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How are students using extensions and what is the impact on success?

Project leader(s): 
Catherine Halliwell and Cath Brown

The OU is experiencing growth in the number of students studying at high intensity. An institutional priority is supporting such students and this, coupled with anecdotal evidence of increased instances of students making extension requests, prompted our project. Issues around high study intensity have already been observed in some areas (Dobbyn et al, 2016, McLachlan et al, 2017). Previous studies have reported a link between low performance and catching up activities (Nguyen et al, 2018), lower performance of late submissions (McCann et al, 2014), and that granting of extensions can lead to unanticipated workload clashes (TEL Design, 2017). The need for deadline mapping across a qualification has been recognized, but more with regard to managing AL workload (Penny 2019) as ALs might tutor on multiple modules in a qualification.

We used a mixed methods approach to investigate how students are using extensions, whether this depended on variables such as module choice, study intensity, qualification, disability, and the impact on success metrics such as TMA scores and module outcomes. The quantitative work focused on students on two qualifications (Q64 Natural Sciences and Q71 Health Sciences) and their data on five 30 credit Level 2 modules within the School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences (LHCS) which included the required Level 2 study for students on these qualifications. This comprised data from 1009 students on 17J presentations and 1047 on 18J presentations.  The qualitative aspect comprised two focus groups involving 12 ALs, and four focus groups involving 23 students

Our key findings were: proportionally there were twice as many extensions granted to disabled students compared to non-disabled; at a module level no clear relationship between study intensity and number of extensions taken; a higher proportion of Q71 (Health Science) students took extensions than Q64 (Natural Science) students; that significant extension requests on TMA 1 can be an indication of struggle; and that on S294 there was a statistically significant negative correlation between length of extensions and OCAS and OES scores. However, on other modules there was no statistically significant correlation, or only a very weak one. It was apparent on all modules that extension requests are not confined to low academic attainers.

The qualitative data from focus groups suggested that in general there was no systematic use of extensions to manage and spread workload – rather that extensions were requested on an ‘immediate need’ basis.

Whilst we were able to complete our analysis of data from 17J and 18J, the correlations shown were not strong enough to enable the development of a meaningful numerical predictive model. However, there is sufficient data to suggest using early extensions as an indicator of struggle. Due to the conditions and temporary changes in assessment since March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic the timing and probably the responses of students in our student focus group were impacted. Despite this our focus groups provided valuable qualitative data that triangulated with our quantitative data.

The impact of this work is in the recommendations made:-

  • To respond to TMA 01 extensions with a MILLS intervention, since they can be a sign of struggle
  • That the nature of assessment be considered as well as the timing when considering assessment strategies on modules commonly taken together
  • That ALs should continue to offer supportive and sympathetic conversations with students when discussing extensions
  • That it should be communicated to students that a dialogue with their tutor regarding planning their studies is helpful
  • That further work is done on the impact of extensions on disabled students
  • That the OU continue to take a flexible approach to extensions as an important aspect of enabling retention

We hope that this project is a demonstration of best practice in student-educator scholarship partnerships.

Related resources

Halliwell, C. and Brown, C. (2021) How are students using extensions and what is the impact on their success? eSTEeM Final Report (PDF)

Halliwell, C. and Brown, C. (2019) poster