Student Engagement and Retention: Easing the transition to HE

Getting Started…

This is one of a series of guides collating evidence and learning from the 23 projects within the JISC Building Capacity programme (2010/11). Each is focused on a common institutional strategic aim, describing how projects built their capacity to meet that aim and how what worked in their context, could work in yours. The guides are written to be “just enough to get started” rather than all-encompassing.

This guide addresses one aspect of the broad area of student engagement, that of supporting student retention through enhancing the first year experience. At Birkbeck  the project was proposed in response to a new retention strategy. Edge Hill University has a strategic aim to improve student retention and success. Their focus has been on enhancing the student experience from acceptance of a place to transition into a first year student.  The University of Cumbria has also been addressing the same issue, with it’s primary focus being on widening participation.

What are the takeaway ideas you could use in your context?

Enhancing the student journey to the point of arrival at the university in part through access to richer information should result in improved retention. Birkbeck aimed to create an interactive website for enquirers, applicants and current first year undergraduate students that would aid transition into HE by:

  • familiarising prospective students with Higher Education and, more specifically, the Birkbeck environment
  • addressing anxieties about first time or return to study
  • addressing applicants’ expectations of university life and their course; turning expectations into realistic and achievable priorities
  • conveying a sense of the (study) skills necessary to succeed in HE
  • providing low level assessments to give participants opportunities to get feedback
  • allowing students to practice their study skills

Birkbeck wanted an interactive site, but didn’t have somebody with the technical skill to develop this functionality from scratch. Xerte, developed by the University of Nottingham, is a free, open source e-learning development environment that allows (non IT specialist) online content producers to create interactive web material. Materials include text, graphics and also mp3 files, You Tube links or RSS feeds. Tools allow for the easy development of interactive files that include quizzes, gap filling, drag and match, and hotspot exercises.  Files can be shared by interested parties and material that is edited is automatically updated on the web.

Social media incorporating staff and student generated content can be used to develop a feeling of community and can support pedagogic approaches. The University of Cumbria using a range of already available technologies, including the institutional VLE and e-portfolio system, aimed to provide students with a rich and varied range of materials about starting life at the University. Cumbria is developing this further through development of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) so that students take ownership over their use of technology in support of their learning.

The institutional CRM system can be used to better manage the relationship between potential students and the University, and to efficiently deliver valuable information to that audience.

What benefits can be gained by using these ideas?

In order to retain students, their expectations for their chosen course and life at university need to be realistic (De Freitas and Conole, 2010). Giving students and potential students access to relevant study skills materials and programme level information requires consideration of the phase that the student has reached; using technology to tailor the information can help manage the expectations of prospective students

“At a time of change and upheaval at Birkbeck, this project has played a major role in supporting retention and helping Birkbeck develop its thinking about the transition of non-traditional learners.  It has been at the heart of a key piece of strategic work and made a tangible difference to Birkbeck’s future capacity to survive and thrive.”
(Tricia King, Pro-Vice Master for Student Experience, Birkbeck)

Capturing and sharing student experiences by actively engaging students in content production, and linking this to learning, teaching and assessment, could be a win-win situation in terms of attracting students, and retaining them through engagement with and participation in the online community. The government focus on increasing employability can also be addressed through encouraging students to produce resources that could be used by thousands of peers, and viewed as a showcase by potential employers. Giving prospective students access to a limited amount of information about their course should reassure them about the level of support that will be available to them during their study.

“Developing approaches to improving retention remains and institutional priority…There will be a growing need [to] assure the quality of the study experience throughout the students’ journeys with the University”
(Professor Liz Beaty, PVC Academic Enterprise and External Relations, Cumbria)

How can you implement the ideas to realise the benefits?

Ensuring the success of any project requires alignment with University policy and strategy. Leadership from senior management is vital in terms of sustaining engagement and buy in from staff; putting university strategy clearly into context against activities that are happening “on the ground” is essential.

Use of technology to allow prospective students to interact with relevant information about their chosen course of study, and to learn study skills, are ways to support students through their transition into HE. This could be through a website interface linked to your institutional CRM system, including content such as talking heads, blogs and online tours, and linked to a personal profile that students can develop pre-enrolment, but continue to populate afterwards. For example, as well as capturing student accounts that support the study experience, the Cumbria project also recognised that using technology for learning, teaching and assessment could present prospective students with authentic examples of the study experience as it is happening. For example, students from the BA (Hons) Journalism programme have produced content for The Informer Online (the site for University of Cumbria students) using a blog and YouTube.

The use of a content driven social network has also been considered by Building Capacity projects to provide a space for collaboration, and a home for user-generated content specific to describing the student experience; however social networks also rely on adoption and significant online participation, which will take time to develop. At the University of Bradford the following consideration was made during their project:

“By producing a social network for Bradford, students would potentially become more engaged, and the student experience would be enhanced; it would be particularly useful to work based and distance learners yet it wouldn’t duplicate existing work & systems; it would provide a communication channel outside of the module structured VLE;  development of student learning contracts would aid retention.”

This was one of three options that could be implemented at Bradford. Senior managers were able to vote on which of the shortlisted projects they would most like implemented. Although the online social network was voted second, an IT stakeholder who participated in the voting has since been piloting an open source Social Network in their own time.

Further information