The HEA’s Strategic Excellence Initiative for Vice-Chancellors or Principals has seen more than 30 senior leaders from across the sector tackle some of the biggest problems facing higher education in the United Kingdom. In this blog Dr Ben Calvert, talks about how the project carried out at the University of South Wales is tackling the transition to university life, and previews his presentation at the Strategic Excellence Initiative conference on 26th May 2016.
The Strategic Excellence Initiative at the University of South Wales is one critical part of a suite of interventions that we are undertaking related to retention, belonging, achievement and developing skills and behaviours for employability. Our aim is for students to feel at home here as soon as they arrive, to bond with their course cohort (and for us, the course is the critical unit with which students identify), and to become part of a community of practice based on collaboration, peer support and dialogue. We want them to engage in simulated experiential activities from the off, to start a journey of applying learning to real problems. And we also want them to have some fun; to find learning enjoyable and stimulating as well as challenging. Part of that challenge is the input of peers and the stimulation that they get from group working and taking on shared tasks.
All of this recognises that being a student at university presents emotional as well as cognitive hurdles to jump, and that in the early phases of the student journey confidence building is key. There may be a significant gap between how students view themselves (their own identity that they bring with them from school and home and friendship groups) and the sort of professional identity that we aim to co-create with them over time, as an expression of some defined graduate attributes three years hence. There may be some dissonance between our aspirations for them, and those that they hold themselves. Getting them to focus on this challenge when they are living away from home for the first time perhaps, cooking and cleaning for themselves, and with all the distractions of student life, is a tough ask.
So, to help us achieve this sense of belonging and confidence and to get them going quickly in their studies, the University has developed an Academic Blueprint that requires, amongst many other things, that all courses embed a six-week period of Immersive Learning for new students, either through a substantial project or validating a ‘short fat’ module. In either case, students must work in teams, with a requirement of a piece of summative assessment at the end of week six such that they get an early signal of how they are doing and can review their initial progress. It is expected that courses design into this period the library skills and study support activity that students require to get off to a confident start.
What we have found is that our staff are pretty creative in the sorts of projects that they are running, many of which take learning outside of the physical boundaries of the campus and into local communities and venues through field trips. The net result from our findings is that our students do feel a strong sense of belonging to the University in their first term. We have also seen an improvement in retention rate this year. Collecting the quantitative and qualitative data from the project confirms for us that whilst this is the case, and is good news, we have more to do on understanding their own motivation and confidence levels. Whilst they feel at home, some are still questioning their own ability to complete their academic studies successfully, or are reflecting on their own level of input. As with any good project, it poses more questions than it answers, and this is an unfolding story which we are now picking up through a new Student Experience Plan that includes, for example, an approach to Personal Coaching coupled with learning analytics, more work on early intervention, development of reflective learner self assessments including personality testing, all to better understand the individual and what makes them tick.
It would be remiss of me not to point out that the project has been brilliantly run by a graduate intern, who has undertaken the hard yards in doing the research, chairing a steering group and reporting to the project sponsor. We value, rate and trust our students to take on strategic projects for us. In doing so, we can model aspiration for others who see current and former students taking on serious tasks. Rozalind Green-Innes has done a brilliant job, as will be evidenced from the presentation that you will see on 26th May.
We are always happy to talk more about what we do, so please get in touch.
Dr Ben Calvert
Pro Vice Chancellor (Learning, Teaching and Student Experience)
Dr Calvert will be presenting alongside other participants in the programme at the Strategic Excellence Initiative conference in London on 26th May. The keynote address will be given by from former Universities Minister Lord Willetts.
To book your place, please visit our events page.