Authors: Rita D’Alton-Harrison and Richard Hawley are both senior Teaching-Focused academic staff who work for Royal Holloway University of London in the UK. Both Rita and Richard have a strong background in student learning and support.
Our presentation at the ‘Wellness UK Digital Conversations’ on 14th December 2020 showcased a project that won College Teaching Initiative funding in 2019: The Professional Self Toolkit. The Project is currently under development for a ‘Proof-of-Concept’ App and will be presented in early 2021 to Royal Holloway Senior Management.
The Project is designed to respond to several significant factors in the current Higher Education (university-level) sector worldwide. First among these is the ever-growing concern for supporting university student wellbeing at all levels of study, from undergraduate to doctoral level, which has in turn led to its discussion in pedagogic scholarship (see further below).
This is coupled with growing diversity among students, educationally and culturally. More students are and will be coming to university as the first in their family to have done so and with very diverse prior academic experience. Their teaching and support therefore need to adapt to this changing environment. With this in mind, the Professional Self Toolkit is also designed to be used as an empowerment tool for students from diverse backgrounds who might be struggling with feelings of academic exclusion and isolation within an institution. The App is intended to be a useful resilience tool to help students to explore and develop their ‘other’ and ‘future possible selves’ (Markus and Ruvolo,1989, Stevenson, 2012) and to engender the confidence and willingness to seek help and support.
Regardless of the route into higher education students also need more explicit guidance on how their costly degree study prepares them for the ever-evolving world of work. This is especially true for students taking non-vocational degrees. Careers Service staff and employers often find that these students have many and varied transferable skills of which they are unaware and which they may be unable to articulate in the language of job applications (‘jobspeak’). Our Project seeks to address this.
Finally, the Project actively plugs into the growth in digital learning and digital literacy among both students and university academic/support staff, which has been unexpectedly accelerated by the recent COVID pandemic.
The Project therefore took the innovative step to integrate ‘wellness’, ‘academic study’ and ‘careers advice’, which are usually divided off into independent ‘silos’ for student support. We demonstrate that students who consciously focus active reflection upon their own identity both personally and academically can develop what we call their unique ‘iBrand’ and so take responsibility for their self-development, self-confidence, and self-empowerment.
The Project’s App requires students to reflect upon and note specific examples of their skills which can act both as ‘evidence’ for job applications/interviews and as ‘markers’ for their later reflection upon the development of their individual iBrand. The App requires students to articulate these examples in ‘jobspeak’, thus developing their acquisition of language essential to the challenges of the world of work.
The App also provides a valuable and individualised resource for staff supporting students, with their academic study, wellbeing, or career preparation. Students build their iBrand themselves, but can choose to share aspects of it with selected support staff. Thus staff can guide their students to extra activities or resources to enhance any areas of the iBrand that require development. The digital nature of the App, designed to be easily accessible on mobile phones, also makes it flexible and future-proof, as it can be easily modified and adapted to respond to the changes that we know will happen inevitably in the rapidly evolving sector and the world of work.
The App is essentially a digital holistic support network that takes students on a self-discovery journey during which they are able to track and chart their own professional growth. By incorporating gamification features into the App students are also able to control the mode, type and extent of the resources from which they wish to draw from at any given time.
The features of the App were mapped using wireframes (interactive tools that display the functional features of a website) to enable a developer to visualise the design and usability of the App. To reflect the tripartite purposes of ‘wellness’, ‘academic support’ and ‘career advice’ the App was divided into three separate spaces for the students to explore 1) ‘Who Am I?’ 2) How Am I?’ and 3) ‘What Can I Do?’
Drawing on academic literature on the theory of self-confidence (e.g. Bandura, 1986) students are encouraged to keep a record of their positive perceptions of their abilities, skills and attributes whilst also recording their aspirational future goals. The ‘Who Am I’ section allows students to evaluate their life in general by reflecting on their achievements to date to measure what Diener (1984, 2000) describes as their ‘Subjective Wellbeing’.
In contrast, the ‘How Am I’ section of the App examines how students frame their experiences emotionally and allows the students to reflect on their energy levels and reasons for depletion and to seek support and help from key services and people within the institution. This, it is hoped, will ensure early intervention and prevention.
The ‘What Can I Do?’ section allows students to utilise parts of the inputted data from the ‘Who Am I’ section to start to build a CV and transcript using a suggested template and to continue to complete this information over time.
The Professional Self-Toolkit has the stated aim of helping students to find resilience, positivity and balance throughout their academic studies and can be easily adapted to other educational settings and also within the challenging, competitive and often isolating world of work.
- Bandura, A ‘From Thought to Action: Mechanisms of Personal Agency’ (1986) 15 (1) New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 1.
- Diener, E ‘Subjective Well-being’ (1984) 95 (3) Psychological Bulletin, 542.
- Diener, E ‘Subjective Well-being: The Science of Happiness and a Proposal for a National Index’ (2000) 55 (1) American Psychologist, 34.
- Markus, H and Ruvolo, A ‘Possible Selves: Personalized Representations of Goals’ in LA Pervin (ed) Goal Concepts in Personality and Social Psychology (Hillsdale Publishers 1989).
- Stevenson, J ‘An Exploration of the Link Between Minority Ethnic and White Students’ Degree Attainment and Views of Their Future Possible Selves’ (2012) 4(2) Higher Education Studies, 103.