How bricks can build confidence

April 4, 2003

Gwen van der Velden describes how an unusual summer school is helping students who are failing.

Mention exams and most students get the jitters. After all, that's when they have to prove their academic mettle. I still see the fear in mine. For some, the rush of adrenaline is what they need to perform well. For others, it stops them in their tracks. Two years ago, I and colleagues at the University of Kent set up a support project for first-year undergraduates at risk of failure or underachieving. It involved a small six-week retention summer school, starting before the exams. The aim was to give students in difficulty the chance to sharpen study skills and build confidence.

The project, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was part of an additional student numbers initiative to help and retain non-traditional students. The results have been so encouraging that Exeter, Liverpool John Moores, Loughborough and Manchester universities are setting up similar schemes.

Quite a few students we have interviewed for a place at the schools say they believe they do not "fit into" the academic environment. Those from non-traditional backgrounds often feel intimidated by the size of the university, the academic structure and culture. They are unsure whether they are "a typical university student" and what is expected of them in an academic setting, such as a seminar or lecture. The school aims to knock these ideas on the head.

We emphasise that differences in background, outlook, attitudes and ability are a healthy part of higher education. The school is advertised on campus through posters and leaflets as well as by tutors. Interview helps us decide who will benefit most. We go to great lengths to reach all students.

This year, I even did a telephone interview with a student in Cyprus.

Forty students got places in the first year, mostly from the social sciences and humanities. Only one left higher education. By our second year, 120 applied for 90 places, 50 of which Kent funded. Only two dropped out of university. This year, 182 have applied for 120 places. We estimate the cost per student is £450 a year. Last month, Hefce announced it was prepared to fund 150 places for 2003-04, 280 for 2004-05 and 212 for 2005-06.

The students are a mixture of overseas, mature, A-level and further education-entry students. Some have had to overcome big obstacles such as childcare and cash problems before getting into Kent. They attend the school alongside their other study commitments. They receive no credits for the work, nor financial reimbursement for travel.

The school consists of three phases. The first involves two weeks' work on study and key skills, including good exam techniques. We give an equal measure of subject-specific support in exam preparation and revision.

Students then take their exams.

The second phase starts the week the results come out. Luckily, many exam results turn out better than expected. But for those with poor results we run resit preparation or help them explore alternative study routes. It is surprising how few students are aware of the possibility of transferring to other courses. The third and final phase is preparing students for their second year. Again, study and key skills play an important role, as do discipline-specific skills. There are sessions on good essay writing, taking notes in lectures and speaking up in seminars.

Most activities consist of task-driven teamwork, which is sometimes unorthodox. We even use alternative techniques, such as t'ai chi and anti-stress exercises. In one key-skills exercises, students build a temple from bricks. They have to negotiate and trade bricks, design the building and trading strategy, and agree leadership and worker roles. At the end of the session they are asked to reflect. This is to make them aware of their communication, organisation, negotiation and planning skills. Some students raise their eyebrows at first, but later report they have learnt more about themselves than they would have done in a traditional setting.

As the summer school has progressed, other departments have started to adopt elements into their programmes. The humanities faculty is running study-skills sessions early in the first year, with a view to addressing retention. The computer science department is running a "light" version of the school a week before first-year exams.

I knew we had it right when one student told me: "Your leaflets say this is for students at risk of failure. I really don't think I am one of those anymore."

Gwen van der Velden is head of the Unit for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, University of Kent.


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