Student retention and success change programme: What works?

  • Bowden, Rachel (PI)
  • Wisker, Gina (CoI)
  • Jones, Jennie (CoI)
  • Guy, Liz (CoI)
  • Fowlie, Julie (CoI)
  • Fyvie-Gauld, Marylynn (CoI)

Project Details


There are a range of economic and ethical arguments as to why institutions should be concerned about student retention and success. Institutions recruiting students must put in place strategies to support students and help them to succeed.

The University of Brighton was one of 15 higher education institutions involved in the three-year Higher Education Academy’s What works?: Student Retention and Success Change Programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation under the broader project umbrella, Supporting student success: strategies for institutional change.

This work aimed to improve student engagement, belonging, retention and success during the first year through to the completion of a course, by building on the learning from the What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme. The project was led by Rachel Bowden in the Strategic Planning Office and involved colleagues from the Centre for Learning and Teaching, the Students’ Union and across disciplines within the University of Brighton.

In 2013, three courses were selected for the pilot scheme, in the Business School,
Computing, Engineering and Mathematics and Applied Social Science at Hastings.

Each developed an intervention in the areas of induction, active learning and teaching and/or co-curricular activities.

The University of Brighton is committed to delivering a transformational student learning experience. Students at the University value their learning as active participants in learning communities, engaged in the co-production of knowledge across a broad range of professional and academic disciplines.

The aims of the project were to:

> further develop and build on the success of our recently implemented Student Retention and Success Framework
> align it with other institutional initiatives related to the student experience
> help effective practice to thrive and lead to further improvements in student > engagement and belonging evidenced through increased continuation and success rates
> review our current strategic strengths and challenges at both the institutional and discipline level
> consider the outcomes of the What Works? Research
> implement a number of agreed interventions and then subsequently evaluate their effectiveness on student engagement, belonging and success.

The involvement of staff at all levels helps to support the culture of both institutional and individual responsibility for creating a sense of belonging for staff and students. Within the timeframe of the project we have not only continued to build on the recent improvements in our student’s continuation rates, but also have evidence of a more engaged, satisfied and successful student body.

Key findings

Interventions 2013-2014

Previous research had suggested that developing a sense of belonging was central to student engagement, success, and hence retention. In 2013, interventions that aimed to foster first year students’ sense of belonging and motivation were introduced in the three disciplines that were central to the What Works? Retention and Success Change Programme at the University of Brighton.

Business Management
All first years studying Business Management also attended a taught module Developing Academic and Employability Skills (DAES). As part of this, students traditionally wrote a reflective report, but in 2013-14 the reflective report was replaced with ‘My Uni Course’, a student folio blended learning resource through which students were introduced to the concept of recording milestones in their first year with a final webpage and personal development goal plan. Standard milestones related to:

> welcome week
> welcome week posters competition
> your seminar
> team skills development day
> assignment feedback (scheduled throughout the year)
> final year presentation
> business idea in business project
> development centre
> business project presentation and
> achievements including: being a student ambassador/representative.

The aims of the intervention were to enhance students’ sense of belonging and engagement through supporting students to: build emotional resilience, form stronger links with their group/personal tutor, develop personal development planning skills, provide evidence of achievement, support social knowledge construction and identify role models.

Applied Social Science
In Applied Social Science, the three main elements of an extended induction included pre-university entry activities, a student mentor scheme and course-linked online activities, resources and support. The aim was to introduce students to higher education by providing them with academic assistance as well as introducing them to the pastoral services available at the University. An important aspect of the course was the involvement of other students who were continuing into their second year. It was proposed that second year students take on a mentoring role with the new intake to run for the whole of the first year.

An additional two-day post-clearing transition event took place in September over two days. This included students from the pre-university course as well as those coming in through clearing. It was anticipated that providing students with a clear idea about the course prior to enrolment would help students focus on what they really want. A blended learning project began with the idea of helping students engage more fully in their degree. The drive behind it was to create a very integrated system for staff and students to perform e-learning tasks built on a flexible platform that allows for rapid development of dynamic webpages and site structures. 

The three components of the system comprised academic, student life and ‘panic button’. The system provided flexible learning as well as aid in retention providing students with the opportunity to engage with and own their degree; this was introduced within one module in the first semester of the first year.

Digital Media and Digital Media Development
In Digital Media and Digital Media Development the intervention in the form of an extended induction included an online pre-entry challenge, welcome week activities and a group assignment to design a mobile app. It was anticipated that the induction process would help address problems of engagement and retention with the following aimed to:

> support students in making an informed decision about whether digital media is “the right course for me” pre-entry, or at least at a point where an internal course transfer is still possible.
> engage students in the course before they arrive, and during the first weeks, so that they can successfully survive the learning curve of technical modules such as programming without becoming de-motivated.
> better prepare students for the personal changes they may experience in the first year and equip them to deal with these with less of an impact on their studies.
> provide students with a support structure of peer mentors who have befriended them before they arrive in Brighton.

Interventions 2014-2015

Based on quantitative and qualitative evaluation findings, the interventions continued along the same lines, but were developed further this academic year. In Business Management, the blended learning student folio intervention required students to make three learning journal entries, related fully to academic course content and rewarded students’ engagement through production of a publishable webpage. Greater emphasis was made about students’ employability since the webpage can be made available to potential employers. In Digital Media, Welcome Week included an App design group workshop to help students build a peer-learning community and enhance their confidence by being prepared from the beginning of the first semester. A greater emphasis was also paid to students’ understanding of future employability in the media industry. In Applied Social Science, the intervention particularly focused on students’ academic skills development, including academic writing. This was supported by a formal mentoring scheme.

