Widening Participation and Student Support
Supporting Students to Improve Retention
The Attraction, Support and Retention Project
Connexions: a bridge for Widening Participation
| View this article as a .pdf file |
Philip Lloyd & Louise Willmot, Department of History and Economic History
The Attraction, Support and Retention Project
The Attraction, Support and Retention Project was established by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Studies during the 2000/01 academic year, drawing on the experience of two departments, History & Economic History, and Sociology. The project has twin objectives, first to identify some of the problems that the faculty faces in attracting students at a time of increased competition from other institutions, and second to support and retain students from a wide variety of backgrounds. It is currently being funded through our Faculty Learning and Teaching Committee, with the support of the Dean and the two participating departments, and with the active assistance of the University Learning and Teaching Unit. The project tackles issues of major current concern for this faculty, and also addresses both institutional and national initiatives to encourage widening participation. This paper is a report on 'work in progress' from the perspective of the Department of History and Economic History, being an update on the project's activities so far, and an assessment of its interaction with the department's staff development programme, drawing on discussion at a staff workshop held in October 2001.
That workshop was led by the department's Project Co-ordinator, Dr Louise Willmot. It debated the project's early successes and failures, highlighted some of the implications of its preliminary findings and drew particular attention to a range of issues that should inform the department's planning for the future. Initial research, involving the collection of preliminary data by interviewing a sample of students, and the analysis of this information in a project draft report, was flawed because it failed accurately to detail or acknowledge the extensive examples of good practice that had been developed in History (and most other departments) over a long period. For example, for several years the BA History programme has operated a student mentor scheme that encourages second year students to assist new entrants during their first year, in addition to formal tutorial support. However, the draft report did draw attention to a number of areas requiring further action. These include: admissions initiatives, induction procedures, learning and teaching strategies, assessment (its nature, frequency, timing and purpose), student support (both academic and pastoral), and the need to address specific student anxieties (in particular, use of ICT and the Library). The faculty's participation in the Foundation Year is an excellent opportunity to test developments in several of these areas.
Drawing on the initial findings of the project, on published research in the area of student retention and on initiatives such as the recent Institute for Learning and Teaching symposium on widening participation and promoting student retention 1, it is possible to reach a number of provisional conclusions, even at this early stage. For example, it is clear that the department already has a significant commitment to the retention of students, with a range of appropriate support mechanisms in place, nevertheless, our non-completion rate remains unacceptably high, especially in Year One. This interpretation has been confirmed by the results of a survey of opinion among first year students, conducted by the project team just before Christmas 2001. Respondents were overwhelmingly positive about the usefulness of their meetings with their personal tutors or designated tutors, felt confident about using the Library and ICT facilities, and expected to meet their coursework deadlines.
On the other hand, only half the students completed the survey, because it was conducted during seminars near the end of the autumn term at a time when absenteeism was high. Given the relatively high rate of late submission and non-submission of coursework it seems likely that significant numbers of students, presumably the very ones with difficulties, did not attend the relevant seminar and therefore their views were not registered. A vital task faced by the department is how to identify and reach such students before their problems intensify, although action is needed at an even earlier stage.
Attraction and retention
We must provide better information and support for pre-entry students to ensure that, by the time of registration, they are confident that they have chosen the right programme, because a significant proportion of withdrawals is for that reason. This is not an easy task when so much of the current intake is recruited through UCAS Clearing. Nevertheless, it is clear that pre-entry contact is a key determinant in both attraction and retention. This can be illustrated by reference to successful initiatives developed elsewhere in the faculty, for example, the recent report on the admission of new students to BA English. Of 170 first year entrants onto the BA English programme only 3 came via UCAS Clearing, and so were much more likely to have made an informed choice. In addition, of the 142 entrants surveyed for the report, half had been interviewed before being offered a place, valued the face to face contact this provided, and as a result were given an accurate idea of what to expect. As the report states: 'the overwhelming majority found the interview a positive experience and some cited it as a major reason for choosing to study at MMU' 2. The admission/entrant 'conversion rate' is much higher as a result, in no small part due to the establishment of this personal relationship. It is important to note, however, that to sustain such an initiative requires the recognition of admissions as a major resource priority and the participation of the whole department in the process.
Induction procedures also play a vital part. BA History already has in place almost all of the measures recommended in the project draft report. One additional strategy that might be usefully considered, however, is an early diagnostic test. Some other programmes in the faculty ask all new entrants to submit a hand written text (for example a personal reflection or short assignment) that can then be used to indicate potential problems and to target support. One of our own departmental colleagues, Brian Turner, has developed some useful strategies for BA Economics I students that could usefully be implemented for students on other programmes.
