Inspire - a Teaching Fellows' newsletter

A quarterly publication on the contemporary issues influencing teaching and learning.

Towards the building of an inclusive community: the learning journey of a Student Learning Assistant

By Simbo Ajayi, Student Learning Assistant Scheme and Dhana Letchmanan, Senior Student Learning Assistant

Middlesex University initiated the Student Learning Assistants (SLA) scheme in order to increase student engagement with their programmes, to help them become successful  lifelong learners, and to ultimately enhance employability.  The scheme deploys students who have excelled on their programmes to support student learning in and out of the classroom through sharing experiences and modelling exemplary behaviours.  The grounding principles are to provide safe, non-remedial and collaborative learning, conducive to nurturing inclusive learning and teaching environments (Hockings, 2010). This scheme positions the SLA as experienced learner, student leader, mentor and guide and SLAs are encouraged to maintain reflective portfolios to develop their skills and understand these roles. 

Collaborative learning underpins the SLA scheme and the aim of getting students involved and engaged (Haggis, 2006). Small group sessions provide a manageable forum for SLAs to get to know their students by name, and learn more about their individual styles and approaches to learning. Based on established trust, students are able to articulate their concerns and seek additional support as captured in the SLA reflection:

…….I encouraged one of the students to visit the dyslexia team. I am happy he was able to discuss openly with me and this has reinforced my belief that discussing one's problems is one step on the path to remedy it. What I have also discovered is that, as SLA, I have access to a lot of information about Middlesex University's services – and oddly enough, the people who really need them seem to be the ones that know very little about them…..

As a result of this work, the SLA identity shifts among the University learning community; they shift from student to SLA and to Senior SLA. It is sometimes unclear when these roles are assumed and when the SLA stops being a student and becomes a student leader or mentor. These identity shifts may sometimes lead to disappointment, frustration or fear of rejection as highlighted in the story below, where an SLA had to a break from the role for a four-month industrial placement.

I realized that if you aim to inspire, motivate and enthuse students they must know you and must feel a good connection. Last year I spent so much time with my students and I felt I really had the RIGHT to push them as hard as I could as I knew them. Unfortunately, this year students have struggled to take as much from my facilitation as I haven’t been there for them throughout their journey. In the future I hope to teach, but I know won’t forget what I have learnt in my last few months - About what things really make a difference to the students. I will always remember and ensure I am ever present, both physically and emotionally as its only then students really feel comfortable enough to learn.

The general feedback from current and past SLAs suggests that the SLA scheme provides opportunities to develop transferable and employable skills and richer inclusion in the learning community while receiving continuous training and pastoral support. 

Hockings, C., Cooke, S., and Bowl, M. (2010) Learning and teaching in two universities within the context of increasing student diversity: complexity, contradictions and challenges in David, M. (ed.) Improving learning by widening participation. London: Routledge.

Haggis, T. (2006) Pedagogies for diversity: retaining critical challenge amidst fears of dumbing down’. Studies in Higher Education, 31(5), pp.521–535.