Open doors but halt early exits

September 26, 2003

Access is not just about getting students in, it's about making sure they succeed, says Gail Thompson.

When I joined Sunderland Business School in 1994, I found the government's emerging ideas on widening participation were quickly taking hold. Most students were from lower social classes and had no family history of higher education. Entry requirements were often two grade Es at A level or the equivalent. Many students had general national vocational qualifications or a mixture of GNVQs and A levels.

But although the school was attracting this "new" type of student, we were not keeping them. Failure rates exceeded 50 per cent for some core modules, and almost 25 per cent of students did not complete the course for which they had registered.

In searching for the root of the problem, I came to see that widening participation means more than getting students through the door - it means ensuring that students succeed. Achieving this goal calls for approaches that suit everyone and strategies for teaching, learning and assessment that are based on empirical evidence.

To help our non-traditional students, the school decided to run a "study skills" course in the first semester. The theory was that this bolt-on course would "transform" entrants into more traditional students who could conduct critical analysis, research, report writing and so on.

I was charged with running tutor groups that mixed skills training with pastoral care. As lead tutor, I came into contact with many students, and I found that most were unhappy. I had expected money and workload to be the main problems, but there were others. Poor entry grades, which are often blamed for student failure, were just a tiny part of the picture. We had many bright and articulate students. Some had poor school grades simply because they "messed around" in sixth form. Many entered university chastened but full of enthusiasm, having been given what they saw as a second chance. They had come to us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but by their second year, their enthusiasm was dying.

I looked more deeply into the problems, and what I found turned my ideas on their head. An investigation into stress showed a big difference between A-level students and non-traditional entrants. In the first year, the non-traditional entrants were more stressed. No surprise there - they were probably less prepared for university life. But the pattern reversed by the end of the second year, when A-level entrants were more stressed.

Intrigued, I followed up with interviews. I found that the expectations students had when they began university influenced their university experience. The students told me that money was a problem, but that they had anticipated that. It was the things they had not expected that upset them most - some to the point of considering leaving.

Slowly, I began to unpick what was happening. For the main part, students'

expectations of themselves were being satisfied. But their expectations of their relationships with tutors were unmet. Surprisingly, the more traditional entrant voiced the greatest dissatisfaction. A-level entrants said their tutors did not motivate them or show them how to learn as well as they had expected. They did not feel that tutors were fair to everyone.

They did not enjoy learning as much as they had expected. The figures reflected this: A-level entrants' performance, measured by grade-point average, declined over the first two years. Non-traditional entrants reported significantly higher levels of satisfaction with their tutors and their learning.

What was the lesson in this? It seems that in our efforts to meet the needs of a rapidly changing student population, we have been robbing Peter to pay Paul. We put a lot of effort into changing teaching and assessment methods - ditching exams, using more continuous assessment, employing more student-centred approaches - to help non-traditional students.

We assumed that the A-level entry student would take university in his or her stride. But these students were telling me that the "one-size-fits-all" approach was not working.

Most of us teaching in universities had a very different experience from that of today's student. We have to discover what our students expect and what they are experiencing as they progress. Only in this way will we truly widen participation.

Gail Thompson is principal lecturer at Sunderland Business School.

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