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The first year experience in continuing education conference Stirling, April 2006. The effectiveness of embedded academic support in addressing retention.

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The first year experience in continuing education conferenceStirling, April 2006

The effectiveness of embedded

academic support in addressing retention.


This presentation will consider embedded academic support as one of multiple support rafts for students in their first year. This will be done by:

  • Looking at two universities, University of Technology Sydney and Napier University (Edinburgh) and their students
  • Considering retention issues in HE and the two universities
  • Look at existing models of support
  • Considering the embedded model as best practice
  • Reviewing case studies and looking at the ‘way ahead’

But first, who are we?

  • Kendall Richards and Helen Godfrey are lecturers and Academic Support Advisers at Napier University, Edinburgh
  • Kerry Hunter is a lecturer and coordinator of University of Technology Sydney’s Kurin-gai campus ELSSA centre
  • We all met at the ATLAANZ conference (2005) in New Zealand and
  • We are all concerned about retention and progression and embedding academic support

What words come to mind when you think of retention?

  • Drop out
  • Attrition
  • Wastage
  • Failure
  • Withdrawal
  • Non-achievement

Very much a ‘deficit model’ view. This is something we are keen to do avoid in the academic support of students.


Keynote Address: Professor Alex Radlof RMIT (ATLAANZ 2005)

Century 21 student is:

  • Mature
  • Diverse
  • Vocational
  • Has multiple commitments
  • A commuter
  • Cost and prestige sensitive

Napier University

  • Over 14000 students of which:
  • 70% are full time
  • 55% are female and 45% male
  • 73% are 21 years old up on entry

Scotland and Napier

  • 35% of all level 3 students are direct entrants (of which
  • 16% overseas students and 19% from FE)
  • In the academic session 2003/2004, 66% of all Napier’s
  • new entrants were from families where neither parent
  • went to university. (Johnston V; et al 2005:4)
  • This is in the light of Lewis’s (2002) findings that state
  • that 73% of young people in the UK in university were
  • from Professional backgrounds
  • 13% were from Manual backgrounds 95.9% of Napier’s
  • students are from State schools
  • (HESA 2005)

Continuing Education?

  • A significant number of Napier students follow a ‘CE’ route as either direct entrants or Access students
  • For these students this would be a first year experience
  • The research shows that the focus of retention should not just be on students with issues, but programmes with issues (i.e. problem programme not problem student)

Australian Universities

  • The traditional model of largely autonomous, predominately funded universities is in decline.
  • Government funding down, for example UTS, from 90% in 1981 to 29% now (UTS Vice-Chancellor).
  • Universities becoming more market driven, commercial organisations largely dependent on funds from increasing numbers of international students, 25% of student body
  • International students provide 15% of all university revenue (Department of Employment 2005)

University of Technology, Sydney (UTS)

  • Practice oriented teaching and learning preparing students for the workplace through links with industry
  • Equity policies in place to encourage students from non traditional groups
  • However, while government funding is decreasing, student contribution is increasing
  • $ pushing out equity groups in favour of international students

UTS profile

Over 28,00 students:

  • 52% female
  • 55% under 25
  • 39% language background other than English
  • 50% born outside Australia
  • 25% international
  • 1% aboriginal


  • A number of sources highlight gulfs between School/college and university because:
  • Lack of familiarity with conventions and discourse of
  • discipline
  • Lack of familiarity to learning at Higher Education level
  • Discipline staff can not always articulate clearly tacit
  • Knowledge
  • This is something ASA’s deal with on a regular basis.
  • (Johnston, R. 2003 and Johnston, Knox & MacLeod 2005 among others.)

Widening Participation

Napier has widened participation, however this does not mean it is not a ‘risky’ business. Non-traditional entrants may also have other problems including:

  • Debt
  • Changing relationships
  • Cultural adjustment issues
  • Economic and cultural changes

‘Direct entrants are from diverse backgrounds with more from postcard areas with greater educational disadvantage and from areas with manifest multiple deprivations’.

