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Liz Marr - Principal Lecturer, Sociology
Guy Lancaster - Web Project Manager, Sociology
During the academic year 2001/2, the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science (as it was then) undertook a major investigation into student retention and progression. In line with the findings from other institutions, particularly the ‘new’ universities which had pioneered widening access, poor retention was variously attributed to lack of preparedness, poor integration, wrong course choice, lack of feedback, problems with finance and accommodation, amongst others(Yorke, 2002; Tinto,1987;Thomas, 2001). Some of these factors resulted in drop-out, some in failure or delayed progression. A number of follow-up studies, both here and elsewhere (Parmar and Trotter, 2004;Dodgson and Bolam,2002;Yorke and Longden 2004) have confirmed these findings and recommended strategies for improving retention and progression. One common finding of all such projects, however, has been that poor attendance generally links to poor retention and it is this aspect of the student experience which is addressed in this report.
Of course, there are many possible reasons for poor attendance – the need for paid employment to support one’s studies, ill-health, lack of adequate child-care, inability to pay for transport to name but a few. And there is an increasing tendency to lay this problem at the door of the widening participation agenda – to argue that the massification of higher education is the root cause of the apparent lack of engagement by students. Nevertheless, whatever the cause, it is clear that students who do not attend inevitably get into difficulties. To be sure, we all know of those who never attend any classes and manage to get a first or upper second classification but they are a minority of students. Usually however, those who do not attend encounter significant practical problems: they can not access library resources; they fail to develop IT skills; and they are confused by the timetable. They are therefore more likely to miss coursework deadlines and other important milestones in the student year – all this in addition to a lack of knowledge about the content of the course.
It might be argued that we do recruit many people who are never going to succeed, evidenced by their inability to even arrive for induction sessions or registration. Students themselves might say that if the unit material was more accessible, more relevant, less boring – they might be prepared to attend more often. Such arguments may have merit but it seemed to us that some kind of culture of non-attendance does set in very early on, for a variety of reasons, and one way we might bring about a change in culture could be to show that we as staff are sufficiently concerned about attendance to take monitoring and follow up seriously. This report describes the pilot we have undertaken to address this challenge. Firstly we describe the problems with the paper-based system we had been using. We then describe the web-based monitoring system which was trialled last year. A number of problems have been identified but there have clearly been benefits and these are also assessed here. Finally, we de scribe current developments with the system.
Problems with paper
In line with most other departments, the Sociology department expect that staff will take registers in seminars but accept that attendance monitoring for lectures is usually impractical. However, it was very clear that there was a variety of practice, ranging from nothing at all in some cases to detailed spreadsheet reports even showing coursework marks in others. A standard paperbased register form was available but tutors tended to adopt methods they were comfortable with, such as passing round a sign-up sheet and filing it or filling in more detailed record sheets after the session. Monitoring of attendance by year tutors was supposed to take place at key points in the year – survey weeks - but in reality it was often so difficult to get information from staff that a partial view was all that could ever be achieved. There was also uncertainty about who should deal with nonattendance – should it be the personal tutor, the year tutor, the unit tutor or the programme leader? - and many cases fell through the net. Difficulties were compounded by having students from different programmes mixed together and uncertainty at the beginning of the year about who was supposed to be in which class, especially in the first year when information comes relatively late in the day.
A system of ‘chasing’ students was in place but depended on getting information from tutors. Even when this was forthcoming, it was often partial, resulting in several letters being sent to students about different units. Furthermore, if a student missed three classes, received a letter, turned up for a class and then missed two more they would get the same letter again. The more letters they receive, the more the students perceive this as an administrative matter of no real import. The message that we are not really bothered about attendance and only pay lip service to our procedures seeps out to the student body and the culture of non-attendance worsens.
What was therefore needed was a system of recording attendance which could be shown to reduce the burden on staff both in terms of record keeping and communication and which would demonstrate to students how seriously we were taking the issue. We also needed a more robust system for chasing non-attendance with rational follow-up procedures. A project team was established to look at ways in which this could be done and a web –based solution was developed.
Moving to an electronic system – the pilot
The design of the new system and its associated procedures took place during the summer term, 2004 and development of the pilot system was undertaken over the summer of 2004 ready for use at the start of the Autumn term. Our basic requirements were for a web-based system which could be accessed from both inside and outside the university 1 , which would be password protected and would allow updating of registers with a simple click procedure. The departmental web project manager undertook to build the system and chose the no-cost opensource LAMP development platform (Linux Apache Mysql Php) as there is good support for it in the university and the department.
