What works? Facilitating an effective transition into higher education

What works? Facilitating an effective
transition into higher education
Professor Liz Thomas, Higher Education Academy
Student Writing in Transition Symposium, Nottingham Trent University
• Retention and non-completion in England.
• What works? Student retention and success programme
• What works? model: Improving student engagement,
belonging, retention and success
• Characteristics of effective interventions and approaches
• Effective transition: pre-entry, induction and learning and
teaching in the first semester/year
• Small group activity: Student stories
• Examples of effective practice from What works?
• Small group activity: Sharing effective practice
• Reflective checklist
• Implementing change
Defining retention the English way
“The first is the ‘completion rate’ – the proportion of
starters in a year who continue their studies until they
obtain their qualification, with no more than one
consecutive year out of higher education. As higher
education courses take years to complete, an expected
completion rate is calculated by the Higher Education
Statistics Agency… A more immediate measure of
retention is the proportion of an institution’s intake which
is enrolled in higher education in the year following their
first entry to higher education. This is the ‘continuation
rate’.” (NAO, 2007, p5).
Non-continuation, completion and
thinking about leaving
•The average non-continuation rate was 8.4% for entrants to
English higher education institutions in 2009-10;
•Non-continuation rates varied between English institutions
between 1.2% and 21.4% in 2009-10;
•The average completion rate for students entering institutions
in England in 2009-10 was projected to be 78.4%; and
•Completion rates were projected to vary between institutions
between 53.8% and 97.2% in 2009-10.
•Between 33% (1/3) and 42% (2/5) of students think
about withdrawing from HE.
What works? Student retention and
success programme
• NAO (2007) and PAC (2008): Lack of progress and lack of
evidence about what works.
• £1 million (Paul Hamlyn Foundation and HEFCE) to
support 7 projects involving 22 HEIs to identify, evaluate
and disseminate effective practice.
• The primary purpose of the programme is to generate
robust, evidence-based analysis and evaluation about the
most effective practices to ensure high continuation and
completion rates.
From theory to practice
‘Most institutions have not yet been able
to translate what we know about
student retention into forms of action
that have led to substantial gains in
student persistence and graduation.’
(Professor Vincent Tinto HEA retention conference 2006)
Seven evaluation projects
1) A comparative evaluation of the roles of student adviser
and personal tutor in relation to undergraduate student
retention, Anglia Ruskin University
2) Pathways to Success through peer mentoring, Aston
3) ‘Belonging’ & ‘intimacy’ factors in the retention of
students, University of Leicester
4) Dispositions to Stay: The Support and Evaluation of
Retention Strategies Using the Effective Lifelong Learning
Inventory (ELLI), Northumbria University
Seven evaluation projects
5) Project 5: HERE! Higher education retention &
engagement, Nottingham Trent University
6) Comparing and evaluating the impacts on student
retention of different approaches to supporting students
through study advice and personal development,
University of Reading
7) Good Practice in Student Retention: an Examination of
the effects of student integration on non-completion,
University of Sunderland
Selected through a competitive tender process.
Key messages
•The key message from these 7 projects is
the centrality of students having a strong
sense of belonging in HE; this is most
effectively nurtured in the academic
•This puts high quality student-centred
learning and teaching at the heart of
effective student retention and success.
Key messages
Student belonging is an outcome of:
•Supportive peer relations.
•Meaningful interaction between staff
and students.
•Developing knowledge, confidence and
identity as successful HE learners.
•An HE experience which is relevant to
interests and future goals.
Key findings
• Between 1/3 and 2/5 of students think about withdrawing
from HE.
• Academic issues, feelings of isolation and/or not fitting in
and concern about achieving future aspirations are the
primary reason why students think about leaving.
• Early engagement in the academic sphere (pre-entry,
induction and first semester) can develop peer networks
and friendships, create links with academic members of
staff, provide key information, inform realistic
expectations, improve academic skills, develop student
confidence and nurture a sense of belonging.
Key findings
• Relationships between staff and students and peers
promote and enable student engagement and success in
HE. These should be nurtured pre-entry, in the classroom
and in the delivery of professional services.
• Some programmes have better rates of retention than
would be predicted on the basis of entry grades; and
some specific interventions have been shown to improve
retention rates by around 10 percentage points.
• Particularly effective interventions are situated in the
academic sphere and have an overt academic purpose,
while also developing peer and staff/student relations.
