Back from the Brink: A Lifeline for Resit Students?

Authors

Abstract

Progression and retention rates do not just matter to universities; they are enormously important to those students in danger of failing their studies. The opportunity to resit a module provides such students with the opportunity to pull themselves back from the brink – but many fail to achieve this. This article examines the success of a project to provide timely, personalised and generic feedback to such students and the impact that this intervention can have in terms of resit results.

Paul Catley (University of the West of England, Bristol) and Kate Williams (Oxford Brookes University)

 

Introduction

It’s the classic image – the guy on the riverbank, leaping into the current to drag drowning people to safety, while wishing he had time to wade upstream and see why these people are falling or who is pushing them in. . .

. . .And so with failing students. Non-completion of university is clearly a complex issue (McLaughlin and Sutton, 2005), but the link between poor performance in the first year and students withdrawing feeling academically inadequate is well established (see for example Benn, 1995). So while ‘failure’ is a composite, it manifests itself in a string of individual failed modules. This is why we decided to wade upstream and explore whether simple interventions to support students offered resits would improve resit pass rates on specific modules.

The pilot proposed by Upgrade had the greatest take-up in the Law Field at Oxford Brookes. Previously, tutors would discuss a student’s performance or exam paper with them, only if the student approached them. Very few did – perhaps because students who had failed did not want to engage in the potentially embarrassing ordeal of going through a poor paper with their tutor, however supportive that tutor might intend to be. For the project we decided to continue with existing practice for most law modules but to select representative modules from both Stage 1 (first year) and Stage 2 (second and third years) in which we would offer additional support.

The impact of guidance for students resitting basic (Stage 1) modules

Four basic law modules are assessed in Semester 2. Three of these modules are assessed primarily by examination, and, historically, all three have tended to have a significant number of students who fail at first attempt and are then awarded a resit. All three modules must be passed by students wishing to become solicitors or barristers. From past experience we anticipated that there would be a significant number of students awarded resits. In 2003-04, excluding medical resits, 59 students were awarded resits in Contract Law, 39 students in Constitutional Law and 66 students in Tort.

However, simply comparing the resit results in 2004-05 with those in 2003-04 did not seem a very sensible approach. In 2003-04 the courses had been taught as part of a three term-based course structure whereas in 2004-05 they were taught within a two semester’based system. Under the old system students who failed the module but gained a mark of 20%’39% were eligible to resit; under the new system only those awarded marks of between 30% and 39% were to be awarded resits. Under the old system Term 2 modules (Contract and Constitutional Law) had resits over Easter and Term 3 modules (Tort) had resits in late August / early September, whereas under the new scheme Semester 2 resits would take place in July. Finally, the old system had only allowed a student to take a maximum of one resit, whereas the new system placed no limit on the number of resits. We therefore concluded that comparing the results with those achieved in previous years, whilst interesting, would not be a comparison of like with like.

Accordingly we decided to offer greater support in just one of these three modules (Contract Law) so that we could compare the performance of resit students in that module with the performance of resit students in the other two modules (Constitutional Law and Tort) in which the previous level of support would be maintained. All students who were awarded a resit in Contract Law were emailed on the day the exam results were announced with guidance on the paper they had failed. The guidance was in two parts: generic feedback detailing common mistakes and identifying what the examiner was looking for in each question. In addition, students were specifically told what they had done wrong individually in their examinations and how they could improve. Students were alerted to this email on their Personal Information Portal (PIP) as this is how students access their results.

One point to note before comparing the resit results was the improved performance of first-year law students in 2004’05. The pass rate in the two 30-credit modules (Contract and Tort) rose from 61% to around 80% with the result that the number of students eligible for a resit fell from around one-third to about one in eight. Whether this improved performance was the result of semesterisation or some other cause will possibly become clearer in future years. Interestingly, this improved performance was not replicated across the university and was not replicated in Constitutional Law (a 15-credit module) where it stayed fixed at 73% in both years.

