs and opinions.  

A few students commented they would have preferred the event to be slightly later into their projects to enable them to present more data or conclusive results, so this will be offered as an option for the new students. 

Jen’s top tips for engaging students in curriculum design 

1. Definitely think about including students in designing new student learning opportunities. 

2. Allow plenty of time for students to engage with design; prompt them regularly and, most importantly, identify a student (e.g. course rep) that can encourage their peers and finalise the planning details.  

3. Consider using an “event” approach, to give more status to the student’s efforts and create a community feel by providing refreshments and a prize. 

4. Strike the right balance between student and staff involvement to ensure students retain ownership, but they get everything you feel they need from the event.  

5. Gather feedback to evaluate how things went.