Institutional management and
Student capacity
Staff capacity
Early engagement extends into HE and beyond
Implementation: Characteristics of
effective interventions and approaches
Well timed &
What works process
(level 1
(level 2
and success
Student voices
“I knew the campus, I’d been here many times... but, the
reality of coming was scary... I didn’t know what to expect,
and there were so many youngsters all seeming to know
what they were doing.” (Mature student, University of
“Anyone that says they’re not scared is lying because there is
that fear. Everyone has those giant fears of am I going to be
liked, am I going to make friends, how am I going to feel
living away from home… … you know… you’re afraid of
everything, but you’ve got to grow up some time” (Young
male, first year student, Aston University).
Student voices
I was worried about like getting on with other people and
fitting in… I wasn’t worried about the work or anything, it
was just fitting in. (2nd Year female student, Aston
“Because I’m a single parent I literally come to University to
study, I don’t have the luxury of having a social life at
University because I’ve got family commitments.” (Mature,
local student, University of Sunderland)
Small group activity: Student stories
• Find a person or people near you with the same student
• Read the student story.
• Discuss and make a note of the reasons why this student
left or thought about leaving higher education.
Effective interventions
Most effective pre-entry and induction interventions
combine these roles:
• Providing information
• Informing expectations
• Developing academic skills
• Building social capital
• Nurturing a sense of belonging
Mature students study skills
summer school, University of Hull
Well-timed &
appropriate media
2 day non-residential pre-entry study skills
summer school for mature students
All mature students, all levels and FT &PT
All students encouraged to attend
Explicit academic focus on skills
Just before new academic year begins.
Develops skills rather provides information.
Includes strong social element, lunch with
staff and students.
Qualitative feedback and review of data.
Are non-participants followed up?
Mature students study skills
summer school, University of Hull
Peer relations
Interaction with staff
Developing capacity
Relevant to current/
future goals*
Sense of belonging
Focus groups with students and analysis of
institutional data
Developed long-term friendships.
Got to know programme staff.
Increased students confidence and skills.
The academic focus was particularly
Created cohort identity.
Retention & success Better retention rates compared to
students who did not participate.
Student voices
“...I felt much more able when I realised ‘we all were learning
this’ and I wasn’t the only one, and I now had people to share
this with and keep me going [...] and they did when I needed
“…make friends, it’s not what I came here to do and didn’t
really want to, but it was kind of part of the [weekly] work... I
kind of had to... and, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.”
“we’ve kept each other going and it’s all from the very start,
from the lunch. Knowing we’d be in [the same] classes
together brought us together. We said ‘we can help each
other’ and that’s what we did, and we’re all mates and y’know
have a coffee and a chat, about Uni and about, well...”
Mature students, University of Hull
T-shirt induction activity, Newcastle
Well-timed &
appropriate media
Fun, semi-structured approach to group
formation during induction in engineering
Activity takes place as part of academic
induction for all level 1 students.
All students participate.
It is led by senior lecturer as part of the
course. Groups then undertake projects.
During first week. Emphasis is on forming
groups rather than providing information.
Promotes peer interaction and group
working. Structured to promote mixing.
Qualitative feedback and review of data.
Are non-participants followed up?
T-shirt induction activity, Newcastle
Surveys and focus groups with students and
analysis of institutional data
Peer relations
Groups continued to work and socialise
together one year later (58%)
Interaction with staff* Opportunity to get to know a key member of
Developing capacity
Students help each other (44% reported
receiving help)
Relevant to
Group working in the curriculum, and relevant
current/future goals* to engineering employment.
Sense of belonging
Created a belonging always or mostly (81%)
Retention & success
Better retention rates year on year (85-94%)
& compared to other engineering schools.
Student voices
“....it kind of makes....you don’t just feel like one individual person
on a course, it is kind of like you are in a conglomerate of people
kind of thing...I think it does definitely make you feel part of the
group or part of something within the year group rather than just
one lone person.”
“First year is bad because you don’t know anyone....if you don’t set
up the design group you have got to make friends, where are you
going to make friends kind of thing.....well you wouldn’t
usually.....and if it was all individual work. You have to stick
around to do the work and obviously if it is group work you are
forced to meet people....”.
“…I think if you are part of the kind of group then if, if you are
going to drop out then.... or if you are struggling academically
then you have got people there to support you as well”.