The project continued to conduct evaluations of the programme’s retention interventions to develop a more evidence-based approach to changing practice. One of the main objectives of the What Works? Programme was to evaluate key changes using student surveys and qualitative methods. Together they help identity strategic factors that contribute to change and issues that need development to support change at the institutional level.

Project impact

Findings supported conceptual arguments that a sense of belonging is central to student success and identify ways in which the interventions used have been beneficial in terms of enhancing students’ sense of belonging in relation to the following themes:

> belonging to the University – feeling welcome and developing a student identity
> belonging to the course: communities of practice
> engagement in learning
> developing confidence through success.

These research findings identified ways in which interventions, teaching, learning, assessment and support could be improved to enhance student success and hence retention. Findings will be fed back into the overarching report which will capture experiences and case studies from participating universities and be used to influence policy and practice.

Publications and further outputs

Wisker, G, Marshall, L, Greener, S and Canning, J (2016) Flexible Futures: Articles from the Learning and Teaching Conference 2014, Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Brighton Press.

Jones, J, Masika, R, Bowden, R, Fowlie, J, A. Fyvie-Gauld, M, Guy, E, and Wisker, G. (2015) What Works? Students’ experiences and perceptions of belonging, confidence and engagement during the first year of their degrees in three disciplines at the University of Brighton, Flexible Futures: University of Brighton Press, Autumn 2015.

Case Study 1
Fowlie, J (2015) What Works Project: Beyond Intended Outcomes: The Views of the Project Team Members

Case Study 2
Fowlie, J (2015) Student Reflections:  The importance of giving students the opportunity to learn from/value the experiences their degree offers.

Bowden, R, Fowlie, J, Fyvie-Gauld, M, Guy, L, Jones, J. and Masika, R. (2014) Evaluating the HEA’s What Works? Findings: Building engagement and belonging for students’ success in three disciplines, Pedagogic Research Conference, University of Brighton, February.

Jones, J. and Masika, R. (2014) Belong and engaged: first year students’ experiences of discipline-focused retention and success interventions, Conference Proceedings Paper, International Consortium for International Development (ICED), Stockholm, June.

Bowden, R, Fowlie, J, Fyvie-Gauld, M, Guy, L, Jones, J,  Masika, R. and  Wisker, G. (2014) Evaluating findings of the HEA’s What Works? programme: Building engagement and belonging for students’ success in three disciplines, Flexible Futures - Learning and Teaching Conference, University of Brighton, July.

Bowden, R. Fowlie, J., Fyvie-Gauld, M., Guy, L. Jones, J. and R. Masika (2014) Building engagement and belonging for students’ success in three disciplines, Student Retention and Success Framework Event, University of Brighton, September.

Bowden, R (2014) on behalf of Fowlie, J, Fyvie-Gauld, M, Guy, E, Jones, J. and Masika, R. Evaluating the HEA’s What Works? programme: Building engagement and belonging for student retention and success at the University of Brighton at the 7th Annual UK and Ireland Higher Education Institutional Research Conference, HEIR 2014: From Research to Action, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 8-9 September.

Final report (2017): Recommendations about how to implement effective change in a complex institution

1. Institutions seeking to develop excellence in learning and teaching and improve the student experience and outcomes should adopt an evidence- informed, whole-institution approach to implement change in the context of complexity. The approach should draw upon research evidence from both What Works? programmes, an extended change programme, a cross- institutional team involving students taking action, and data, evaluation and feedback.

2. A mixed methodology evaluation, informed by a logic chain to map the relationship between interventions and intended outcomes, is essential to driving forward evidence-based interventions to improve student retention and success.

3. Institutional data and qualitative research should be used to understand the local contexts before specific interventions are selected. This includes the disciplines, courses and modules with lower than expected rates of success; the characteristics of students or groups who withdraw or who have other ‘success issues’; and the specific factors contributing to these outcomes.

4. Develop an ongoing evidence-informed programme of interventions tailored to address student retention, drawing on the What Works?2 features of effective practice. There should be an academic purpose to interventions that is explicitly relevant to students. Additionally, interventions should be delivered through the mainstream curriculum to all students, facilitate collaboration between students and staff, and monitor and follow up (as necessary) individual student engagement, satisfaction and success.

5. Check that the institutional environment is enabling and implementing institutional-level changes to address any shortcomings with respect to: explicit leadership and management support at all levels; the alignment of institutional policies and procedures; structures to recognise, develop and reward staff engagement; and the provision of data to be used to improve student engagement, belonging, retention and success.

6. A process to implement and manage change should be designed and utilised, including: explicit goals and timelines; a cross-institutionalteam (including enthusiastic champions and students) with clear roles;and an emphasis on working in an integrated and collaborative manner. Collaborative working with students in the process of change is essential, as is the fostering of wider staff engagement. Managers at all levels need to understand and support the process, and especially the value of working with students as partners. Suitable data needs to be available and staff and students need to be supported to discuss and engage with this data to improve student retention and success.
Short titleWhat works?
Effective start/end date1/10/1331/10/16


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