Image Wes Hicks/Unsplash
Most Open University students are studying on a part time basis, registering for one module per academic year. This means that (without any study breaks) a degree can be completed in five or six years. However, we’ve recently seen a substantial increase in the number of students opting to complete their degrees more quickly, with around a third of our students now studying at a higher intensity – the equivalent of a full-time degree.
The OU is an open access institution, and it is our mission to support all students as they strive to reach their academic goals. The ability to flex study intensity can be hugely beneficial, allowing individuals to increase or decrease study intensity according to their personal ambitions and/or changing personal circumstances. However, our modules aren’t typically designed for concurrent study. So individual module teams don’t generally coordinate study calendars or assignment deadlines. (Note: OU modules typically have between four and six marked assignments.)
To investigate the trend toward higher study intensity in the school of Arts and Humanities, four colleagues drawn from the Classical Studies and History departments conducted a project funded by our faculty scholarship centre (FASSTEST). As well as interrogating quantitative data, we conducted a survey of Associate Lecturers, and we held three focus group discussions with different groups of students, as well as a focus group discussion with advisors from our Student Support team. Underpinning our investigation was the question of whether the increase in higher intensity study is impacting on the practices of our Associate Lecturers and Student Advisors, and whether our higher intensity students would benefit from some additional support. In short, is this increase in higher study intensity a ‘problem’ that the OU needs to solve?
In relation to academic performance, quantitative data revealed that students registered for concurrent study of multiple modules are statistically more likely to flex their study intensity at Level 1, mainly opting to decrease from concurrent to staggered study, when there are two presentations of Level 1 modules within the academic year. However, there’s no significant statistical difference in module withdrawals for higher intensity students at Levels 2 and 3. This suggests that after Level 1, higher intensity students continue on this path until graduation. Also, quantitative data relating to Classical Studies and History students revealed that the study intensity had no significant statistical difference in the number of fail grades at Levels 2 and 3 of the degree.
We found that our higher study intensity cohort are primarily motivated by career advancement. Also, this group are statistically more likely to be drawn from areas of higher social deprivation, and more likely to have declared a Black or Minority Ethnic identity. Further, they have a younger average age (i.e., in the mid-thirties, compared to the mid-forties average of their part time classmates).
The focus group discussions with our full-time equivalent students highlighted a desire for more flexibility in the study calendar, to make it easier to complete research well in advance. These discussions also highlighted concerns about clashing assignment deadlines. In response, we piloted a spreadsheet for students to help them to map different module submission dates.
Our final report offers some additional strategy ideas to support our higher study intensity cohort. For example, we were able to identify popular module combinations, where it might be possible to coordinate assignment deadlines, thereby reducing the number of stress-points caused by clashing submission dates. Also, extending early access to module websites and online tutorial recordings would give our full-time equivalent students more flexibility when it comes to working ahead of their study calendars.
It may be that in the future, other institutions of higher education expand their opportunities for part-time – or flexible undergraduate study, as this would help students (of all ages and demographics) to maximise their academic potential. In the OU, while we continue to review our support for our higher intensity students within Classical Studies and History, our investigation reveals that the majority of this cohort are achieving their study goals.
Dr Elayne Chaplin, Lecturer in History
Dr Trevor Fear, Lecturer in Classical Studies
Dr Suzanne Forbes, Lecturer in History
Dr Anna Plassart, Senior Lecturer in History