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This page is a short note on whether we have things to learn from Randy Swing's account of recent innovations in USA HE about how to support first year students. (Randy Smith's biography.) I heard Randy at two seminars on 26 and 30 Sept 2003 (his slides), in connection with one of SHEFC's Quality Enhancement Engagements for 2003-4 "Responding to Student Needs" and its part "Providing holistic support for students..." and its subpart "with particular emphasis on the phases of ... the first year of study".
I list seven innovative practices (or interventions) he mentioned, and discuss how they would translate from the USA context to my own university; and hence whether or not they suggest changes we ourselves might usefully try.
Randy's basic position is that in the last five years or so several interventions have spread rapidly through most of HE (Higher Education i.e. universities) in USA. There is considerable evidence that they are effective (in terms both of changes in reported student attitude measures and in dropout rates); and they were invented and adopted because of evidence about the experience of first year students, and the unmet needs this research showed.
However in considering whether any of this has lessons for us, we need to keep in mind the basic differences in position between HE in the UK and in the USA. In fact there are relevant differences between HE in the USA, in Scottish universities like Glasgow with a faculty system for the first two years, Scottish universities in general, and English HE. In the US system, students usually have a great freedom of choice in the combinations of courses (i.e. modules) they do. An effect of this is that no two students may do the same combination, and if they do, they won't easily know about each other. In contrast in most UK universities, students are accepted for a specific programme and will do most of their courses with the same cohort of fellow students. However with a faculty entry system as at UoG and some other Scottish universities, before joining a relatively fixed honours programme for the second two years, students have a wide and individual choice of course combinations within their faculty for the first two years, and potentially face the same situation as US students.
These differences are important because one possible reaction is that the US is at last fixing horrible problems the UK doesn't have because of superior structural features; while an opposite one is that the UK is at last moving towards wider (more socially just) HE participation which the US has done earlier, and the UK should learn as soon as possible about the problems this is likely to throw up and their solutions.
Another issue in considering the translation of these issues and interventions from the USA to the UK is that the effects might be on dropout and retention rates (the two sides of the same coin), but might also show on grades and marks achieved, or on the quality of the learning experience, particularly where dropout rates are already low. That is, the same intervention might work, but show an effect on different output measures.
In 1997 England, using another of the possible definitions, had a dropout rate of 15.8% while Scotland had 16.1%. I take it then that Scotland is very similar, but perhaps slightly worse, than the UK in general. In 1997 at UoG the dropout rate was about 13% and the UK rate 16% on the same definition and year according to BBC tables. So I'll take it that UoG has (only) a slightly easier retention job than the UK or Scottish average.
The 2002-3 tables by HESA, if I'm reading them right, define dropout as the percentage of all first year first degree entrants who are no longer in HE a year later. The overall UK rate is 15.4%; the rate in Scotland is 10.7%; this university's rate is 9.2%. The range in dropout rates is 1%-36%. (HESA tables)
|These dropout figures, quoted in a news article, are for 1996-8 and derive from an OECD (2000) report. The funding councils also argue that while the numbers of students entering higher education has doubled in the past 10 years, the drop-out rate has only risen by 2% -- from 16% to the current 18%.|
In 2002 the UK rate was 18% on average with a range of 1-36% for different HEIs. Thus while rates vary greatly between countries, they also vary even more within a country i.e. different HEIs face quite different dropout rates. They also vary a lot within an HEI, most occurring in the first year: Randy mentioned about 25% currently drop out in the first year alone in the USA.
|The table shows the overall participation defined as the % of the population aged 25-35 with an HE qualification, according to the OECD's latest report (OECD, 2003).|
Defining participation differently as going directly from school into FE or HE: England had a rate of 12%?? until 1990, currently has participation 25-35%, but the target is 35-45% (see this HEFCE news). Scotland now has a participation rate of 52% (see this Scottish Executive bulletin), or 46% a few years ago (see this BBC news item). Another way of putting it (in that last news item) is that in the period 1982-1998 the number of students in Scottish HE nearly doubled.
