Supporting student success in Higher Education

Rebecca Morris, University of Birmingham

When university students underperform or drop out, a typical response is to question whether the individuals or groups who are struggling have had enough support with their studies. Are there systems in place to help the students who need it? And are these systems available and accessible to all?

One of the key findings to emerge from the interviews we undertook with HE students was how aware they were of the support on offer at university. They knew that they had a personal tutor who they could talk to and that lecturers offered office hours and drop-in sessions. They also knew that there are services to help with a range of academic practice skills as well as social and welfare issues.

But frequently those who had reported having challenges during their first year told us that they did not access this support. Some expressed regret at this, believing that if they had used the help on offer, their end of year performance may have been better. This finding is important as it prompts us to ask why students choose not to utilise this support.

The students we talked to often struggled to articulate clearly what had prevented them from accessing support, whether that be meetings with lecturers or tutors, attending sessions run to improve academic literacy or numeracy, or participating in mentoring schemes. What did emerge though was a sense of a stigma attached to active engagement with support opportunities at university, a sense of embarrassment at having to ask for help. Some also indicated that a lack of confidence prevented them from seeking help when they needed it, echoing the views of some HE lecturers too.

Crucially, if we believe that the support on offer to students is of value, these findings encourage us to think about how universities can develop and improve their existing systems to ensure that those who most need it actually access it. Might there even be a need for universities to compel engagement with support for groups we know struggle with this?

These findings have been influential in informing the interventions designed as part of the second phase of this project. One example includes the implementation of a more rigorous personal tutoring system, including additional meetings for students, increased guidance for tutors and new methods for monitoring engagement. Another intervention involves the creation of an online module targeted at BTEC students, accessible from the pre-enrolment stage, and designed to offer support with a range of academic practice skills.

A key focus in developing these has been to consider how we can encourage increased student participation and engagement. Does making an aspect of support mandatory ensure that it happens? Do information or incentive strategies help to encourage support take-up?   And what does the targeting of support mean for inclusion and equality of opportunity?

These are just some of the challenges and tensions that are being negotiated through the current implementation and evaluation stages of this project. We’ll be following up soon with further blogs on how the interventions have worked in practice.

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