Widening access, student retention and success national programmes

Another recommendation from a recent conference presentation that I attended in the UK. The Higher Education Academy of the UK commissioned this large-scale study and intervention to explore factors affecting retention and engagement in UK universities. The full report is at Building student engagement and belonging in higher Education at a time of change: Final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme but this page leads to a useful set of summaries and recommendations that are a bit more easily digested. The summary report is great.

Amongst the key issues that impressed me are (original emphases):

At the heart of successful retention and success is a strong sense of belonging in HE for all students. This is most effectively nurtured through mainstream activities that all students participate in. “

Specific interventions cannot be recommended over and above each other. Rather the institution, department, programme and module should all nurture a culture of belonging through the way they function and relate to people. “

Student belonging is achieved through:

  • Supportive peer relations

  • Meaningful interaction between staff and students

  • Developing knowledge, confidence and identity as successful HE learners

  • An HE experience relevant to students’ interests and future goals


I really like the notion of a ‘culture of belonging’ and the holistic approach recommended in this report. At Athabasca University we do well in some of these areas but less well in others. I think we are often over-focused on subjects and specific competences, especially in undergraduate programs, to the exclusion of other vital pieces of the educational machine, which greatly inhibits the sense of belonging that the HEA project identifies as so central. We lose too many students before they even start. Though we tend to be at least on par with other institutions for keeping them on specific courses once they have submitted their first assignments, we don’t have as many moving on through programs as we might. But this is just symptomatic of a broader malaise, that it is very hard to feel a part of a learning community in our isolated online spaces. Interactions tend to be limited to tutor-student communication much of the time, and the various tools (notably Moodle) that we use for teaching are intentionally isolated from one another. There’s little cohesion or sense of the broader community, and not much that is obvious that we can feel we can belong to.  

All of this helps to explain some of the key motivations behind why we created the Landing. It is meant as a space where academic identities can be explored, reflected upon and discovered, where we can feel that we belong to a real and vibrant community, where we can meet peers, see how others think and learn, and engage in meaningful interactions with them. It’s kind of like a virtual campus or learning commons, a space where many things happen, people meet, post information, engage in dialogue.

The Landing has been a success in very many ways and has helped many (including me) to achieve a greater sense of belonging. In retrospect, though, it would have been better to have seamlessly built its social richness and conrollable engagement into all of our other systems rather than as yet another loosely linked monolith. This is not impossible to retrofit. Since earlier this year it has been possible to integrate the Landing fairly well with other pages, such as those provided via Moodle, through its embedding functionality (simply make an iframe and add ‘?view=embed’ to most Landing URLs to separate a post from the surrounding site). This is, however, still not as seamless as it should be and requires some skill and deliberate intent on the part of people embedding it. We’ve not seen much uptake yet, though we have not promoted it at all actively, and we probably should. The Elgg technology behind the Landing does, however, have the capability of being embedded far more deeply as a web service to other applications, so that it can appear to be part of a quite different site (Moodle, say, or the main website, or MyAU, or pretty much anything). To make this happen needs a lot of carefully coordinated effort and clear communication between developers and managers of disparate systems that might use such a service, and plenty of planning, so it is not trivial to do. I’d be interested in doing such a project that either built on the Landing (makes sense, especially as it has other roles too) or started afresh to embed cross-cutting social engagement, sharing, connection and communication into all our student-facing sites, with all the same features and strengths (like discretionary access control, persistence, ownership, etc) of the Landing but without the need to go out of your way to visit it. I think I feel a research proposal coming on.


Address of the bookmark: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/what-works-retention

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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