But a useful table combining longer historical comparisons with high/low socio-economic groups is to be found in Robertson & Hillman (1997), section 1, table 1.1. It shows the percentge of the age 18+ cohort entering HE in a given year. API means Age Participation Index. "High" means socio-economic groups I, II, IIIn; "low" means groups IIIm, IV, V.
Participation by year and socio-economic group.|
Redrawn from Robertson & Hillman (1997)
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's recruitment and
retention survey in 2005 showed that 13% of new employees leave in the first
six months. Should universities expect to do any better?
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. (2005) Recruitment, retention and labour turnover survey 2005. (London: CIPD).
Surveys on what US HEIs are currently doing are here and also here.
However, perhaps UoG could do this for tutorial attendance, where attendance records often are kept (in those level 1 courses that do have tutorials). So we might look at a policy of having someone contact students after missing a tutorial. Variables in implementing such a policy include:
In the first trial, about 40% of the class qualified by their absences for the intervention. Of these 87% of those getting the intervention got grade C or better, while only 55% of the control group did. In the second trial (with no control group) only 58% got a C or better: as if there were no effect. In the third trial, 70% got C or better. However that was in the second semester, when perhaps most of the dropouts had already occurred and the remaining students were much less likely to fail. Differences between the definite success of the first trial, and the possible failure of the others include:
An attempt was made to replicate the Mississippi study at the University of Glasgow for students taking the first semester, first year psychology course. The trigger criterion was missing two consecutive tutorials. Those meeting the trigger were then randomly assigned to receive either an email or else a phone call. No differences were found in dropout or exam grades at the end of the semester between the groups. Dropout was defined as either withdrawal, or credit refused for failing to complete work e.g. non-attendance at the exam.
There were big differences in the effectiveness of the two methods in reaching the students and gaining an acknowledgement. There was no sign (in an extensive survey) of any problems in the phone calls being seen as intrusive or unwelcome.
|Email group||Telephone group|
|Total no. of students meeting the "trigger"||30||30|
|No. of students who were definitely reached||5||20|
|Of these, no. who had already dropped out||2||5|
|Total no. of dropouts by end of semester||17||17|
There's been some research, and no consensus yet, on the content of these courses. Because this has been very widely adopted, but with great variation in what each HEI means by it, there is data on what features are associated with most success.
To what extent do first year tutorials cover this function? At UoG a first year could get 3 tutorials a week, one per subject, although there is no uniform policy. Furthermore tutorials may not be weekly but fortnightly. They only last 50 minutes (not 3 hours). They are typically not taught by academic staff. They may or may not have a substantial study skills component.
All of this suggests to me that level 1 tutorials aren't just one part of a reasonable technical provision for certain subjects, but may be the most important factor determining quality, student performance, and dropout rate in level 1. If it turns out that they are, then this implies that substantial changes in their provision (in their frequency, content, length, and who acts as tutors) could yield large benefits. Overall, it means that our understanding of their aim and purpose should be changed: not just providing a bit of assistance with the content of the least advanced courses, but the locus for supporting the step change to different study habits, and forming the relationship between them and the subject and indeed the university.
Furthermore, my recent experience with PAL has made me think that experience in groups with no more than 5 students is important for some things, such as willingness to speak out and to engage in meaningful conceptual discussion. this means that larger groups may just not be effective.
In most UK universities this is automatic, where students enrol from the start in a given subject. In a Faculty system, we could do it by using the Registry database to extract the sets of students sharing all 3, (or failing that 2) subjects in first year; and giving them the list of each others names and emails. Perhaps also organise a "social". We might also consider using this in allocating students to tutorial groups: bunch together those a) with the most overlap in the courses they take, b) living in the same hall or area, c) with the same major declared on their UCAS university application form. In early tutorials, put on the agenda a) introducing themselves b) noting what other subjects each person takes.
In judging both the need for and success of such schemes, the main measure should (I think) be how often students talk to other students about their academic work. If the people they socialise with don't do the same courses, this will be seldom; if they do, it is almost certain to be high. In fact it seems to me likely the real need is to have a minimum number of acquaintances on the same course(s); but after that, knowing diverse people is good.