The first year is obviously the crucial stage and the one on which departmental strategies should focus. As is well known, students who successfully complete Stage One are far less likely to withdraw at Stages Two or Three. The overwhelming number of withdrawals occur in Year One (and at particular points within it: the very early stages, just before and just after Christmas, at coursework submission dates), so the impact upon students of assessment pressure has not yet been addressed with anything like complete success.
The nature and timing of assignments are important issues that are constantly wrestled with by staff. There is normally an attempt to schedule assignments for the first year programme by negotiation with unit leaders, to provide a matrix comprising a regular succession of submission dates that is then issued to students at induction. However, there is some evidence of the 'bunching' of dates for the 2001/02 academic year, partly due to the faculty's decision to restrict the number of submission weeks to allow better monitoring of student work. The resultant overlapping of coursework preparation could be intimidating for those more vulnerable students who have not learned basic time-management skills. We must remember that such skills must be learned and practised, they are not instinctive.
As a deliberate policy stretching back for many years, BA History has placed an assignment early in the first term, because the need for rapid feedback is recognised. This is important because new students often lack self-confidence and benefit very much from the reassurance provided in this way. However, the need to provide a full response (individual and face-to-face if possible, constructive even when critical, trying to note good points as well as bad, with practical suggestions for ways to improve) is vital and costly in terms of staff resources. As part of the same policy, to help build student confidence and also to reward a range of skills, the department has moved some way from merely requiring the submission of essays and the sitting of formal unseen examinations (although the shift towards more and varied coursework is itself increasingly problematic). As an example of the type of assignment now required from BA History students, in common with many other programmes, the first scheduled assignment undertaken is a book review, to establish basic library proficiency. However, as discussed in the next section, this strategy (for all its worthy intentions) has not solved the problem of how to provide effective support.
The nature of support offered to students
The project survey noted feelings of intimidation and embarrassment reported by some students, who felt that they were insufficiently familiar with our library or ICT systems (and particularly the faculty's own drop-in centre). An obvious reaction to these findings would be to build into our programme more regular or formal library visits, or to hold classes in the Library itself from time to time. It has also been suggested that we might issue students with a simple written guide. It should be noted, for those not familiar with our procedures, that we do already provide an accompanied visit to the Library as part of student induction. The first assignment is designed to develop very basic library skills, as already mentioned (for example using the catalogue, the help desks, or even finding the Library photocopier), and student mentors offer guided visits to the Library or help in the use of other facilities. The Library also offers a comprehensive and user-friendly on-line guide. So, could some of the anxiety or confusion reported in the survey actually be a cover for other, more serious underlying problems? We should at least be aware that, in trying to deal with apparent problems, we might only be dealing with the superficial manifestation of quite different issues of much great student concern, which have a far more profound impact on student decisions to stay or leave.
We provide more written, on-line and personal help to new students than ever before, yet, undeniably, some students still claim that they have insufficient help. Sometimes these are the very students who have failed to take advantage of the support provided, and student mentors are constantly puzzled (and often anxious) that their offers of help and support are not accepted. What is the reason for the apparently mounting inadequacy of the increasingly elaborate support mechanisms we put in place? It is recognised that some students are ultimately not 'saveable', but could there be some fundamental reasons for the alarming growth in wastage rates that we simply miss or do not recognise?
For example, perhaps the recruitment of students from families without previous experience of higher education means that they do not respond to the way our support is structured, or to the help we think they need and how it is offered. The consequences of widening participation, encouraging applications from under-represented groups, when we know little of their possible sense of alienation or lack of shared assumptions, are only now starting to be addressed and we still have far to go. In short, we do not lack in effort, in trying to be welcoming, engaging and supportive, but we often claim to be baffled (or even hurt) that this effort is not reciprocated, that failing students do not take advantage of the support we offer. Are we as uninformed as our 'under-performing' students, merely in different ways? Is there common ground and can we devise an appropriate higher education experience that meets the needs of both learners and teachers? In the development of 'appropriate strategies' we must also not forget that staff have needs and aspirations too.
