The Personal and Academic Support System (PASS) designed by the School of Life Sciences was set up in September 2005 to support all first-year students through proactive personal tutoring (details of this can be seen in Robbins, 2006). PASS tutorials have run for two years and in addition to offering support to all first years, staff identified students experiencing particular difficulties that affected their studies. Through the PASS referral system, each year 6 to 8 students have been saved from dropping out of the University, a good outcome for those particular students and positive for the School’s retention statistics.
This year we have extended PASS by setting up PASS Intervention, targeting those first-year students who failed modules in semester 1 and offering them support to help them recover their academic position.
Report on the effect of PASS Intervention on the performance of failing students
To identify students with poor performance in semester 1 assessments and put in place intervention measures and additional support for their studies.
- Semester 1 results for all first-year Life Sciences students were examined. All students who failed one or more modules were identified, whether or not they had received a resit grade (53 students, 25% of the cohort: 3 received letters asking if they were still studying and did not respond).
- Students were classified according to the severity of their failure: number of modules failed, whether or not they were given resits, etc.
- Students with a single module resit were sent an email, copied to their Personal Tutor, advising them to contact the module leader about the support available through the School Resit Support Project resit tutorials, see their Personal Tutor, and take the resit. They were emailed an encouraging reminder three weeks before the resit deadline (20 students).
- All other failing students (more than one resit, failed module(s) below resit grade) were sent appointments for individual interviews to talk through their results and what extra support may be appropriate (30 students, though 6 of these had left during semester 1 but not informed the University).
- The extra support available was 1:1 study skills and/or maths tutorials through Upgrade, counselling support through Student Services and individual mentoring by S. Robbins.
- Mentoring: Most students were invited for a second interview after five weeks to monitor their progress; therefore they were held accountable (17 students seen). Further appointments were made where appropriate to review progress in semester 2 modules and keep the students on task. Some students without resits did not have second interviews, but Personal Tutors kept in touch with them.
Uptake of support
Student uptake of mentoring is shown in Figure 1. Support was targeted at those students on a downward spiral of failure, many of whom would be expected to drop out by the end of the academic year. Initial interviews were conducted with 22 of the 24 badly failing students known to be attending the University. The other two students did not respond to the offer of support.
Figure 1: Uptake of intervention
Numbers of mentoring interviews that student attended as part of PASS Intervention. Comparison shows uptake for students who had 1, 2 or 3 module fails in Semester 1 assessments. 22 of the 24 students identified were interviewed.
Six students received individual tutorials, including three unregistered dyslexic students who were identified. These were registered with the Dyslexia Service and referred for interim help through Upgrade dyslexia tutors. Two students had counselling support.
The outcomes of this intervention in terms of student success and retention are shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Academic outcomes for 22 students who failed semester 1 modules and participated in PASS Intervention.
Next September 13 of these previously failing students will move into Stage 2 and 8 will repeat the year.
One international student was expelled by Finance early in the semester (as shown on graph); however, his exit from Brookes was managed through a series of one-to-one meetings that saw him into another career.
NB: The 2 students who did not take up the offer of support through PASS Intervention failed academically and had to leave the University.
Figure 3: Reasons that students gave for their poor performance in Semester 1 assessments.
Figure 3 shows total numbers of students in each category and the number that passed into Stage 2 given for each category.
NB: There were multiple reasons given for poor performance, therefore students are logged in more than one category.
For most failing students, there was a combination of factors that lay behind their academic failure in Semester 1. Data in Figure 3 show that the two most frequent reasons students gave for their poor performance in Semester 1 assessments were lack of effort and poor time management. These reasons were identified by 18 out of 21 students. Eight of the students cited both of these as factors affecting their performance, and it will be recognised that this combination is likely to prove academically fatal to student success. Only three students gave neither of these as reasons for their poor performance. Here illness, personal issues and undiagnosed dyslexia were identified as contributing factors.
Since students have identified lack of effort and poor time management as major reasons for their poor performance, it stands to reason that addressing these through individual mentoring is likely to be successful. Mentoring sessions looked at simple methods for time and task management and frequent meetings held the students accountable. The aim was to teach these basic study skills so that the students could establish bet
ter study habits that would facilitate success in Semester 2 assessments and provide a good basis for study in Stage 2.
The success of PASS Intervention is due largely to the one-to-one time spent with individual students. The experiences of the participating students showed the following:
- Students responded to personal contact: ‘Somebody cares about what’s happening to me’. ‘Someone believes in me.’
- By putting in place an individual study plan, time/task management they could see that the task ahead was doable. They saw that there was a way forward out of the mess.
- Meeting the students individually every 5 weeks to discuss in detail (module by module, assignment by assignment) their progress in semester 2 kept them accountable and on task.
- Acceptance that most could not fully redeem their situation (pass 8 modules) in one semester but that their position was not hopeless prevented total despair and drop out.
PASS Intervention targeted the badly failing students, not those with only one resit who could, with some effort on their own part, recover their academic position. As such, it is reasonable to predict that without intervention support these students would have become academic failures or unable to progress. The outcomes from the project show that many of these students were turned round academically, becoming successful rather than repeating their previous failures.
There are resource implications for the School in terms of staff time and buying in specialised support where appropriate. However, PASS Intervention is cost-effective, given that each student saved brings £15,000–£20,000 into the University if they complete their degree. For the 13 students entering Stage 2, the saving would be approximately £180,000–£200, 000. It is estimated that if the 13 students stay for only one more year, then the saving is at least £80,000.
Plans for next year
1. Support students from PASS Intervention who are entering Stage 2 trailing one or two modules. Facilitate this transition by mentoring these students to help them continue with the improved study habits developed during last semester.
- Mentor the continuing Stage 1 students to further develop their academic skills and wean them off support by Christmas.
- Work with new students to inform them of the importance of time management, meeting deadlines and putting effort into their studies.
Put PASS Intervention in place for the new cohort of Stage 1 students.
This project shows that a relatively small intervention can have a far-reaching impact on student performance and progression. The intervention needs to be personal, individual and medium term and therefore has resource implications for the School. However, there was a far better outcome than that anticipated at the end of Semester 1, which is good for the students and good for the School of Life Sciences retention.
About the Author
Dr Susan K Robbins is Principal Lecturer in Student Experience and Biochemistry, University Teaching Fellow, Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Head of Student Support, School of Life Sciences
PASS Intervention is supported by BSLES funding. My thanks to Keith Cooper for mentoring me as I supported the students and to Student Services and Upgrade staff for their work with these students.
Robbins SK, (2006), ‘Introducing PASS: The School of Biological and Molecular Sciences (BMS) Personal & Academic Support System: Supporting first year students within an academic School through proactive Personal Tutoring’, BeJLT:2 (1), 1–5. Accessed 19 September 2007