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Entering university as a young student is challenging not least because students coming straight from school are used to regular contact and encouragement from teachers up to their final exams. Add to that a sense of isolation, particularly in a distance learning environment (and exacerbated by the pandemic), and new experiences of studying, for example, psychology and research methods, plus a tendency to imposter syndrome (questions about ‘am I good enough?’), and a set of risk factors emerge that are directly linked to both retention and achievement (Blair, 2017).
Some years ago, the Open University had a successful scheme known as YASS, or Young Applicants in Schools and Colleges. This depended on the availability of short courses (10 or 20 credits) which allowed 17- and 18-year-olds in schools to study an OU course alongside their AS and A levels. As a coordinator on that scheme in the south of England, it became evident to me that students succeeded on these short courses if they had a teacher in school supporting them alongside their designated OU tutors. Schools who did not provide this additional support often found students did not complete these courses, missing assignment deadlines and not doing the required activities because they did not have someone reminding them or urging them on to the end. With that in mind, I designed a scholarship project to see whether regular weekly emails from tutors to their students studying level 1 Psychology courses could help them to keep going, improving retention, and increase student achievement.
A team of 16 tutors teaching the module DE100 (Investigating Psychology 1) were recruited to support this project. These tutors taught 27 groups of students, giving a student sample of 412 students starting the module in October 2020. The tutors were provided with three batches of emails in September, November and January which were designed to be sent out through a group email function on the Monday of each study week. The emails were written in a friendly and supportive tone and included information about what was coming up in the study week, highlighting key activities and readings, explaining difficult concepts, and reminding students of upcoming assignment deadlines. Tutors were asked to top and tail these emails with a greeting and sign off but not to change the main content. All 16 tutors diligently sent these emails out every week until week 28 of the module, just before the final examinable component was due. They also collated any feedback from students, usually in the form of email replies, to help understand how these emails were being received.
At the end of the module, the analysis of the impact of this took place through looking at the number of students who managed to complete the module (333 students), and their achievement levels, differentiated by age and gender. A survey was also put together and sent out to a sample of 160 students to gauge their opinion of the emails and their effects, with 48 students responding. The retention data was compared with students in the same region who had not received the emails, and a similar group in the southwest region, as well as across the module as a whole. Achievement was also explored, looking at pass rates across the same groups, and the number of students receiving a distinction.
The findings were encouraging, with a retention of younger students (aged under 25) of 82.3% compared with older students (aged over 25 years) whose retention rate was 80.9%. This compared very favourably with students who did not receive the emails in the south region (73.3%) and in the southwest region (73.2%). It was also higher than across the module as a whole (78.2%). Younger students seemed to benefit slightly more from the weekly emails than their older peers.
When looking at achievement, the outcomes were even more encouraging with 91% of students who received the emails passing the module. This compared with an overall module pass rate of 67%. Distinctions were also more abundant in the emailed group – 60% of younger female students and 32% of male younger students received a distinction. With the older students, 41% of males and 55% of females managed a distinction. This compared to the overall module distinction level of 18%.
The survey and collated email responses also revealed an overwhelming appreciation of the emails with students reporting that they ‘made me feel part of something’ and were ‘more recognised and encouraged to continue with my work compared with my other module’. Around 83 percent of students who responded to the survey were positive about the emails and felt they helped them both to keep going on the module and to achieve higher than they would have without them. Over 80 percent agreed that this type of weekly communication should be part of every module.
Tutors on the module were also positive about the intervention, reporting that it was an easy process and had many benefits, not least the positive responses from students and their improved engagement with the module. Tutors were also surprised at their students’ results, with these visibly better than previous presentations. Most are continuing to use the emails on more recent presentations of the same module. The success of the intervention may lead to recommendations on modules under development for this type of communication, including guidance for tutors on what could be included in a weekly communication.
Sue Nieland, Lecturer in Psychology
Blair, A. (2017) ‘Understanding first-year students’ transition to university: A pilot study with implications for student engagement, assessment, and feedback’, Politics, 37(2), pp. 215-228.