(Johnston, Macleod & Small, 2003:4)


And yet, Veronique Johnston’s work

has shown:

  • Students who withdraw are similar to those who stay
  • Research which only looks at backgrounds and experiences of ‘drop-outs’ gives no insight into why some students persist and others do not
  • For example, mature students at Napier are highly successful some years and not in others
  • Long-term focus needed

Retention UK

‘Retention has become a major issue for Higher Education in the U.K (and other countries). This is especially the case since Blunkett (the then Secretary of State for Education) in the year 2000 asked universities to ‘do something about the drop out rate’.

(Christie, Munro & Fisher 2004, p618)


Retention Australia

  • While data systems exist to measure and report retention rates, funding is based on commencement or engagement in study ( 2001 DEETYA study commissioned by Commonwealth Government)
  • In climate of fierce competition for students there is little incentive for open disclosure of retention rates (DEETYA, 2001)
  • Retention of concern only to individual faculties/faculty members
  • Much of the retention literature aimed at the first year experience, where attrition rates are highest

Yorke & Thomas (2003): Six institutions successful in improving retention

  • Supportive institutional climate in various ways of student development- perceived as ‘friendly’
  • Emphasis on support leading up to, and during, the critically important first year
  • Formative assessment in early phase of programmes
  • Importance of social dimension (NSA-perhaps more than a pub crawl?)
  • Recognition of change in student body

Followed by further research into Universities with a high proportion of students from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’.

  • Academic integration
  • Sense of belonging
  • Social integration
  • Pre-entry programme
  • On-going, embedded support
  • Identification of ‘at risk’ students
  • Giving feedback
  • Peer mentoring

Reasons for non-completion

  • Personal factors
  • Gender
  • Lack of support
  • Financial issues
  • Course/Institution
  • Inadequate pre-course information, guidance and preparation
  • Gaps between HE and FE
  • Integration/Settling in
  • Academic difficulties
  • Lack of support
  • Institutions that are not ‘adult friendly’
  • Timetable issues

Some research (Johnstone & McLeod 2004, Yorke 2003, Elliot 2004 and others) has

criticised widening participation initiatives which focus on raising aspirations of non-traditional students without tackling the university culture and ensuring adequatesupport.

“If you have to give up something; out of relationship, family, children, paid work and study it is easier to give up study.”


We need to target:

  • Issues, not groups
  • At risk modules/programmes, not at risk students

Quinn, Thomas, Slack, Casey, Thexton and Noble (“From life crisis to lifelong learning:

Rethinking ‘dropout’ from higher education” 2005) recommend that universities:

  • “develop more integrated and holistic approaches to student support”
  • “integrate learning support into the curriculum” (p70)

Support Models

  • Do nothing- sink or swim Model
  • Remedial/Generic Model
  • Integrated and Embedded Model

Skillen, Merten, Trivett & Percy (1999, p1)


Integrated and Embedded

  • Recognition that learning development is more effective

within discipline-specific contexts

  • Dependant on recognition and support from Faculty,

Quality and Teaching and Learning Committees


Napier is successful in developing:

  • L.E.A.P.S
  • Think Again
  • Write On
  • Top-Up
  • Other community projects
  • Toolkits
  • Support networks
  • Full credit-bearing modules such as Professional Studies and Professional Skills
  • Online and paper resources

All of this indicates a degree of concern and commitment to student support. But…



  • Still removed from context of subject being studied
  • May not necessarily reflect subject-specific skills
  • Danger of remaining within generic framework

Should be:

  • Seen by students as part of curriculum
  • Academic staff are ‘change agents’ (Chapple & Tolley 2000) we can:
  • Provide powerful instances of learning and teaching
  • Model and scaffold for students
  • Help initiate students into academic community

Existing Programmes:Bridging

  • A pre-entry, intensive module
  • It is well attended and perceived
  • Students, at best, are recommended to take this module
  • Research shows that students do well academically and tend to be moremotivated/integrated and proceed after first year of study


  • Two day programme for direct entrants
  • Student feedback suggests confidence and motivation is boosted
  • Students feel better prepared and integrated
  • Students have a better understanding of what is expected and what to expect
  • Anecdotal evidence

According to research findings, the focus should be

on allstudents.