It was agreed that the system needed to allow different users of the system access to different sets of features:
- Administrators to import and manage student data from Hemis (the MMU core student database), set up codes, and allocate students to groups and seminars. Seminar group allocation to be done automatically where possible (otherwise to be done manually by year tutors)
- Route leaders to report on their route’s staff and students
- Report-only users (such as year tutors, unit tutors or programme leaders) to access reports on activity
- Seminar Tutors to print class lists, update their students’ attendance (and identify students, who appear unexpectedly at a seminar, and who the system may have registered to attend elsewhere). They would also be able to enter reasons given for non-attendance which could be used to support mitigating circumstances appeals at the end of the year. (See Figures 1,2,3,4 below)
Figure 1. Tutor's class list - printed before the class
Figure 2. Tutor's update attendance screen
Figure 3. Tutor update non-attendance reason screen
Figure 4. Student report
During the initial planning stage it was hoped to include the automatic texting of messages to students’ mobile phones if they missed a session and the triggering of a series of letters to students when they became a cause for concern. For reasons discussed elsewhere in this article, this aspect of the project was deferred.
Detail and Summary Reports were set up to report on attendance (and recording of attendance) by:
- Route – route leaders are able to see patterns of non-attendance
- Teaching Group – unit tutors are able to identify seminar groups which seem to have particular problems
- Tutor – administrators, route leaders and programme leaders can identify which tutors are not completing registers
- Seminar – detailed attendance for a specific seminar can be viewed
- Week – it is possible to get a snapshot of attendance across all courses for any week
- Student (including online search on partnames) – this will provide an individual student profile for attendance across their programme.
On-line and printed manuals were produced and a series of staff development events were held at the start of the new academic year. All associate lectures who would be using the system received a copy of the manual, a letter explaining the pilot and an invitation to a special training session. A form of helpdesk support was provided through the year by some of the development team and an associate lecturer who was paid to maintain the database.
The good and the bad
The system has generated:
- greatly improved information about student attendance – a variety of reports are possible and provide real-time information. That is, tutors are updating the registers weekly so there are no delays in viewing results.
- ease of viewing student profiles – it is now possible to see a student’s attendance profile across all their units. There is also an added advantage of being able to check for consistency, as when a student gives a genuine reason for absence it should appear for all units on that day or in that week.
- faster identification of problem cases – year tutors can access the system from week one and track student progress week by week.
- reduced workload for tutors – there is no need for tutors to respond to requests for attendance information or to worry about who to report to as year tutors can access the system at any time for the data they require. Full registers can be printed out to take into the classroom.
- less need for year tutors to chase up attendance data
- a ‘one-stop shop’ for moving students from group to group.
- information for mitigating circumstances appeals – where a student is absent for reasons which may ultimately affect their overall performance, this is recorded in the system on a weekly basis and can be referred back to for verification purposes.
Although there have been some very clear benefits and on the whole, staff have responded well to the new system, there have also been a number of difficulties. Firstly, the development work was extremely time consuming and a number of glitches in the system could perhaps have been avoided if a smaller-scale trial had been possible. However, it was not possible to fully test the system without real data thus the development has been ongoing through the year.
Secondly, although entering the data from Hemis was reasonably straightforward for the single honours routes, we were unable to find a simple way of getting students on the Faculty Joint Honours programme into the system. A number of ad hoc fixes were necessary which rendered the system more complex than it needed to be. The new Combined Honours structure for 2006 entry has partially resolved such problems as it is possible to allocate students to dedicated Combined Honours groups, rather than mixing them through groups. However, Hemis data for Science and Engineering Combined Honours students does not distinguish them by subject so these students had to be entered into the system manually. One, until recently, unresolved issue was to do with automatic allocation. If the wrong button is clicked, the consequences for manually entered data can be catastrophic. Having re-entered the Joint Honours students three times into the system, a system of regular backing up of data was introduced. However, there is still a need for an ‘undo’ feature and greater protection of previously stored data.
