Repurposing hackathons to engage students as partners

We, as institutions, are brilliant at listening to students and engaging them in conversations about their teaching, learning and general experience of university. However, when it comes to finding fresh and innovative ways to improve the student experience, it is often left to committees, boards and senior management.

Here at the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching we’ve decided to try a new, playful, student-centred approach, allowing us to get real, in-depth, authentic feedback from students.

To do this, we have borrowed a problem-based learning method mainly employed by our friends in engineering disciplines – hackathons. Students in hackathons come together and work as teams to design a solution to problems they are presented with. Over the last three years, we’ve been running hackathons with around 15-20 students – we split our students into groups of 4/5, presenting them with questions and activities to support design-based thinking, and then ask them to present their findings back to the rest of the group and senior management. Previous hackathon cohorts have explored strategies to improve wellbeing and how to create a sense of community, with findings feeding into work being done on the structure of the academic year and induction weeks. During the pandemic, we looked at blended learning pedagogies and implemented student suggestions and changes into our Digital Design programme, an online course available to all teaching staff in the University. Not only does the hackathons engage students in university planning and processes, giving them a genuine opportunity to feed into solutions, but also gives senior management a direct line to students willing to share positive solutions.

Our most recent hackathon asked students ‘what does it take to create a transformational learning experience?’. Students that took part said: 

“Working with students in the hackathon really helped form a nuanced picture of what transformative experiences look like and how they can be cultivated both in and outside of the classroom”

“In centring students, we were able to explore in-depth what students really value in their learning, such as opportunities for agency and engagement, as well as in their overall university experience, for instance the access to support and community.”

“Taking part in the Transformational Experiences Hackathon was a revealing opportunity to hear honest opinions from students about their time at University.”

The outcomes from our latest hackathon are feeding directly into our academic development programme and how we can further embed meaningful and transformative learning experiences, for example research projects into teaching and assessment. Students also had a range of ideas to address improve the sense of community and interaction with peers which will feed into planning.  While questionnaires and feedback forms have their place, we’ve found that running hackathons with students can be a transformational experience for all involved and offer a unique opportunity to partner with students in working together to build a better learning environment.


Amy Palmer is a Senior Education Developer in Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching (BILT) at the University of Bristol. Follow the Institute on Twitter @BILTOnline. You can find more details of our work involving Hackathons on the BILT blog.

2 thoughts on “Repurposing hackathons to engage students as partners

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