Introducing PASS in the School of Biological and Molecular Sciences (BMS)



With the recent steep rise in the number of students entering universities, it has become apparent that a significant proportion of them arrive without the essential skills and experience necessary to make a success of their studies. For example:

  1. With Widening Participation, many come from families that have no firsthand knowledge of HE and often student (and family) expectations do not match up to the reality of university experience.
  2. The youth culture of today exerts more pressures on students than in previous generations. An increasing number of students experience family cultural pressures.
  3. The funding system developed over the past few years puts increased pressure on students, financially and otherwise, and many students do not have families that can provide a financial safety net, should they find themselves in financial difficulty.
  4. Some students have to contend with serious illness, either their own or that of a close family member, or bereavement.

These problems can result in students becoming distressed and unable to engage fully with their studies. As academics we can design excellent courses and be outstanding teachers, but if students are absent from classes, or present but unable to concentrate due to external worries, they are not going to learn. In severe cases the outcome may well be academic failure, which is disastrous for the student and results in poor progression and retention statistics for the University.

At Oxford Brookes University we have benefited enormously from the advent and development of PIP, Personal Information Portal, the University’s electronic student management system. However, a knock-on effect of PIP’s efficiency is that our personal tutees no longer need to come to us for signatures when they make changes to their programmes of study. Whereas in the past we saw our personal tutees at the beginning and end of each term (6 times a year), now we can go for months or even years without setting eyes on them. Previously there was the opportunity for building a working relationship with our personal tutees and checking that all was well with them when they came to see us to have forms signed. Now that students are no longer required to see us it is likely that if they do encounter problems, the last person they will turn to for help is their personal tutor, yet almost always there will be some kind of academic impact from personal problems.

These issues led us to develop proactive support for BMS students, particularly in their first year as they make the transition from school to university.

A Way Forward

PASS is the new Personal & Academic Support System launched in September in BMS to try to ensure that first-year students have the support they need. The aim is to build the personal tutor–tutee relationship so that students can identify with someone within BMS, a tutor they can turn to for help if needed. PASS uses semi-structured group meetings between personal tutors and their first-year tutees at intervals throughout the year to achieve this objective. It is also hoped that meeting as a group will encourage the students to support one another as they settle into their courses and progress through the first year. The PASS programme provides study skills–related activities that support students in their academic work and help them adjust to university life. It directly supports coursework assignments but does not require students to prepare extra work or staff to mark it. The areas covered by the programme are as follows:

  1. Expectations: Why am I here? What are my aims? How can I achieve them? Personal Development Planning (PDP)
  2. Academic Support: Study Skills, generic support for coursework.
  3. Feedback: How am I doing? How can I improve?

During Induction the PASS co-ordinator met the new Stage 1 (first-year) students and talked about staff expectations of them as students and introduced personal tutoring and PASS. Student profile data was collected using forms designed to flag up students’ perceived deficiencies in study skills and also students with weak academic backgrounds. Throughout the academic year the PASS co-ordinator held weekly drop-in surgeries that any student could attend, ran an appointment system for other times and arranged to see students referred by their personal tutors.

The PASS co-ordinator provided personal tutors with staff and student worksheets for each tutorial session. These worksheets minimised the amount of preparation staff were expected to do prior to holding their tutorials but gave the expected content and structure as guidance. Staff were encouraged to adapt the material to meet the needs of their particular group of tutees. Personal tutors were given feedback sheets for each tutorial that allowed them to evaluate how useful that tutorial had been and provide a record of student attendance.

Semester 1 PASS Programme

Week 0 Induction:

One-on-one meeting between Tutor and new Tutee: Collect student profile data; ask tutees to look at My PDP and fill in questionnaire for Tutorial 1

Week 2 Tutorial 1:

Time management / Personal Development Planning

Week 4 Tutorial 2:

Taking notes in lectures; making notes from books / journals

Week 7 Tutorial 3:

*Structuring your essay; how to reference your work

Week 11 Tutorial 4:

Receiving and understanding feedback on coursework; how to revise for exams

Semester 2 PASS Programme

Week 1 or 2: Individual interviews:

Results from Semester 1: how are you getting on? Are you on target? PDP statement