  • One to one support
  • Workshops and lectures
  • Embedded as part of a module giving timely support for assessment
  • Peer Tutors and Mentors

Adopting an academic integration approach: UTS

  • 1997 move to integrating academic language development into the curriculum of mainstream subjects in faculties
  • ELSSA Centre collaborates with faculties to integrate academic literacy development
  • Rationale is taking into account the educational implications of changing student demographics
  • Taking into account the changing modes of knowledge and types of literacy
  • Inducting students into the particular discourses of their discipline/profession

Examples of systematised support: UTS

Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Health

  • Academic literacy lectures embedded in core first year


  • Clinically Speaking program developing spoken language for the clinical environment (collaborative project targeting at risk students)

Faculty of Information Technology

  • Advanced Communication for Information Technology (targeting NESB students identified through mass language testing)
  • Information Technology Research Preparation (post graduate international students/first time researchers)

Further examples UTS

Faculty of Engineering

  • Engineering for Sustainability (language needs analysis, students directed to specific program)
  • Engineering Communication (team teaching)

Faculty of Business/School of Leisure, Sport & Tourism

  • Sociocultural Foundations of Leisure, Sport & Tourism (core first year subject embedding academic skills aligned with assessments)
  • Research Methods for leisure & Tourism (second year subject embedding academic skills)

Sociocultural Foundations of Leisure, Sport & Tourism

  • Aims/Goals
  • To combine in an undergraduate year 1, semester 1 subject, the acquisition of academic skills by developing critical analysis and academic writing skills within the knowledge and understanding of the substantive content of the subject
  • Assessments
  • 1 trial short essay (no mark recorded)
  • 2 short essays (400 words) 15% x 2=30%
  • Major essay (2500 words) 40%
  • Final exam 30%

Academic Literacy Lectures


Application of

critical analysis

(Subject tutors)


Short essay trial

No marks recorded

Feedback given

Week 2


Critical analysis


(ELSSA Centre)

Week 5


Feedback on

critical analysis

trial assessment

Academic (longer)

essay writing,


(ELSSA Centre)


Writing an

argument paragraph

Group work

(Subject tutors)


First of 3 marked

short essays due

in two weeks


Outcomes: Lecturers’ comments

  • The program worked really well with the combination of lecture, tutorial and assessment. It was great practice. Student feedback sheets indicated they had learned a lot about academic reading skills in this subject.
  • The lecture on how to go about the craft of academic essay writing resulted in much better first year essays than before. Previous to the program they were nowhere near the quality they are now.
  • Before the program the marking was burdensome in this subject. There was confusion about critical analysis. Reading critically was seen as criticising. After the program the assessments in following years have a more clear cut analytical approach

Students’ comments

  • Focus group findings indicated that raising awareness of academic skills development and aligning that development to subject assessment, helps the students understand and adopt the skills more effectively.
  • Gaining the skills increased confidence resulting in less stress, more comfort and control completing tasks
  • Motivation increased as a result.
  • Third year students indicated the greatest benefit of the workshops had been the collaboration encouraged.

Students’ comments

Formative assessment - early phase

Ongoing embedded


Identification of at

risk students

Addressing retention

Yorke & Thomas (2003)



Ongoing academic support-

significant attendance ELSSA/ASA


Social integration-



Graph: Numbers of Leisure, Sport and Tourism students attending ELSSA Centre workshops 2001-2005.


Proposed Support

  • Extend and continue Embedded support and measure effectiveness through research
  • Diagnostic assessment in the crucial first few weeks of term and follow up with feedback and timely support
  • Extend Orientation and Bridging to more (all) students
  • Extend Peer Tutoring

Next stage: Action research

  • To evaluate existing programmes
  • To use stake holders in the design of a new/modified programme
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of this programme
  • And to change this if necessary

Favourite quote from ATLAANZ 2005 conference:

“ Learning support advisers should be the fence at the top of the hill rather than the ambulance at the bottom.”