Tamsin Bowers-Brown, Associate Professor at the University of Derby’s Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), discusses the importance of the University’s second Student Attainment Project, and the testing of resources and interventions to reduce attainment gaps between students.

It is a sobering fact that in 2019 the HE sector still has an attainment gap which can be clearly defined by socio-economic and demographic characteristics. The Office for Students has been unequivocal in its position; attainment gaps must be eliminated.

Evaluating the factors for and barriers to academic success has been the focus of two Student Attainment Projects led by The University of Derby.

The outcome of the second project (which we will refer to as SAP2), which was funded by the Office for Students and conducted in partnership with Solent University and the University of West London, has been published online for the benefit of other institutions across the UK.

Hearing the student voice

The project’s purpose was to develop and provide resources and interventions, tried and tested by the universities involved in the project, which all HEIs, as well as students, can use to improve pedagogic practice to reduce attainment gaps.

The student voice is paramount in the process of improving attainment. One of the key findings of the SAP2 intervention testing is how the project’s resources could help lecturers to better understand their students’ assessment fears and misunderstandings. Personalising this process at a module level produces even greater benefits for students.

Equally, a clear understanding among students of the skills required for successful study, irrespective of their subject, is invaluable.SAP2 interventions prompted students to ask questions of their lecturers for clarification of a task or assignment, and this, it was reported, reduced the number of errors made in those assignments.

One particularly encouraging piece of evidence from the project is the positive response of students who were the first in their family to attend university to the project’s recommended Fit to Submit checklist. In fact, a subject-tailored checklist was welcomed across the board as an aid to understanding assignment objectives and expected module learning outcomes. This speaks to the importance of clear guidance through assessment briefs provided in all modules to all students.

Acknowledging the benefits of difference

During his first spell as Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore made it clear that universities would be held to account for failures to address disparities in attainment outcomes[1].By that time, SAP2 was already nearing completion of its two-year journey and demonstrating the positive results of its pedagogic practice for improving outcomes in higher education.

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Projects like SAP2 and its predecessor can begin to make a difference to meet the challenge of reducing attainment gaps but only as part of a much broader attempt to improve institutional practices. Inclusivity in the curriculum is one essential element that academic staff have the power to affect.

However, when we talk about inclusivity we need to be assured that this is not an attempt at assimilation but an acknowledgement of the benefits of difference. 

Any change made must not come from a deficit position and our project acknowledged that our future work would not take an ‘interventionist’ but a holistic approach to institutional change. Only a strategic approach will ensure that improved student success is properly embedded and sustainable, and becomes the culture of learning in which every student can thrive.

Tamsin Bowers-Brown, Associate Professor at the University of Derby’s Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT)

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