Week 4 Tutorial 5:

*Engaging with Groupwork; how to design an academic poster

Week 7 Tutorial 6:

*How to structure a scientific report

Week 11 or 12: Individual interviews:

PDP and feedback from students

End of Semester 1:

PASS co-ordinator: Receive Tutor feedback

End of Year:

PASS co-ordinator: Receive Student and Tutor feedback

* Items timed to support coursework in BMS Stage 1 modules. For example, semester 1 modules had an assessed essay as part of the coursework. Students were asked to bring their draft essay along to their PASS tutorial for peer and tutor review. Feedback was given on essay structure, not content. The aim was to enable the students to write better essays by addressing conventions of structure and grammar.

The student attendance data for PASS tutorials was logged and used to produce Figure 1. Unfortunately the record of feedback from staff is incomplete due to difficulties in getting staff to make returns, hence the apparent low take up of PASS tutorials and the apparent lack of tutorials offered in semester 2 (Figure 2).


Figure 1: Student attendance at PASS tutorials for each semester and as a total for the whole academic year.

Figure 1

Figure 2: Numbers of PASS tutorials given by BMS staff in each semester.

Figure 2

Figure 3: Levels of staff engagement with PASS and the percentage of students affected by this.

Figure 3


Student attendance at PASS tutorials (Figure 1): There were 214 students eligible to attend PASS tutorials. Although collection of attendance data was difficult as described previously, most students attended at least one tutorial. Only 44 attended no tutorials at all, therefore 80% of students attended at least one PASS tutorial during the year and 66% attended at least two PASS tutorials.

Staff engagement with PASS (Figures 2 & 3): Analysis of staff involvement with PASS shows that 14% of personal tutors ran 0–2 tutorials; therefore their personal tutees were not offered the opportunity of attending the full range of PASS tutorials. In fact, according to the feedback returns received, only half of the members of staff ran all of their PASS tutorials, thus limiting the availability of support for 55% of first-year students (Figure 3). Staff engagement in semester 1 was good (88% ran 3 or 4 tutorials), although there were still 12% of personal tutors who did not provide this support for their personal tutees. These data raise issues about the quality of student experience and equal access to support and are matters for School management to address.

PDP: University statistics show that more than 51% of BMS first-year students logged on to PDP compared with other schools (2–15%). PDP was actively encouraged through PASS and was the main contributing factor in obtaining this level of engagement.

Students who fail compulsory modules with less than 30% at the end of semester 1 receive University Examination Committee warning letters stating that they will be unable to complete Stage 1 that academic year. Of the 20 BMS students who received warning letters in January 2006, 9 had attended no PASS tutorials and 5 had attended only one out of four. This shows that they were not engaged with PASS, their personal tutors, or their modules during semester 1. Twelve of those students have now failed (to remain at the University students must obtain at least 3 module credits in a year of study) and of these students 5 are in some financial difficulty, flagged on their PIP as debts to the University. The challenge is to pick up these kinds of students early in the year and work with them to avoid this terminal outcome.

Other benefits of PASS

It is hoped that through the group tutorials students will not only be supported by their personal tutors but also that the members of the tutorial group will provide peer support for one another. Early in semester 1 this could provide lonely or shy students with people with whom they could sit in lectures, discuss their work, socialise, etc.

There is a policy in BMS to return first-year coursework to students via personal tutors. This monitoring, together with PASS, should enable personal tutors to identify those of their tutees who are not engaging with their work and provide a basis for intervening by calling them in for a talk, then following them up.

PASS tutorials provide an opportunity for students to seek pastoral support where they may have non-academic ‘life issues’ problems such as money, family, housing, illness, etc. As we are all aware, these can be the issues that shipwreck a student’s academic career as effectively as outright academic failure. During the PASS tutorial programme personal tutors are encouraged to look out for changes in their tutees’ demeanour, etc., and also to be available and responsive to approaches from students with problems. As is traditional, personal tutors give tutees advice on academic problems; however, when a tutee presents with serious life issues problems that are beyond the expertise of the tutor, they refer the student on to the PASS co-ordinator who is Head of Student Support for BMS. She calls the student in for an interview and, having talked with the student, arranges specialist help through Student Services and/or the Students’ Union Advice Centre. As an academic she is also able to talk through with the student the academic impact of the problems the student is experiencing and, where appropriate, negotiate with Module Leaders for extensions to coursework deadlines, write medical equivalent letters for the Student Administration Office, etc.