The Foundation Year
All these issues are also highly relevant to the University Foundation Year, in which the faculty is participating for the first time in 2001/02. The vast majority of entrants are here because they have failed to achieve the 'A' level grades required to proceed directly to Year One of a degree programme. Experience in other faculties, where foundation level programmes have been in existence for considerably longer, demonstrates that these students are particularly vulnerable during this initial year, but that those who complete it successfully often progress to do very well at undergraduate levels. Good support and retention strategies have an important role to play in helping Foundation Year students proceed to Year One of a degree programme. For these reasons, in consultation with the project team, staff in the Department of History have designed and implemented the Humanities component of the Foundation Year with the aim of incorporating current good practice, both in the department and in the faculty. Thus, short early assignments have been utilised to diagnose student problems, enhance confidence and improve skills in writing and note-taking, with the aim of developing towards the production of formal academic essays later in the year. The design of the personal tutor system has also borrowed from current practice in the department, by ensuring that students have regular contact with their tutor through the Humanities seminar programme. This is supplemented by building in a face-to-face interview between student and tutor in the first two weeks of the autumn term; a confidential record of the meeting is later augmented by a contact sheet which details further meetings and documents the student's progress.
Feedback from staff involved in the Foundation Year has been very positive in terms of the system's effectiveness in helping to establish friendly relationships and in informing tutors about academic, financial or personal circumstances which might affect a student's performance. It must also be noted, however, that the initial meetings are very time-consuming. It is difficult to see how such a system could be extended to Year One of the undergraduate programmes without significant changes both in staff timetables and re-allocation of departmental resources.
Unsurprisingly, this is the final and fundamental issue. As was stated at the ILT symposium by Professor Mantz Yorke:
'Having analysed HEFCE Performance Indicators to determine the effect of percentages of mature students and working class entrants, [Professor Yorke] had found that there was a strong correlation between these variables and non-completion. Six institutions had emerged as doing better than the benchmarks despite an adverse demographic profile (Aston University, the University of Lincolnshire & Humberside, Newman College, Sheffield Hallam University, Staffordshire University and the University of Westminster). Interviews with senior staff at these institutions suggested that key factors for student retention include:
Who should teach these students? Research into educational good practice also supports the view that, not only should more resources be directed to entry level teaching, but that experienced full-time staff should be used, because it is during the first year that students most need support and when they are most likely to withdraw. However, such a redirection of departmental resources, whilst clearly urgent, would have considerable implications for our current practice. It is demonstrable that third year students are far less likely to withdraw and much more able to study independently than first years. However, any reduction in the teaching of final year students would not sit comfortably with the view that Year Three should have priority (a view reinforced in the University's new set of undergraduate regulations, which increases the weighting of Stage Three work in the classification of Honours degree awards to 75%).
The scholarly satisfaction staff gain from specialist teaching of final year students (no small matter in an era of ever-greater pressure on staff and diminishing job-satisfaction) would inevitably be compromised by such a shift. There seems to be no good reason, nevertheless, why a higher proportion of senior staff should not teach first year students, support them with the benefit of their experience, and be available for advice or help. The current reliance on part-time staff for Year One teaching may do few favours to students or, indeed, to part-time (initially inexperienced) tutors themselves. Currently, staff are not actively encouraged to receive training in student support, and there is no departmental benchmark for this vital area.
Our department should also consider the implementation of other strategies. Although the weighting of assessment is determined by credit rating and cannot be reduced without compromising academic standards, the types of assignment we set might well be further investigated (coinciding with the pressing need to align assessment more closely to intended learning outcomes). There is also the possibility of rethinking the amount and type of content in the syllabus, and the nature of class contact provided. Should formal seminars, grinding through unit content week by week, be reduced, to be replaced by greater availability of regular tutorial support? Should the structure and timetabling of our programmes be fundamentally re-thought to accommodate the needs and expectations of widening participation?
In attempting to tackle some of these underlying issues, it is to be hoped that the Attraction, Support and Retention Project is able to continue its work. Bids for funding from both internal and external sources have either been submitted or are in preparation, but at the time of writing no further funds have been confirmed, a potentially worrying situation.
Departmental discussion in these areas, both formal (at staff workshops) and informal (over coffee or, after a long day, occasionally something stronger) is wide-ranging, like this paper often speculative, and inevitably somewhat frustrating in that it is easier to identify self-evident problems than to devise satisfactory solutions. However, the continuing work of the project does provide a fruitful challenge for the department's professional development programme. We also hope that the identification of good practice and the development of the Foundation Year as a pilot for new initiatives will result in more effective systems, in an improvement recorded by the faculty's performance indicators, and ultimately in student completion rates.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this paper in more detail, or if you have any suggestions for the project's development, we should be delighted to hear from you. We may be contacted at the Department of History and Economic History, Geoffrey Manton Building, as follows:
1 Held on 27 September 2001, and reported in full on the ILT website (http:www.ilt.ac.uk)
Philip Lloyd & Louise Willmot, Department of History and Economic History