(CEAM students, Newcastle University)
Student-centred learning & teaching
a) Staff/student relationships: knowing staff and being able to
ask for help.
b) Curricular contents and related opportunities: providing real
world learning opportunities which are interesting and relevant
to future aspirations motivate students to engage and be
successful in higher education.
c) Learning and teaching: group based learning and teaching
that allows students to interact with each other, share their
own experiences and learn by doing. A variety of learning
experiences, including work placements, and delivered by
enthusiastic lectures were found to be important too.
d) Assessment and feedback: clear guidelines about assessment
processes and transparency about criteria and feedback to assist
students to perform better in the future.
Student-centred learning & teaching
a) Personal tutoring: as a means of developing a close
relationship with a member of staff who oversees individual
progress and takes action if necessary, including direct students
to appropriate academic development and pastoral support
b) Peer relations and cohort identity: having friends to discuss
academic and non-academic issues with, both during teaching
time and outside of it, and a strong sense cohort identity.
c) A sense of belonging to particular a place within the
university, most usually a departmental building or a small
campus, or a hall of residence.
Problem-based learning in groups,
University of Sunderland
Well-timed &
appropriate media
Core level 1 course using problem-based
learning in groups of 8 students.
This is part of mainstream curriculum.
All students participate, and group work is
Relevant to current learning and team
working in employment.
During first week. Emphasis is on forming
groups rather than providing information.
Uses the academic sphere to facilitate social
integration. Staff work with groups of 8
Qualitative feedback and review of data.
Problem-based learning in groups,
University of Sunderland
Peer relations
Surveys and focus groups with students and
analysis of institutional data
Students worked in groups outside of the
classroom and made friends.
Interaction with
Developing capacity
Opportunity to get to know staff in small
Supported to work in groups through
coaching and other staff support.
Relevant to
current/future goals.
Able to relate to own experiences and
Sense of belonging
Created a sense of belonging.
Retention & success
Better retention rates year on year from
77% to 85%.
Student voices
“I made [friends] through my seminars, really. I got four
really good friends, and I’ve just clicked with them straight
away, and then we sit together in lectures and stuff. And
now I’m working on this project with them and we’ve been
meeting up outside of Uni and stuff.”
“[...]I like that you can work together and somebody can
bring a piece of information that you’ve never heard of, and
you can bring something that somebody else has never
heard of, and then you can swap them and find out how
they found it and what’s in the research. I like that.”
(Psychology students, University of Sunderland)
Group activity
• Discuss interventions or approaches that you are familiar
with that would have helped the student you discussed
• Be prepared to feedback to the group one intervention
that might have helped and why.
Reflective checklist
1. To what extent is transition work focused on social
engagement and developing social capital (contacts or networks
to draw on), rather than on provision of information?
2. How early are you starting to build meaningful relationships
with and between students, so that they know who to ask if
they need information or support?
3. To what extent do your transition activities have an overt
academic purpose? Could the academic element be increased?
In what ways are academic members of staff involved in
transition activities?
4. Do you have sufficient structured opportunities for students to
get to know members of staff? Is this sufficient to enable
students to get to know staff and be able to ask for information
or support?
Reflective checklist continued
5. To what extent do pre- and post-entry transition activities
facilitate students getting to know peers from the same course
or programme? Is there a structured approach to encourage
mixing outside of their comfort zones?
6. Does your transition programme make the benefits of academic
and social engagement explicit to students and provide them
with skills and opportunities to engage?
7. To what extent do transition activities build on and relate to
students diverse interests, experiences and backgrounds?
8. In what ways is the relevance of the course or programme of
study to students’ future aspirations made explicit both pre- and
9. Have you reviewed the implementation and outcomes of your
transition activities using the framework presented in this paper?
Prioritise developing student capacity through social
engagement with an academic purpose.
‘This seminal initial stage of the first few weeks at university
can have a substantial effect on students’ eventual
socialization into university culture and therefore their
engagement with educationally effective practices’ (Vinson
et al. 2010, p133).
‘Those who feel at home, who take part in extra-curricular
activities, and who feel connected with fellow students and
teachers, are more inclined to persist with their studies.
Without social integration, it is more difficult to persist,
and ultimately to graduate’ (Severiens & Schmidt, 2009,
Implementing change
Institutional change programme 2012-15.
•Institutional review.
•Strategic planning and implementation of changes.
•Changes at course/programme level including induction,
active learning and teaching and co-curricular activities
•Aligning student union activities to promote academic
engagement and belonging.
•Research about the process of change.
•External evaluation of impact.
Thank you!
Contact details:
[email protected]
What works? reports:
Other HEA resources

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