Monday, 16 December 2013

Student Engagement - some statistics

I am currently wrestling with data provided by the VLE, attendance registers, formative assessments and student surveys to try to get a picture of student progression and  engagement.

The module I teach to year one students is not the most popular - I have striven this year to make it a lot more engaging through greater use of technology, more links to video, websites etc and highly interactive classes but still, research and study skills are not particularly sexy. Some students don't see these skills as at all relevant which means they could be in for a bit of a shock next term.

Admittedly many students report that these days they get a good grounding in Harvard referencing at school and especially in Access to HE courses, but judging from the standard of referencing in their first formative assessment, the majority really don't know what they don't know.

An ongoing debate I have been having with a colleague is about the advance posting of material on the VLE. He believes that this discourages attendance and in fact goes so far as to provide only outline notes with clearly highlighted gaps which can only be filled in by attending the lecture (or borrowing the notes of a fellow student). This prompts complaints from students - those whose first language is not English in particular, but also those with dyslexia or other disabilities which make attendance at lectures or notetaking - or both - very difficult.

My own findings tend to suggest that those students who regularly access material on the VLE - reading ahead of the seminars or revising material afterwards - are also those who attend best.

Those who have attended more than 70% of all seminars have on average viewed material in the learning room 26 times.

Those who have attended less than 70% of the time have viewed the learning materials on average around 10 times.

Furthermore, of those who submitted their formative assignment, the average attendance level was 68% and number of views 22. Of those who did not submit, the figures were 42% attendance and 9 views.

Engagement seems to mean engagement across the board. Students are not generally staying at home and catching up via the VLE - at least not on my module - and publishing all of my material on the VLE in advance of the seminar does not appear to harm attendance. In the end of term survey on the class, 72% say they find the materials on the VLE easy to access and 52% say the homework or personal study tasks (which they complete via the VLE) are useful.

Students do though seem to dislike the delivery of the seminars in the Scale Up environment. 58% feel that the classes are NOT well organised (that hurts - I spend hours lesson planning and populating the learning rooms with advance of notice of what we are doing every week) although 74% say they get good tutor support in class and 82% feel they get equally good support outside of class. 56% say they enjoy the group based activities but 96% think the class size is too big. (The room is intended to be for 108 students seated at 12 tables each holding 9 students).

On the positive side, they have not experienced too many difficulties with the Macs (56% say they are easy to use) and 60% say they have learned new ITC skills in the classes.

I have to agree that the size of the class is absolutely overwhelming and the much vaunted advantages of Scale Up seem not to be being realised. It is interesting that since these problems started to emerge I have found some information on line about the well known problems of this style of teaching.

These were not discussed when the pilot was mooted and volunteers sought. I guess they were entirely foreseeable in many instances so I feel rather silly for not having looked further ahead.

Where students detail their complaints about the module, they say that there is insufficient support on hand (although most classes have been team taught and include student mentors) and that there is insufficient teaching input (it is designed as inquiry based learning - may be this approach is confusing for first year students in a largely conventionally taught course).

The content doesn't really excite them either. In their comments ("What is your least favourite module and why") many were fairly negative about the module and say that the topics are irrelevant, boring or incomprehensible.

"I do like all modules.l have a bit of problem with the research and professional practise module.It goes very fast and the group is too big.At times l get lost whilst carrying out a takes long to get back on track."
is a fairly typical comment.

One student complained that learning about writing and referencing was only useful if you want to be a receptionist and not a health professional! However, the satisfaction ratings tell a different story:

60% found the sessions on digital identity to be useful
88% rated the sessions on Harvard referencing very positively
92% found the plagiarism and Turnitin session useful
82% were very satisfied with the session on search techniques using the library catalogue, databases and Google Scholar

There was quite a lot of support for sessions we ran on Evernote, Diigo and Google Drive (60% satisfaction for each), but the verdict was 60% against the use of Twitter - some enjoyed it but  the majority found it irrelevant or an intrusion on their private spaces.

A couple of positive comments were:
"its amazing what we can find for ourselves with a pc or a laptop"
 ".. it is more interesting to learn about new techniques and how you go about it,and that can boost my confidence up and be able to do a lot on the internet through my studies"

Generally I think there is something about the readiness of the class to work independently and smaller class sizes may be helpful at this point to be able to give more support to students in carrying out the group tasks. Inevitably there are going to be students who find the topics boring so there is also an argument for putting some of this teaching into drop in workshops or integrating the skills into other tasks - even into other modules?

In the first formative assessment it is really evident that even those who have attended well have failed to really get to grips with referencing, information evaluation and even basic structuring of their writing. They may not find these topics particularly interesting, but they do need some way of developing these skills. I know from supervising final year dissertations that these are not skills that necessarily just develop by themselves over time. I am still instructing final year students in how to search on line databases and some still insist on emailing me with referencing queries (!).

If anyone has cracked this one, please let me know!


  1. We have just done away with free standing key skills modules in favour of integrating the skills in academic modules. In theory this is the right approach for the reasons of engagement you've listed, but in practice, I doubt if all the skills will get delivered, and if they are, how visible they will be, i.e. will students be able to articulate they have them?
    There is no right answer to this problem.
    Apart possibly from mastery learning ...

  2. it's reassuring on some levels to know there is no single answer to this - just wish there was :) Thanks for your comment.