When the news of the Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE) 2022 became official, we were overwhelmed with well wishes from colleagues and we felt quite elated and proud. It feels great sharing this CATE with the Student Learning Assistants (SLAs) for Success team -Asanka Dayananda, Beaullah Mlanjira, Claire Yates Wedge, David Clover, Dhana Letchmanan, Dr Inderjit Grewal, John Magpayo, Julie Crabb, Paul Kirk, Simbo Ajayi, Dr Zainab Kazim Ali, Senior SLAs: Aurel Marian, Daniela Humajova, Maria Ntyli and Migle Simaskaite. What an honour and a privilege to accept this award on behalf of the team behind the success of the SLA scheme.
Thank you to the organisers and reviewers of the CATE and the feedback provided.
We are grateful to our Director of Library and Student Support, Matthew Lawson for his support. The guidance of Deeba Gallacher, our Teaching Excellence Awards Lead, throughout the process of submitting the report that we both co-authored is highly appreciated.
The Student Learning Assistants scheme enables experienced students to support the learning of their peers and has been in existence for over 12 years. Providing academic support to other students, SLAs are situated in different learning environments working together with students, modelling effective learning behaviours and providing safe spaces for students to explore, practise and achieve success in their studies. They have made impact on student experience, retention and progression.
In 2021-2022 academic year, 320 SLAs supported over 6,000 students (30% of the student population) providing 20,000+ contact hours at our London Campus.
Due to the wealth of accolades, activities and support within the SLA scheme, it became a dilemma for us to decide what to include in the report as co-authors of the submission. We were fortunate in having carried out an extensive evaluation of the scheme in 2021 so had lots of quantitative and qualitative evidence to draw on.
The road to success
Receiving the award evoked memories of Simbo Ajayi’s own journey alongside the scheme through the years.
I remember my first year of managing and coordinating the SLA scheme in 2010, I was nervous at the onset because I was working alone and was worried about burning myself out. Conditioned by my lifetime mantra of “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”, I plodded on and kept telling myself that I had a job to do and failure was not an option. I quickly realised that:
The road to success could be lonely (and risky) if you journey alone.
That first year proved to be a successful one. The numbers of SLAs had tripled with glowing feedback from. The students were full of praises for the SLAs, the lecturers were pleased with the support, and the SLAs had enhanced various skills and improved their CVs. I was happy for everyone but looking back, I was exhausted physically and mentally. During my review at the end of the year, my manager and I agreed that my way of working wasn’t sustainable. The solution offered was to merge another unit with mine and we became a team of two - I learnt that:
Asking for help does not have to be a sign of weakness, it could be a symbol of wisdom.
Funding limitations meant that I had to rethink how the SLA processes of recruitment, training, observations and evaluation could be managed effectively and efficiently. This time, I sought the collaborative backing of a few supportive Module Leaders, colleagues from the Academic Writing Team and an Academic Developer from the Centre for Academic Practice Enhancement to co-deliver training. Our collaboration worked wonders for the SLAs and the staff as well and SLAs for Success team emerged. Looking back at what helped at the time, was the shared vision we all had about ensuring our SLAs were empowered to support students.
Collaborating with like-minded colleagues who share similar passions is a key to success.
I was pleased to receive positive feedback of how the training collaboration offered the team more insight into peer assisted learning pedagogies. In addition, it opened up opportunities for colleagues in the Learning Enhancement Team, Centre for Academic Practice Enhancement and Librarians to assist with SLA observations. More importantly, the SLAs were exposed to a diverse network of staff who they could draw support from in their roles.
A turning point in the journey was in 2014 when we recruited Senior SLAs to mentor and coach their peers. The team had visualised this group of SLAs co-creating learning materials, leading workshops, providing peer observation feedback, and managing projects. In the process, the Seniors would gain additional leadership and employability skills. This heralded the start of staff-student collaboration within the SLA scheme supporting our recruitment, training and development of new SLAs.
Since then, our team has grown to include a diverse mix of students and staff with SLAs supporting students across disciplines, having English conversation sessions and promoting employability within the university.
We have learnt a great deal from our collaboration. Over the years, we have improved on digital technologies, we have a well-rounded knowledge of the work done in Faculties and Service Teams and most importantly about how we can extend our reach to students in order to help them embrace support and reach their potential.
For the future, we plan to use this award to inspire us and propel us to greater excellence in widening access across the university.
We receive this award with pride on behalf of SLAs for Success.
Simbo Ajayi is the Head of Peer Assisted Learning and oversees the Student Learning Assistants (SLA) schemes at Middlesex University.
David Clover is Deputy Director of Library and Student Support and Head of Library and Learning Enhancement at Middlesex University.