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New Insights on WP: Improving retention

  • 23 August 2017
  • By Ellen Pope, Neil Ladwa and Sarah Hayes

On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Since last week, we have been showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the seventh in the series, features the chapter on improving retention written by Ellen Pope, Head of the Learning Development Centre; Neil Ladwa, Achievement Enhancement Adviser; and Sarah Hayes, Senior Lecturer and Programme Director for the Post-Graduate Diploma and Masters in Education at Aston University.

Improving retention

Ellen Pope, Neil Ladwa and Sarah Hayes

The number of poor students who drop out of university before finishing their degree is now at its highest for five years. Despite the vast funds that have been poured into boosting access to higher education, the Office For Fair Access notes, ‘while more disadvantaged young people are in higher education than ever before, the numbers of those students leaving before completing their studies has risen for the second year in a row’. These findings are confirmed by the Social Mobility Commission, which says ‘despite universities’ success in opening their doors to more working-class youngsters than ever before, retention rates and graduate outcomes for disadvantaged students have barely improved over the period’.

At Aston University we believe dropping out represents the worst outcome for any student. Not every student with problems will drop out, but the ones that do so are probably the most troubled and need the most help. While managing down drop-out rates improves both a university’s financial and league table positions, at Aston we have particularly focused on the human cost to students via personal setback.

Established as a university in 1966, Aston has over 50 years’ experience in making a difference to peoples’ lives through higher education, widening participation and a high-quality experience for the diverse entrants to its programmes. Aston’s success is shown by its position in the top 30 universities for enabling student access, achievement and graduate employment. Learning gain at Aston includes increased knowledge and skills, but also work-readiness via placement opportunities and personal development for all. Challenging work placements mean our students return to their final year ready for future employment. However, though diversity is a strength, it presents particular challenges when seeking to improve retention and success. Students often enter Aston with comparatively low social capital: 42.1 per cent are from the four lowest socio-economic groups, against the sector average of 33 per cent, according to HESA data. Their journey from enrolment to graduation is one that transforms their career prospects, and for many, their life opportunities.

Aston’s current strategy began to take shape in 2015, when the University appointed two Achievement Enhancement Advisers with a specific remit for reducing attrition and developing joined-up approaches to retention and progression. We sought a partnership approach, identifying key areas of focus using institutional and school-level data and working in cross-university groups. Collaborative approaches are among the high-impact practices, identified by George Kuh, as essential to link expertise across the institution and improve student persistence and success. Co-ownership of our widening participation and employability core values, through an on-going dialogue with our students and staff, helps us overcome challenges presented by organisational structure.

Using relevant Aston data, the following areas were identified as key to improving student attrition rates.

1) Students’ confidence and ability in numeracy

Reviewing Aston’s data around retention and progression revealed that a high proportion of the modules students fail and repeat contain some form of Mathematics or quantitative elements. Working with programme teams and departments, such as the Centre for Learning Innovation & Professional Practice and the Learning Development Centre, actions included redesigning key modules to create more inclusive learning experiences. Mathematics support (both pre- and post-entry) in the Learning Development Centre was enhanced by improving visibility, data and communication. The Centre for Learning Innovation & Professional Practice developed sessions for those teaching Mathematics to facilitate better support. The result is a better understanding of staff and student needs, and an improvement in student success relating to numerically-intensive modules.

2) Using learning analytics to support students

Early identification of students at risk of withdrawal or non-progression is vital, particularly in the first term when there is little to identify an at-risk student prior to the January assessment period. Our HEFCE-funded pilot, which works towards developing a learning-analytics solution and tracking student-learning activity, has been conducted in consultation with students and our Students’ Union. It will enable staff to view a dashboard showing learner engagement and attainment and allow early interventions with students at risk of withdrawing or not progressing. An attendance monitoring system and student apps will allow students to track and discuss their engagement levels.

3) Supporting early transition into higher education

At Aston we seek to develop an early sense of belonging. Our Welcome Week provides support for new students and Aston University Students’ Union volunteers greet new international students. More work could be done between acceptance and enrolment though, so we recently held two Higher Education Academy supported cross-institutional development days to share ideas across staff and the Student Union.

4) Improving academic/pastoral support for students

Through talking with staff and students it became evident that Aston’s personal tutoring system was deemed valuable but variable in effectiveness. We redesigned personal tutor training to include:

  • exploration of barriers to learning;
  • case studies on students in crisis;
  • resource sheets for student referrals;
  • exploration of tutor versus student expectations;
  • understanding the current personal tutoring policy; and
  • using online resources to support tutees.

A new system of super tutors is also now used in schools. The supertutor provides additional support to tutors and leads on interventions for at-risk students.

At a strategic level, our student retention and achievement activities have oversight through a senior management steering group. This runs in collaboration with our learning analytics steering committee, with knowledge shared between them.

Aston students and colleagues have taken part in the Jisc Change Agents’ Network and are actively involved in a Birmingham Digital Student Partnership. At the International Federation of National Teaching Fellows (IFNTF) World Summit held in Birmingham in February 2017, colleagues from Aston University and Birmingham City University made a joint presentation. Entitled ‘High Impact Practices: a link to measuring learning gain’, which featured our experiences of forging collaboration to support a shared understanding of learning gain. Embedding retention in these sorts of networks has been crucial in enabling Aston to outperform its Higher Education Statistics Agency benchmark: a sector average adjusted for each higher education provider. This was achieved with a larger proportion of students from more deprived backgrounds than other institutions who occupy a top 20 position for graduate prospects.

Ultimately, our successes in student retention are attributed to:

  • strong support from senior management;
  • strategic partnerships to contribute to learning gain;
  • our fundamental university-wide ethos of widening participation, diversity, inclusion and success;
  • an integrated curriculum, with teaching that draws on experiences of our students, incorporating teamwork and peer support, flexible placements, vocational courses and work-based learning; and
  • a culture of empowerment to continually challenge practice.

Aston University recognises student experience and engagement as everyone’s responsibility. This helps to nurture personal accountability and also innovation around retention and inclusivity. We believe the following are important to support on-going student success and achievement.

Developing a sense of community: Building on examples of effective institutional practice promotes a sense of community between undergraduate students and the institution. Our new learning and teaching community web pages will develop shared online resources.

Transition: We will explore the possibilities of curriculum alignment between BTEC courses taught in local colleges and some programmes offered at Aston University, to better prepare students for the transition from further to higher education. We hope to develop virtual tours to support students living at home and those learning at a distance. It is important to challenge assumptions about what our students know, particularly in relation to first generation students.

Staff engagement: The profile of retention and progression at Aston University has risen significantly. However, there are still improvements which can be made in engaging staff across all departments. Sharing effective practice is a priority and will build upon innovations such as our learning analytics system.

Student retention, progression and achievement is a continually-evolving area within higher education. Aston’s approach has encompassed and absorbed as many different roles, experiences and environments as possible, providing a greater capacity for flexibility and understanding of student issues and student engagement.

Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.

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