The simple underlying idea is that people learn best in communities. If the people students know share the same experiences, then they will automatically talk about it, and learn more (and feel less isolated). The US system of free choice of courses makes for consumeristic "freedom of choice" at the price of isolation. The English system automatically largely avoids this. The Scottish faculty entry system suffers from this for the first years: exactly the students most at risk of isolation. Freedom of learning choices has been allowed to entail isolation and the absence of academic community. Lecture audiences in the hundreds mean that people never sit next to the same person twice unless they know them so well they arranged to meet beforehand: new acquaintances cannot be formed there. Even tutorial groups of 20 are not always good for this in practice.
It is also worth thinking of this in terms of halls of residence: again, use databases to put people in touch who have most in common (both courses taken and living in the same hall). Note that the Oxbridge college system might score badly in this respect.
This could and should be adopted here for the same reasons that evidence-based medicine is being progressively adopted.
If any of the implications of these US interventions are tried here, it should be with evaluation measures to determine whether first the same problem and then the same intervention apply in the new context.
This view is in contrast with the common view of learning as an individual cognitive activity, with social interaction only an indirect, auxiliary factor. It is however in line with the alternative view of learning as apprenticeship developed by Jean Lave (1988, 1991) and others. It is also consistent with Tinto's concept of academic and social integration in the literature on dropout and retention. Another way of looking at it is in terms of the easily measured objective factors e.g. amount of interaction with staff, with other students, etc. It could also be seen as related to Piaget's views of the role of peers as external stimuli that promote the internal conflicts and reorganisations necessary to development and learning. Or more simply, as to do with getting the students to feel that someone, or the organisation, is paying attention to them. Or more simply still, it just reminds them, prompts them to think about, their activities rather than letting it drift without any real learning actions.
It is particularly important nowadays for a traditional, campus-based, face-to-face (as opposed to distance-learning) university such as UoG to consider this. Unless it is able to deliver an effective experience of learning community by exploiting the potential advantages of the copresence of learners with the same aims and experiences, then it will be as poor for learning as a crowded shopping mall.
The change from school to university is a huge change in learning environment and required habits, and this requires scaffolding. This will apply more strongly to those ("widened access") who do not come from schools and/or homes where staff and parents have been orienting pupils to university from their experience and through their expectations.
This may imply we should reconsider the use of tutorials in level 1. If this social-induction function is established as of major importance then this amounts to a new (or rather, newly explicitly identified) requirement on tutorials. This in turn may imply that all level 1 courses should be required to offer tutorials, and that these tutors should be recruited and trained differently (i.e. not just on the basis of their subject-specific technical knowledge, operating as demonstrators somewhat like a telephone helpline for computer problems) in line with the newly identified requirement.
BBC tables for HE performance at dropout and social inclusion
Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson (1987) "Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education" American Association of Higher Education Bulletin pp.3-7 http://www.hcc.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/7princip.htm
John C. Hall (2001) Retention and Wastage in FE and HE: A Review http://www.scre.ac.uk/scot-research/wastage/index.html (SCRE)
HEFCE (2000) Performance Indicators in Higher Education (London: HEFCE; HEFCW; DENI; SHEFC). http://www.hefce.ac.uk/learning/perfind/2000/
Lave, Jean (1988) Cognition in practice : mind, mathematics and culture (Cambridge Univeristy Press)
Lave, Jean (1991) Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation (Cambridge Univeristy Press)
NSSE: The national survey of student engagement: The college report http://www.indiana.edu/~nsse/
OECD (1997) Thematic Review of the First Years of Tertiary Education. Country Note: United Kingdom. http://www.oecd.org/els/pdfs/EDSEPDOCA015.pdf
OECD (2000) Education at a Glance. http://www.oecd.org/els/education/EAG2000/index.htm
OECD (2003) Education at a Glance. http://www.oecd.org/document/52/
Robertson,D. & Hillman,J. (1997) "Widening participation in higher education for students from lower socio-economic groups and students with disabilities" (part of the Dearing committee work) http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/report6.htm
Tinto,V. (1982) "Limits of theory and practice in student attrition" Journal of Higher Education vol.53 no.6 pp.687-700
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