Table A : Students awarded and not awarded resits in Stage 1 Law modules, Semester 2, 2004/05. Numbers and percentages (in brackets)

Students taking module* Students passing the module (at first attempt) Students failing the module but awarded a resit Students failing the module and not awarded a resit

Contract

178

140 (79%)

22 (12%)

16 (9%)

Constitutional Law

169

124 (73%)

25 (15%)

20 (12%)

Tort

130

104 (80%)

16 (12%)

10 (8%)

* All figures exclude students awarded medical resits.

There were fewer resit students in the Law Basic modules – partly as a result of the better pass rates mentioned above and partly because of the increased threshold mark that students had to achieve in order to be awarded a resit (up from 20% to 30%).

Table B:Student performance on basic Law modules 03/04 and 04/05: passing, awarded and not awarded resits. Numbers and percentages (in brackets)

Cumulative figures for all 3 basic law modules Number taking the module* Number passing the module at first attempt Number failing the module at first attempt but awarded a resit Number failing the module at first attempt and not awarded a resit

for 2003-04

581

375 (65%)

170 (29%)

36 (6%)

for 2004-05

477

368 (77%)

63 (13%)

46 (10%)

* All figures exclude students awarded medical resits

The net result was that the number of students eligible for resit dropped from 170 (29%) to 63 (13%) and thereby reduced the size of our research sample.

Table C: Outcomes of resits with and without additional guidance in Stage 1 Law modules Semester 2, 2004/05. Numbers and percentages (in brackets)

Students awarded a resit Students sitting the resit Students awarded a resit who passed Students sitting the resit who passed (percentage)

Contract Law WITH additional guidance

22

16

(73%)

8

(36%)

50%

Constitutional Law and Tort WITHOUT additional guidance

41

26

(63%)

10

(24%)

38%

* All figures exclude students awarded medical resits.

In Contract Law, a markedly higher percentage of students took the resit – 73% as against 63% in the other modules. It seems, however, that the guidance not only encouraged students to attempt the resit, but also appears to be linked to better performance in the resit – 50% of Contract resit students passed on second attempt as against 38% of resit students taking the other two modules. Overall, more than a third of students awarded a resit in Contract passed whereas fewer than a quarter of those offered resits passed the other two modules.

The impact of guidance for students resitting Advanced (Stage 2) Modules

A similar experiment was undertaken in relation to Advanced Law modules. Two Advanced Law modules were chosen to test whether this greater level of resit support would bring dividends. The two modules selected were Civil Liberties and Human Rights (one of four advanced modules which must be passed by students wanting to qualify as solicitors or barristers) and Crime and Society (the largest Stage 2 law module not required for a qualifying law degree).

Table D: Outcomes of resits in Advanced Law modules, with and without additional guidance. Semester 2, 2004/05. Numbers and percentages (in brackets)

Students awarded a resit* Students sitting the resit Students awarded a resit who passed Students sitting the resit who passed (percentage)

WITH additional guidance given (Crime & Society + Civil Liberties & Human Rights)

7

6

(86%)

6

(86%)

100%

WITHOUT additional guidance (Total of 7 modules)

38

27

(71%)

16

(42%)

59%

* All figures exclude students awarded medical resits.

Both the percentage of students attempting the resit and the resit pass rates for the advanced modules were higher than for the basic modules. Again, as with the basic modules there appeared to be a link between additional guidance and higher resit attendance and pass rates. The difference between an 86% pass rate and a 42% pass rate appears dramatic but the numbers of students for whom additional guidance was given (7) was so small that it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on these figures. However, subject to that qualification, the experience with the advanced modules does support the apparent lesson from the basic modules that the extra guidance did seem to lead both to more students attending the resit and more students passing the resit.

The impact on Law – overview

Table E: The impact of guidance for students resitting exams across the Law Field. Semester 2, 2004/05. Numbers and percentages (in brackets)

Students awarded a resit* Students sitting the resit Students awarded a resit who passed Students sitting the resit who passed

All law modules WITH additional guidance (3 modules)

29

22

(76%)

14

(48%)

64%

All law modules WITHOUT additional guidance (9 modules)

79

53

(67%)

26

(33%)

49%

* All figures exclude medical resits

These results cannot be viewed as conclusive: the number of resit students is small and the experiment has only been conducted in one semester. However, the indications are very positive. The individual contact with students is associated with both a marked increase in the number of students attempting the resit and a marked improvement in their performance. The timing of the advice also seems successful. Most students access their results through PIP. Having a message displayed on their PIP page on the day of their results stating that they have been emailed by their module leader appears to be a simple but effective means of encouraging them to check their university email.