Examples of students helped by referral

Student A, a mature student, approached her personal tutor in week 5 because she was struggling with lecture content and had decided to leave the University. She had come to BMS via an Access course but she felt ill prepared. I interviewed her and during the conversation we decided that the best plan was to transfer her out of Stage 1 and into Extended Sciences, the foundation course for BMS fields. Although this student has since been absent with illness, she is keen to continue in foundation next year and thence to progress into Stage 1.

Student B is a similar case, a student who was considering leaving because she found the pace of work too fast, though her problem was more a lack of confidence. She had taken her A levels 3 years earlier and was struggling with returning to study after a break. She surfaced later in the semester, too late to transfer to foundation, so we talked and encouraged this student, met with her weekly at first, and her personal tutor guided her study for the rest of semester 1. This student has successfully completed Stage 1 and is confidently ready for Stage 2.

Student C identified himself to me when he suffered a tragic bereavement. I co-ordinated background support for this student, including writing a medical equivalent letter for the Student Administration Office to cover his absence. He came to see me on his return and we talked through the academic implications of his absence and how he would recover his position. He was glad of the support. This student is currently taking medical resit examinations.

Student D was picked up in her PASS tutorial and referred on to me, distressed because there were rats in her student house. I worked with the Accommodation Office and the Head of Student Services to get the immediate problem of the rat infestation tackled by the City Council, and eventually the student moved out into other University accommodation. This process took a number of weeks during which time I kept in touch with the student and persuaded her to stay at Brookes rather than leave her course.

Student E was struggling with childcare arrangements, as she had to travel 40 miles to attend university. The problem was so severe that she had decided to drop out. Her personal tutor referred her to me and we talked through the issues. It transpired that the situation was more complex than had first appeared, but by talking through the issues we found a way forward and this student has now successfully completed her first year.

There were a number of students referred to me who had lapses in confidence or difficulties that required a single
consultation and, after encouragement, they were set back on track. Others were brought along by friends, or presented themselves through personal recommendation. Word got around that there was a designated person who would make time to help them and students took advantage of this support.

Problems encountered in running PASS

The major issue for both staff and students was finding mutually convenient times to hold tutorials. Although rooms were booked for times that appeared to be free in student timetables, these rarely worked out to be convenient, so most tutorials took place during lunch hours, with the added inconvenience to both staff and students needing a break. It is difficult to timetable a session that is not a module, and one that involves a whole year group and all academic staff presents a huge challenge that will be addressed.

Staff and student engagement are the other obvious issues for PASS. It is vital that all personal tutors support PASS, run their tutorials and in an imaginative way. Without staff co-operation and participation the quality of student experience will suffer, with some students being offered good support and others being denied it.

Along with fully engaged staff we need ways of developing and encouraging a culture of student participation.

Plans for the future

  1. Analyse data collected during Induction Week, contact personal tutors of weak students and ask them to track these students throughout their first year.
  2. Work with the School and University services on providing a timetabled time for holding PASS tutorials.
  3. Further develop the material that is used in PASS. Following the first run of PASS and feedback received, the content of some tutorials will be modified.
  4. Provide extra support for students who fail semester 1 modules. Invite them individually for an interview with the School Head of Student Support to ascertain reasons why the student has failed and determine ways of supporting them in the second semester. Work out a study plan for semester 2, then monitor progress every 3 or 4 weeks throughout the second semester. Past experience shows that many students fail through lack of time management and organisational skills; therefore, helping them to plan and then making them directly accountable may go some way towards their academic recovery.
  5. Actively promote the use of PDP as a tool for motivating students to engage with their studies by encouraging early engagement with PDP. Ask students to record their aspirations and expectations of their time at Brookes as they start their studies, then revisit this at the end of each assessment cycle.

The name: School of Biological and Molecular Sciences became the School of Life Sciences in September 2006

Author Details

Dr Susan K Robbins is a Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry, University Teaching Fellow and BMS Head of Student Support.

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