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By Andrea Purvis, Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum, The Open University

Mature… but experienced? Ways to support the retention and success of mature students


University of Essex

Date: 12 April 2012

Jamie Thompson, University of Northumbria, Programme Leader School of Health, Community & Education Studies and representative of The Higher Education Academy introduced and closed the day. He reminded attendees that John Cowan recently wrote if I can attend effectively to the affective needs of those students whom I tutor, then they will (almost) look after their cognitive needs for themselves.”


The day revealed contrasting views about the experiences of mature students. An opening quote that “mature students are used to doing things well, assume they know how to study well and need to be encouraged to be reflective” was countered by another quote “that mature students can lack confidence when first starting a HE course and need targeted support”.

There is a tension between providing students with sufficient pre-course start information and advice and not overwhelming them with details which will put them off registering for HE. Allaying anxieties and building confidence should be key objectives of all parts of the university supporting students and learning.

For most of the other institutions represented at the day, mature students (defined as >21years) are a minority cohort whereas for the OU they are the majority cohort, so it was interesting to hear the strategies used by full time HE institutions to support their mature students.

The University of Essex carried out a Mature Student Retention Project between June 2010-August 2012, which was designed to explore an action and response approach to enhancing the experience of mature students. The findings of the project were presented by Katie Rakow, Student Retention Officer, University of Essex and an abridged version of the final report is available as a pdf through this link.

The findings are summarised as follows and where appropriate questions and comments are added in blue text in relation to OU students:

Work Ethic: mature students appreciated that studying required concentrated effort,  finding quality study time and independent study. They were more likely to report a higher number of study hours than younger students. Would the latter finding be the same at the OU with our YASS, YAP and Y1 marker students?

Realistic Expectations: mature students provided with realistic expectations of the course workload before they started the course, were more likely to have a positive learning experience. Alignment of study hours with expectations was the key. Have we discovered the same from our student surveys and if so what are the implications for course information areas?

Motivators: mature students were motivated to study to improve career opportunities, to provide for their family, because of interest in the subject and for their own personal development.  Have we discovered the same motivators from our student surveys and if so what have we done with the information?

Family: family members played an important role in motivating mature students to start their course and continue with their studies. However, responsibilities for dependants may divert them away from their studies and impact negatively on coursework and course completion. Providing pre-information about their course including workload, timetable and reading lists supports their time management planning. We are well aware of the family “effects” but do we sufficiently address the concerns potential students and registered students (awaiting start of the course) have about workload, study schedules and preparatory reading materials?

Support Services: the majority of mature students were aware of Study Support and other university services all of which were highly valued. Our student surveys record a similar high level of satisfaction with OU Learner Support and related services.

Marketing & Recruitment: specifically targeted marketing and events can create a sense of belonging which supports retention. OU marketing is adept at reaching mature students, how well do we do though in relation to students feeling part of the OU community both academically and socially?

Interventions: the project interventions promoted student integration which included:

  • Creating and maintaining dedicated web pages for mature students. Do we have the opposite, web pages for <21 year olds?
  • Circulating regular newsletters for mature students. We have Sesame, will CSTs produce newsletters?
  • Hosting two day pre-arrival Housewarming Event for mature students. What are our post-registration, induction and pre-course start activities?
  • Hosting a Freshers Week event for mature students. We have welcome email messages and course forum messages, anything else?
  • Hosting a spring refresher event for mature students. Do we have generic non-course specific mid course activities to encourage students to feel part of the OU community? Will CSTs make this possible and more consistent?
  • Actively promoting and working with the mature students section of the Students Union. Do we know anything about whether engaging with OUSA supports students retention and progression?
  • Does integrating social and academic activities have a positive effect on retention and progression in the OU?
  • Do we find out enough about students’ course and qualification aspirations? What commitment does the University demonstrate to these aspirations?
  • How effectively do we review an enquirer’s transition to a student, integration onto a course, progression and retention? Will these be key CST activities?

What are the concerns of mature students?

  • Social
  • Physical
  • External

50% of students would have appreciated more academic related information prior to starting the course. This was on the Essex University website but students were not easily accessing it:

  • Workload
  • Deadlines
  • Independent learning
  • Reading lists
  • Course structure
  • Module structure
  • Learning environments
  • Skills needed:
    • IT
    • Literacy
    • Numeracy
    • Online learning
    • Library


1.         Working with mature students before they arrive: Sally Wilcox,    Access Director, Colchester Institute

Link to presentation:


Key points for OU

  • Send student study timetable and course materials as soon as possible after registration
  • Pre-course start provide access to other students via forums and podcasts
  • These would need careful moderating though to deal with issues and concerns
  • What is being said on Facebook by students waiting to start?

2.         The role of the Mature Students’ Society in the mature student   experience: Steve Bertie, President of Mature Students’ Society,     University of Essex

Link to presentation:


Breaking down barriers for mature students at institutions where they are the minority was seen as a key objective and needed buy in from senior university management.

Good relationships enable students to understand themselves as learners. Peers and mentors are important in facilitating change. HE Institutions need to encourage supportive relationships and develop students’ confidence and self awareness.

Not all mature students want to be singled out as a special group. As they progress with their studies they feel more a part of the university community and are more confident about their identity. By the end of their first year many consider themselves to be “a student” without the need for the prefix “mature”.

3.         Helping mature students before they begin – two institutional     models:

  1. John Orchard, Education Outreach Officer, University of Essex

Link to presentation:


Key points for OU

  • Ensure careers IAG is upfront to start building employability skills. For the Access to Success students the R13 Careers Adviser is vey keen to work            with the students as early as possible.
  • Pro-actively reach the more vulnerable (lowest PEQs) students to encourage        them to engage with induction activities

  1. Jenni Murray, Transition and Pre-entry Guidance Adviser and Virginia Bell, Effective Learning Adviser, Queen Margaret University

Link to presentation:


Key points for OU

  • Consider using student ambassadors (specifically briefed and supervised) to answer student queries, e.g. at Open Events and for online forums
  • Consider using student peer mentors, particularly where retention is an issue
  • Ensure the IAG is presented in layers so is not overwhelming
  • Mature students tend to focus on the detail, help students to step back and consider the bigger picture

4.         Addressing the study concerns of mature students: Shirley Dow,           Co-ordinating Tutor, University of Essex

Link to presentation:


Key points for OU

  • Check use of language where there may be different meanings in the academic and non-academic worlds e.g. reference-allude, original-independent, critical-negative
  • Encourage students to transfer their previous successes to the academic world, they often demonstrate a “forfeited track record”, and we need to assist them in utilising their experiences to maximum effect.
  • Do we advise students clearly enough on how to approach their tutors and when to raise queries?
  • At the end of a course give students access to an example of the next level assessment in a non-threatening way. It helps sharpen focus, they are not expected to know the answers yet and can be inspiring if done well
  • How will Social Learn and Platform supporting students’ identity, integration and progression?

There is a great range of recent OU initiatives aimed at helping our students succeed at their studies and feel well supported whilst studying. Evaluating the effectiveness of these initiatives in relation to students’ retention and success is yet to take place. They include:

Ready for 2012, Access to Success, Study Experience Programme including The Student Experience: The Student Journey, The Learner Support Framework, Induction and Careers & Employability and Curriculum Support Team Implementation.

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