Teaching & Learning


UCL Civil Engineering department takes on student consultants to improve student experience

2 December 2016

Two international students teamed up earlier this term in a pilot scheme to help transform education at UCL.

ChangeMaker students

Anastasia Vikhanova is a third year Psychology undergraduate from Moscow and Fatemeh Farsijani, from Tehran, is in her second year studying Mechanical Engineering. 

For four weeks they acted as a consultancy team, helping the UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering department (CEGE) improve the student experience.

They were two of twelve UCL students recruited to be student facilitators in a scheme run by UCL ChangeMakers, the programme that drives improvements to teaching and learning through formal collaborations between students and staff. Their work formed part of a package of support and guidance known as Annual Student Experience Review (ASER) Intensive, which is offered to departments performing inconsistently in the National Student Survey.

Their challenge as ASER facilitators was to capture the opinions and suggestions of current students and feed it back to the department, identifying areas for improvement across teaching, assessment and feedback, and academic support. They had to liaise with staff, organise focus groups, interviews and surveys and report their findings in four short weeks. The results have been used by the Student Academic Representatives and departmental staff in the development of the department’s ASER action plan.

Anastasia said: ‘Teaming up a person from outside the department with a current student worked really well. Fatemeh was familiar with the kind of work students do in Mechanical Engineering – a lot of problem solving and presentation – which is different from my study programme.  Equally, I could bring insights from another discipline. Our skills complemented each other.  And as I was from outside the department I could be a bit more blunt.’

Fatemeh and Anastasia worked especially closely with with Ewa Kedzierska, UCL CEGE Teaching Administrator and Professor Richard Simons, CEGE Director of Studies.  With training from the ChangeMaker team in collaboration with UCLU and Organisational Development, they ran a focus group with third years, discussing every aspect of the student experience.

Fatemeh said: ‘The discussions often returned to feedback – timeliness, consistency and content.  Students brought examples of what they thought were good or bad. They also wanted clearer communication of what they could expect. For example, the department is committed to a four week turn-around of assignments but students didn’t know this.

‘The department asked students to present three negative and three positive things about the department. Obviously, in direct meetings with staff it can be difficult for students to raise issues, but we were acting as mediators and could present their concerns in a neutral way.’

Anastasia said: ‘We presented our findings to Richard – he critiqued them and explained what was possible and what wasn’t. This was a good process. We were representing the students, acting as their advocates, but we had a bit of distance too. And Richard asked for our advice about how to tackle some of the issues raised.’

The work of Anastasia and Fatemeh gave the department valuable insights into the student experience.

Professor Simons said: ‘Anastasia and Fatemah played an important role in identifying the issues where the department can improve student experience, in particular: clearer briefings before practical classes; clear criteria against which work will be assessed; and prompt, effective marking and feedback of coursework assignments. It was also helpful that their focus groups confirmed the strengths in our curriculum involving problem-based learning and industry engagement. Coming from a student perspective, their independent contribution allowed us to prioritize the strategic actions for inclusion in the ASER and to identify things that could be dealt with locally and informally.’  

What makes a ChangeMaker?

Before they teamed up as ASER facilitators, both Fatemeh and Anastasia had prior involvement in shaping UCL’s teaching and learning.

Anastasia is a Student Academic Representative (StAR) and worked on the Internal Quality Review (IQR) for Geography. She also took part in the Global Citizenship Programme, UCL’s summer school for current students, and is the President of the Russian Society. In her first year, Fatemeh worked as a UCL ChangeMaker in her own department, UCL Mechanical Engineering, collaborating on a project on the department’s assessment and feedback processes. Then, in the summer, she conducted a research project in her department with the supervision of Dr Ben Hanson, departmental tutor, auditing the coursework assessments for all undergraduate levels and reviewing the calendar of deadlines.  As a deputy in Mechanical Engineering Society committee, Fatemeh helps students with careers events and industrial visits. She took part in the Global Citizenship Programme, works as a UCL Ambassador and as a STEM Ambassador. She sits on the committees of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers and the Women Engineers Society, organising engagement events.

So what’s the motivation?

Fatemeh said: ‘Working on these projects outside your programme of study helps you develop so many skills – time management, communications. You are organising things for other people so you learn how to project manage and how to engage with a wide variety of people.  In fact, UCL Engineering’s motto is Change the world! - these opportunities help me to start the change from students’ university experience and to demonstrate my skills.’’

Anastasia said: ‘It’s really interesting working with staff. You meet interesting people and you make connections that might be useful to you in the future. You do actually feel valued. You are working with professors and influential people but they treat you as one of them. I always felt that my point of view was being taken seriously. Whatever your subject, whatever you go on to do later, you need to interact with other people throughout your career.  This is a really good way of developing your people skills.

‘For me personally, this experience has been great for my CV. And I want to do a Masters at UCL, so it’s a good way of showing my commitment. Also, I now know what fluid mechanics is, because Richard explained it to me.’

She adds: ‘Oh, and you get paid. Payment is a bonus.’

What would you say to other students about ChangeMakers?

Anastasia: Get involved. If you want a good learning environment, then you should help to shape it. You will have time, in spite of the deadlines. Plus, you get £150!

Fatemeh: It’s a great experience. Really interesting. You meet many different people and you get to understand all the facilities and support available. Departments are keen to change and this is a way of sharing your ideas and those of your fellow students.

As international students, what is your view of UCL’s education?

Fatemeh said: ‘My friends who are studying in Tehran are having a very different experience.  Here, as well as all the theory, we are developing skills so that we can solve real world problems. We have several of these intensive problem solving weeks – called Scenario Weeks - throughout the year, where you work in teams to address particular challenges. For example, the most recent scenario was designing a security system to protect a valuable artefact. I love to make stuff, and this is a brilliant way of learning. I feel like I am getting a lot of support to prepare for the future.’

Anastasia said: ‘I studied for two years at university in Russia.  We had lectures ten until six every day. I was told exactly which segments of which pages to read for my assignments. I wrote essays every week.  So when I came here I thought ‘I’m paying big fees here, and for what?’ But actually, by getting involved with all these initiatives, I’ve realised how much staff care about our development and how much they put into our programmes. University isn’t kindergarten. We’ve got amazing library and digital services. They are helping us develop as individual self-directed learners. The emphasis is on discovery.’