Communication and community – utilising the Year Manager system
Rachel Parker-Strak is a Senior Lecturer in Fashion Buying and Merchandising in Materials, School of Natural Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering). In 2021 her Fashion Business and Technology (FBT) Support and Community Team won a University Teaching Excellence Award (‘Inclusive Education’ and ‘Flexible Learning’) for their innovative use of the Year Manager system to promote inclusion amongst a diverse undergraduate cohort.
The award-winning team members included:
- Rachel Parker-Strak – Director of UG Studies (previously Year 2 Manager)
- Rachel Studd – Senior Line Manager (previously Year 1 Manager)
- Jo Cartwright – Discipline Head of Education (previously Employability Lead)
- Amy Benstead – Year 1 Manager (previously FBT Academic Lead for PASS)
- Lisa Taylor – Year 2 Manager
- Aurelie Le Normand – Final Year Manager
Your team won a 2021 Teaching Excellence Award (TEA). Congratulations! Can you tell us more about what you won for?
Over the last 3 years our team in Fashion Business and Technology (FBT) have built upon the Year Manager system to improve communication and build a sense of community with and among our undergraduate cohort of around 500+ students.
Each year group brings together students from our four undergraduate programmes who are at the same stage of their university career. We developed a programme of weekly sessions or “touchpoints” for them across a range of topics – employability, academic development, wellbeing, or anything else that the students tell us they need – which improves communication and engagement and supports equality, diversity and inclusion.
Our cohort is diverse: over half of our students are international, several are commuter students or mature students with caring responsibilities, and males are a minority. The sessions get everyone together, and now they have moved online it’s easy to record them, so students can go back and listen to a session in their own time.
What prompted the idea?
We knew we wanted to improve communication, we’d noted patchy engagement with development activities that were available outside of the core curriculum, and we also felt the lack of an FBT identity within the School of Natural Sciences.
All of that would be very hard to achieve through email, because you’re trying to talk to so many different audiences and experiences. Timetabling the Year Group meetings means students are more likely to come along – and it’s time well spent because the communication is more effective.
The Year Manager is quite a ‘hands on’ academic role – can you tell us more about what it involves?
Each Year Manager coordinates the programme of events for their cohort. This will include liaising with colleagues from the Library and Careers to deliver specialist sessions, and bringing in alumni to speak to students. The Year Managers meet fortnightly to make sure there’s no duplication, and that content is built upon through the years.
Rather than just saying “Oh, you should be looking on My Learning Essentials”, we’ve got MLE coming in to do some activities around critical analysis and revision techniques, so we’re both demonstrating and signposting at the same time, and it’s a more active experience for the students. So while this enhanced Year Manager role initially required more time in planning and coordinating, it actually makes the job simpler.
How does the Year Manager system relate to Academic Advising, and the Senior Advisor role?
Students still engage with their Academic Advisor in group tutorials and their one-to-ones, but the stuff that they cover can be much more specific and individual at that point. The Senior Advisor talks to the Year Managers, so they know what topics are being covered, and when.
Can you tell us more about the role that students played in the project and how you secured their engagement?
Right from the beginning we explained to the students why we were doing this, and the benefits and the opportunities they would get out of it. In addition to information from Staff Student Liaison Committees, the Year Managers are well-placed to hear more informal feedback through chats with students at end of sessions. A degree of informality of how feedback is received is integral to its success. It’s about building up informal dialogue and trust. Of course, we still encourage students to use other channels such as their Academic Advisor or Unit Surveys where appropriate. We can help them to understand the systems and structures that are in place, signposting to them where needed.
More recently we’ve used different digital formats to allow the students to tell us what they’re enjoying and what they’re finding challenging. For example, during lockdown we included more ‘light’ activities such as Netflix reviews to foster social interaction.
It’s now an easy way of combining things that are coming from the Programme Director and also from the students, so it’s a real collaborative approach.
What does winning a TEA mean to you and your team?
We were so delighted to win. We are passionate about what we do, and believe in its value, but having our time and effort and the value of what we are doing acknowledged outside of our immediate area is so nice. It’s great to be recognised as an excellent example of teaching and learning and student support.