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Middlesex University, in common with most institutions of Higher Education in England, has been attempting to meet the challenges set by the government in respect of widening participation and increasing diversity among the student body. At the same time we have also recognised the need to investigate and improve our rate of retention. We have done this in different ways and at different levels in the university. The ISLER project (The Impact of the Student Learning Experience on Retention) explores the student pathway through the first year to identify issues which prove troublesome and to identify issues which contribute to student departure. Also, School based research on a much more localised level has also been undertaken with a view to exploring students’ expectations as a clue to why they leave early in their course. The first paper in this Symposium will report on university wide research looking at the first year experience, motivations for entering HE and attitudes concerning learning and teaching. The paper by Jenny Jacobs et al reinforces these findings emphasising the crucial nature of the first semester and the need for academics to be aware of the culture shock with which students are faced. The last paper reports on ongoing research in the School of Computing Science which is looking at the expectations of students as they approach different years of their studies and how these change over the years.
All three papers highlight the need to listen to our students, encourage academics to be more sympathetic to student needs. We need to be prepared to listen to our students and, probably more importantly, to adjust our expectations of them in the early stages of their academic careers.
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Deeba Parmar, Centre for Learning Development, Middlesex University
Themes: The first year experience, retention, diversity
The increase in student numbers entering higher education (HE) in the recent decades – the figures have increased four-fold between 1975 and 1995 (Department for Education and Employment 1995/6) and are continuing to increase – in conjunction with the governments widening participation aims brings a greater challenge for HE institutions to meet the needs of their students. Accompanying this increasingly diverse student body is the apparent fall in student retention rates, particularly among first year undergraduate students (Yorke 2002), which brings a greater urgency for universities to understand their student profile in order to cater for their requirements.
These issues are brought to the forefront of institutional concern with many HE strategic/mission statements addressing issues of diversity and student success. Middlesex University has responded to these concerns by incorporating issues of student retention, progression and the quality of the student experience into its strategic aims and learning, teaching and assessment strategy. Local research is also continually conducted in order to better understand the particular issues that affect their students. Consequently there is a growing body of local research, which is designed to be internally useful yet could have greater than local impact if structured appropriately and disseminated in a larger arena.
This literature provides strong evidence of the difficulties that students’ face on entering higher education and its impact (Mackie 2001, Fisher & Hood 1987) and has identified particular factors that may contribute to student withdrawal, which alongside institutional and strategic commitments, has led to internal research at Middlesex University.
This paper will focus on factors which appear to affect student retention and progression, and the quality of the student experience with regards to first year students. Furthermore, tutors perceptions of the reasons behind student withdrawal are ascertained and what strategies they employ to contribute towards this and whether this is reflected within their module retention figures. Qualitative research was conducted with first and second year students and module and programme leaders to explore their perspectives and to identify and discuss emerging themes with might contribute to student success and enhancing the quality of the first year experience.
This paper will report on the findings of the work thus far with analysis indicating a heavy emphasis on the importance of the early stages of the student lifecycle and pre-enrolment.
Pirkko Harvey, Carl Reynolds and Ray Adams (2004), School of Computing Science, Middlesex University
If we are to understand better the issues which impact on student retention and success, one vital ingredient is to consult the students themselves. In the present work, questionnaires were completed by two samples of students from a first year module (n = 54) and a third year module. Important issues were raised by these responses and some significant differences between the two samples also emerged.
In both groups, a substantial proportion of students combine work and study, more so in the third year sample. In the first year, 44% reported working. In the third year, this figure rose to 67%. The hours worked, judging by the averages are not small. In the first year sample, an average 16.65 hours per week were reported, as compared with 17.00 in the third year sample. The amount of hours appears stable but the number of working students increases. The perceived need / temptation for students to work whilst studying seems to increase over the course and should be seen as a potential risk factor for retention failure. Further analyses of the exam grades of students in the third year were related to the volume of paid work undertaken. No strong relationship was found, but further work with larger sample sizes will be undertaken before we can have any confidence in this conclusion. At the least, we can say that the exact relationships between working and studying are complex, involving other factors like levels of support and self organisation.
The two groups of students rate the importance of obtaining a good degree very highly. This implies that students are motivated and the study intends to identify good practice in order to assist students to maintain their motivation.
Whilst the data obtained needs further analysis, the figures overall display a static picture of either no change or slight decline in the perceived importance of factors that were initially identified as likely to affect retention. Are we teaching them that they are relatively unimportant when compared with other influences on their success? Further analyses and samples will be evaluated to explore and explain the findings.
Students perceived understanding of what leads to success include; attendance levels, levels of active participation, the importance of socialisation and peer support. It seems that many students feel a need to undertake paid work. If so and if this factor is unlikely to change dramatically, then we should give greater emphasis to training them in the vital skills of time and self management. They will be under time pressure and cannot afford to waste time. We, as their tutors, should help more in this aspect of the student experience.
Jenny Jacobs, Alan Page and Dr. Huw Jones, School of Health and Social Sciences, Middlesex University
An evaluation of students needs and perceptions were carried out with students on sub degree programmes at Middlesex University within the School of Health and Social Sciences. The project aimed to clarify the challenges faced by the students entering the University and to establish where appropriate developments and changes could be made to facilitate retention and progression.
A focus group of 8 students was formed. The students, who were all still in attendance, were drawn from three programmes including HNC/HND Environmental Health and Foundation Certificate Biological and Environmental Sciences. The group was heterogeneous in make-up with equal gender split, wide age profile, and range of previous educational attainment, part-time/full-time mode of study and from 5 programme cohorts. Semi-structured interviews were carried out utilising a series of framework questions to explore past educational experience, perceptions on entering the University and support received and required. The programme leaders were interviewed separately to establish current levels of support and programme design.
The first semester was perceived as crucial to success - all students found the experience overwhelming both in terms of pace and assessment. The handing out of assignments in week 1 and an inability to comprehend the level required in assignments and examinations compounded student fears. Previous experiences of student assessment had often focused on short answer questions that discourage deep learning and University writing skills. Students found that employers did not recognise the amount of work required from a day-release programme - programme leaders confirmed the weak inter-relationship between employers and the University. Some changes have subsequently been made to the programme structure and assessment methods, which are currently being evaluated.