Maintenance of the database, particularly adding late enrolling students, moving people across groups and setting up new classes proved to be too time-consuming for the development team to undertake alone and it was necessary to pay for additional support. This took the form of two hours per week dedicated work which was undertaken by a post-graduate student in the department.
There were some very minor problems with staff buy-in. In one case, it was argued that paperbased systems kept had always been effective and inputting them into the system would increase work. It can now be shown, however, that the system actually reduces work as it is no longer necessary to send information through to the year tutor. In this particular case, the year tutor was having to enter the data when she received it, adding to her workload, but was happy to do this because it provided a coherent picture of students’ profiles. Only one other tutor refused to engage with the system.
The requirement to automatically text messages to students’ mobiles was based on an idea mooted by the University Foundation programme for chasing up non-attendance of their students. The main issue here was cost as to send SMS messages in bulk is pricey. Furthermore, entry of data and maintenance (logging changes et cetera) and data protection were also barriers to development of this idea.
The development group had also requested the use of a series of letters which would be automatically triggered by the system but there were considerable problems around sequencing. For instance, should the system send a letter after three missed classes across the programme or two missed classes in one unit? How would the sequencing be dealt with – could a diary system be built in and who would reset the records if the students responded? The risk here is that we again proliferate letters which are seen as even less meaningful because they are machine-produced. We would also need to link into the student records system to access address details. The letters have been produced and can be accessed on the departmental web site but experienced year tutors believed that telephoning students and calling them in for a meeting was a faster and more effective way of dealing with problem cases. The letters are perhaps more appropriate for those who do not respond to telephone calls but again, a diary system is essential and is difficult to automate.
Some attempts were made to extend the system into years 2 and 3 on a small scale. However, the design of the system is such that the structures will readily support a programme where students follow a compulsory core of units but are not so appropriate where optionality is possible. Class lists for units can be pulled from Hemis but students will be in a different seminar group for each of their units. Coding of groups becomes a significant problem and allocation of students to classes has to be done manually for every unit of study. It may be that a completely different structure is necessary if it is to be extended to years 2 and 3.
Despite some of the problems encountered, the benefits the system offers for tracking students and monitoring attendance have been invaluable. It is clear that there have been savings for staff in administrative activity and the ability to view a student attendance profile across their programme of study has made it far easier to deal with problem cases. A number of refinements were identified as necessary, such as making it more difficult for users to delete data accidentally, providing ‘are you sure?’ and ‘undo’ features in case they do and ensuring easier back-up and recovery. We also needed to find a faster way to enter the original data and allocate students to seminar groups.
We received a number of fault reports /new feature requests, following a user review, which have been addressed. We have also added in a facility for tutors to enter raw (ie before any moderation or penalty for late submission) coursework marks as soon as the assessment has been marked. This is to enable PDP tutors to use the system to access fuller information about students before tutorial meetings. We will still need to undertake a major feasibility study to look at how stage two and three students could be included in the system. However, it has now been agreed that the system will be developed and rolled out across the Faculty for year one students and a new project team are currently undertaking this work. The pilot phase has also provided us with a training version of the system which can be used to introduce new users to a dummy system using non-live data.
The major advantage we foresee is that the electronic system can be linked into central automated coursework receipting procedures and the electronic storing of coursework marks. Such a system would provide a comprehensive profile for tutors engaging in PDP work with students, particularly where those students are taking cross-faculty or cross university programmes.
Whether retention improves as a consequence of this project remains to be seen. What is certain is that we now have much better information on which we can build and plan for future retention initiatives.
1It was anticipated that a number of Associate Lecturers would be using the system and would prefer to do so from home.
Dodgson, R and Bolam, H. (2002) Student retention, Support and Widening Participation in the North East of England , Sunderland Universities for the North East
Parma, D. and Trotter, E. (2004) ‘Keeping our students: identifying factors that influence students withdrawal and strategies to enhance the experience and progression of first year students’, Learning and teaching in the Social Sciences 1:3, pp149-168
Tinto, V. (1987) Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition Chicago IL : University of Chicago Press
Thomas, L. (2002) Student retention in Higher Education: the role of institutional habitus, Journal of Education Policy , 17(4) 423-42
Yorke, M. (2002) ‘Formative assessment – the key to a richer learning experience in semester one.’ Exchange 1,pp12-13
Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2004) Retention and Student Success in Higher Education Berkshire , Open University Press
Dr. Liz Marr
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