The email messages sent to students also invited students to contact the module leader for further guidance – but no students took up this option. This may be because the timing of the summer resits (in July) meant that students had returned home and were no longer around Oxford, but we had anticipated that some students would engage in email discussions with staff. The fact that they did not may be a testament to the comprehensive nature of the advice given or may simply indicate that students who are awarded resits are not generally in close communication with the teaching staff.

This intervention is, however, costly in staff time. Specific advice for each student takes time to prepare, especially on modules with large numbers of resit students. Our experience was that writing the advice took about 30 minutes per student, including time for writing the feedback and emailing. Funding from Upgrade was available to recompense staff for the time involved in preparing the guidance as a one-off pump-priming measure – but if the scheme is rolled out across additional fields in the university, provision for the extra work involved will have to be made.

It is tempting to think that a less time-intensive approach might be adopted, offering only generic advice. However, it may well be that the personalised guidance is one of the reasons for the apparent success of the intervention, not only because the advice was clearly relevant to that particular student but also because it gave an implicit message to the student that we cared about him/her as an individual. This in itself may have helped the student to engage / re-engage with the module. Two students did email and both expressed gratitude for the advice – as both passed the resit, presumably it was of use.

In considering the costs of supporting resit students, the costs to the university of not supporting them needs to be taken into account. Students who retake modules swell lecture and seminar numbers, produce work that needs to be marked and so on. The cost of failure to the individual student is more obvious: the financial cost of having to extend his/her period of study; the negative impact of (re)taking an additional module or modules on their attainment in other modules, with potential implications for their final degree classification – another factor that could affect university league table positions.

There do seem to be strong arguments for the university to find the resources to fund a continued exploration of strategies to support resit students, or at least to fund a larger trial project to see if the results and approaches trialled in Law can be replicated in future years and in other disciplines. The next phase of development must be supported by fuller data collection and analysis – to identify the profile of students who fail or scrape passes, tracking them back to their entry qualifications; to identify the critical point at which a series of individual module failures triggers wholesale failure and drop-out, and to build all this into a system for identifying vulnerable students in advance of failure and exploring ways of supporting them earlier in the process. In short, we must ensure that the university does more than fish bodies from the river, and commits to wading upstream to find out what is happening on the bridge.

Biographies of the Authors

At the time of undertaking this project Paul Catley was Principal Lecturer with Responsibility for Quality Enhancement in Law and University Teaching Fellow at Oxford Brookes University. After more than 15 years working in the Law Department, Paul left Brookes in September 2005 to become Deputy Director of the Academic Law Scheme at the University of the West of England.

Kate Williams is Learning Development Manager, Upgrade Study Advice Service, Oxford Brookes University. She has developed materials and programmes for the full range of learners from foundation to PhD at several universities, including Oxford, Roehampton and London University of the Arts. These sessions focus on developing the thinking and writing skills necessary for successful studying and writing. Publications include: Study Skills, (1989), Macmillan, Basingstoke, and a series of student guides Developing Writing, (1995/6), OCSLD, Oxford Brookes University.

Contact details

Paul Catley

Law Faculty

Frenchay Campus

University of the West of England

Coldharbour Lane

Bristol

BS16 1QY

Email:

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Tel: 0117 3282503

Kate Williams

Learning Development Manager

Senior Management Team

Gipsy Lane Campus

Gipsy Lane

Headington

Oxford

OX3 0BP

Email:

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Tel: 01865 483653

References

Benn, R. (1995), ‘Higher education: Non-standard students and withdrawals’, Journal of Further and Higher Education.19(3), 3-12.

McLaughlin, S and Sutton R (2005), ‘Reassessment Strategy

Retrieved on 18 Nov 2005.

A shorter version of this article will also appear in the February 2006 edition of LINK.

Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Double Blind Review
This paper has been subject to a double blind peer review by at least two reviewers. For more information about our double blind review process please visit: http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/about/double-blind-review/

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