Starting university can be a challenging transition for some students. As part of the Jisc Pathfinders initiative we discussed this issue with staff from Keele University and undertook a preliminary investigation into what is happening elsewhere and whether there is technology that might assist.
The problem as it was outlined was around universities struggling to target their support services appropriately and early enough due to a lack of data about student needs on transition. Unfortunately data from a student’s earlier academic career currently does not follow them to higher education, so there can be a lag time to acquire the necessary data to put the best support in place.
Universities collect data on student demographics, academic performance, and engagement to identify students who may be at higher risk of experiencing factors that contribute to stress or dropping out. However, as staff at Keele University told us, the most crucial period for retention is the 4-6 weeks after a student first arrives, which is before most of that data is available. It is often during this period that the university starts collecting data, and there may be a further delay before the data becomes meaningful, as students experiences are too recent.
Leeds-Beckett University successfully piloted the use of a pre-arrival questionnaire driven by uncertainty following the Covid-19 pandemic. By understanding the expectations or anxieties of students at the start of their study journey, universities should be “better placed to manage expectations, provide scaffolded support across a diverse student body especially around typical pressure points, and improve engagement and sense of belonging“. The pilot was set up with the expectation on students that completed the pre-arrival survey as part of their course activities to ensure a good return.
Teesside University also ran their own pre-arrival survey in 2022 which resulted in actionable insights using in-year data within a short time frame. Teesside wanted to investigate pinch points for students around previously identified “wobble weeks” around week 3 and week 6 after entry. They also attempted to engage students as early as possible to gain a better understanding of the overlap between data and student engagement and wellbeing. Teesside found that the earlier the initial intervention is made with a low engaged student, the less likely the student is to withdraw.
Understanding and enhancing the overall student experience and addressing retention could lead improvements in some national metrics such as National Student Survey (NSS) or the Graduate Outcomes Survey, creating a win-win for students and institutions.
Using data to target resources
Appropriate data allows university student services to develop targeted interventions to support students. For example, data showing that a cohort contains more first-generation students (who have been shown to be more likely to experience financial stress) could lead to the development of targeted resources on managing finances.
Similarly, if data shows that there are a significant number if students who are not involved in extracurricular activities (and they are more likely to experience social isolation), universities can develop directed outreach and engagement strategies to encourage these students to engage. Almost one in four students are lonely most or all the time, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (2022), who surveyed more than 10,000 students for its annual study.
Orientation activities offered in the first few days and weeks connect students with their peers. For many students, leaving home for the first time can be difficult. To mitigate homesickness, universities may offer resources such as counselling services, social events, and support groups. Encouraging students to get involved in extracurricular activities can also help them feel more connected to their new community.
Some universities already offer specific self-help materials which can also lead students to further in person support. Online student handbooks, familiarisation materials, and mobile tools to help students find their way around have all been shown to help learners acclimatise; for example, the University of Lincoln includes these in their welcome week webpage.
The expectation on students to be autonomous learners at university can add pressure. Students are encouraged to seek out academic support services, such as tutoring or study groups. Time management skills and effective study habits can also help students manage their workload and reduce stress. Study skills development has been incorporated into teaching over the long term. Some institutions now offer online courses on improving life skills, such as the broader interest microcredentials offered at Abertay University.
The recent rising cost of living crisis has resulted in further issues for students related to their wellbeing. Russell Group universities recently reported that 1 in 5 students may consider not continuing their studies due to financial stress. Attending university is expensive, and many students may struggle with the financial burden of tuition, textbooks, and living expenses. Some universities are offering resources to help alleviate the issues:
- The University of York launched a Household Energy Grant giving students in all student households £150 towards energy bills.
- The University of Essex introduced support providing subsidised meals, removing exam resit fees, and increasing its hardship fund to £5 million.
Many students seek out part-time employment or work-study opportunities, which although helping to ease the financial burden, can add further to academic pressure.
Starting university can be an exciting but challenging time for many students. By offering resources and support, universities can help students navigate the transition and mitigate common issues such as homesickness, academic pressure, financial stress, and social isolation. By taking a proactive approach, and collecting data early so they can better target interventions, universities can ensure that students have a positive and successful university experience.
Ultimately in lieu of data about students being transferred from earlier education settings, universities will have to collect their own data. In doing so they potentially stand to improve outcomes for all students, and in the short term get new students past the “wobble weeks”. Early data collection can be built on through their learning journey so that scarce resources can be targetted to improve students overall experiences.