Making a difference: in conversation with a course rep

BeJLT interviews Meera Shah on her experiences as a course representative and International Student Officer.  Meera is in her final year studying Business and Marketing Management and is a well-known face at committee meetings and Open Days. She is the Course Representative for the Business School.

BeJLT: how do you benefit from being a Course Rep?

Oh, it opens up so many opportunities – for example, I get to organise events for international students, for example an Arabian nights event. It was so cool. We started organising the evening just two weeks beforehand and we got over 100 students to attend. I learnt to negotiate with suppliers, communicate with students and show off my talent – belly dancing. I’m actually an Indian classical dancer and back in Kenya I am a prima ballerina for one of the main dance schools so I sometimes get asked to dance at major events in Oxford. I always made sure that all the international students were well-taken care of. During induction week I spoke to international students about how to approach the British students, where to shop and so on – all the things that I would have liked to hear about in the first weeks when I arrived. Because of this, I was asked to be the International student ambassador to Kenya. I went to different schools in Kenya to talk about OBU, and we got many students from there. I feel that it is up to the course reps themselves to take up things on their own initiative and with support from the Field Chairs and others from the University, they are able to make the most out of being a course rep. Course reps can also discover skills that they did not have as well as expand on those that they already possess, such as communication, interpersonal skills, leadership and team-working. These skills make a course rep more employable when they are looking for a placement or a graduate-level job.

BeJLT: You seem to carry quite a lot of responsibility in relation to international students

It’s not a responsibility, it’s a delight. Last year, I was asked me to build a collage of all my activities to show what you can do at Brookes. You can be an entrepreneur, make the most of what you have. This is all such good experience for my future.

I also got to be a student rep of Student Learning and Teaching Network which is a collaboration with Birmingham and Northumbria as well other universities across the country. One of the activities was organising a conference held in Manchester where students were able to share their ideas and experiences with each other and then take these ideas back to their own institutions. We got the chance to showcase our talents as international students in Manchester, too.

BeJLT: Where do you feel you have had most impact?

Well, academically there are a number of things. For instance, I helped to run a workshop where students are given examples of feedback, how to identify feedback, how to react to feedback. We used the example of chocolate. Its shine, taste, texture and snap. We gave students chocolate to test it out. Then we showed them some real marking criteria. In order to get an A you need to identify these things. Students revealed they are scared of feedback. How should they approach module leaders for feedback? We told the students that you can go at their office hours, with coursework and just speak to the module leader. They should have the confidence because feedback is also feedforward. Later on a module leader told me that the students who attended the workshop actually went to the module leader and asked for feedback – so it worked! The module leader reports that there was also an improvement in their next assignments.

When I heard this I said, “Wait, I’m going to try it out on my own module and see what response I get.” I did, and the module leader was very helpful. He actually spent an hour with me going through the marking criteria. He told me what many students fail to do and what I needed to do. I got an ‘A’ for that piece of work. As a course rep I am now promoting this.

What I’ve also noticed as a course rep is that once you’ve built a relationship with your module leader, they will always be a friend to you and when you approach them with problems on your course they will listen and help you resolve any outstanding issues

BeJLT: Why do you think it is that students don’t ask for feedback?

For some students, it is in their culture not to ask the elders and they would not approach the lecturer in this way. They would be afraid that they would be marked down for asking dumb questions. Some won’t go because they are peer pressured: you’re such a teachers’ pet for going to ask for better marks. Others think they know all they need to about this, and think they have nailed it. Some students don’t even care about studying, just about socialising, partying.

BeJLT: Have you noticed any changes with the new curriculum that was introduced at the beginning of the year?

Those affected are 1st years – I speak to them and they say there is a sense of community, and this is something we didn’t have in my first year. They get to sit with other students they will stay with through the programme – they also have a module on how to write good reports, do essays, referencing and so on. Previously, it was up to the student to find out how to do this. Now they have more practical ways of doing things – it’s more fun – more poster presentations, they get to play more. So it has made a difference, they say that ‘the learning is fun’ – students enjoy coming to university. Really enjoy themselves. Modules are very interesting.

BeJLT: What does the University get out of your involvement as a course rep?

There are a number of things. For instance feedback on how students perceive some changes planned for a course. An example is in Accounting where the feedback was taken on board and the new module plan changed directly in response. We felt very involved in the decision-making process for the new structure.

Every other lunchtime at the Undergraduate Centre we have a stall with a suggestion box. These are gathered and then taken by me to the Students’ Union. We talk about these issues at student council. Academic issues are taken to the Student Support Co-ordinators or direct to the module leader.

One example where course reps made a difference is changing an unpopular business module. One student was even repeating the class for the third time because she just couldn’t get it, and it was a compulsory module. The content was very difficult but the lecturer would just talk about it. If you couldn’t do maths you wouldn’t do very well on the module. Now everything has changed. From the title down, and there are more practical examples in it. Students get the chance to use paper and pen and calculators rather than just Excel. It is much improved.

BeJLT: Can you tell us about one thing you’re most proud of?

I’ve actually gained respect form not only students but also the lecturers. Every time there was an issue I’ve always raised it and it has had impact. From my first year to now, there has been a change across the institution. Students have actually improved the way the Business School is. I’ve actually been there while it has happened. I’d definitely encourage students to become Course Reps. There’s a huge sense of satisfaction when you see something has been done about your issue, it’s not a waste of time. We have an impact.

BeJLT: You are approaching the end of your undergraduate course at Brookes. What is the topic of your final year dissertation?

I am writing a dissertation on Developing a marketing communication strategy for engaging students at Oxford Brookes University in extra-curricular activities. My conclusion is that you need to build communication and relationships with students across their whole time at university. Face-to-face communication is faster, cheaper and more effective; that is why they have course reps like me.

BeJLT: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your life as a course rep and good luck in the future. 

Posted in Short Article

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