There’s no end of evidence of how challenging the past 18 months has been for the sector, from the lived experience of students and staff, demands upon services, and the plethora of articles about wellbeing and mental health.
We probably don’t need another graph to remind us how different the student on-campus experience has been. But let’s have one anyway. This chart shows student card access to campus buildings at Nottingham Trent in the three most recent academic years. The impact of the March 2020 national lockdown is clearly visible as students largely moved back home.
As restrictions are lifted in 2021-22, we are starting to see an uplift in student numbers on campus. In our sixth week of term, for example, we saw around 100,000 on-campus card-swipes. Whilst student footfall has bounced back from the comparable period last year, it hasn’t yet returned to 2019-20 levels. This may be the start of a permanent shift to a more-blended mode of learning, or evidence of continued disruption from the pandemic with students continuing to practise social distancing.
Learning is, of course, much more than being physically present on campus. Nevertheless, we know that student success is inextricably linked to their on-campus experience and the associated extra-curricular opportunities that complement their studies. Students can learn online and see value from doing so, but what impact has removing or reducing in person contact had?
So, as the campus returns to a kind of “new normal”, it is timely to reflect on the academic outcomes of those students hit hardest by the Covid-19 related disruption. Against the backdrop of uncertainty amid lockdowns and other restrictions, colleagues from across Nottingham Trent’s academic and professional services met on a weekly basis throughout the 2020-21 academic year to discuss the very latest trends. Our primary concern was the impact on student retention. What did the data tell us? Perhaps surprisingly, week after week we saw that student withdrawals were no different to what we might expect in a normal year.
Of course, there may be a considerable difference between a student completely disengaging from their study and the University receiving confirmation through the official channels that they have withdrawn. This is where the NTU Student Dashboard proved to be an invaluable resource, taking data from a range of course related online data sources to provide a daily engagement rating for all of our students. We knew from previous research that student engagement, as measured by the dashboard, is strongly correlated with student success, both in terms of retention and attainment. And so it was critical that we monitored the engagement of our students from the offset. The result? Again, each week went by with no significant deviation from what we’d seen in previous years.
Our own research with students shows a combination of factors that might explain why we didn’t see dramatic changes in early departure. Students valued the efforts put in by staff, they understood the challenges and found ways to adjust, thus reinforcing studies that have demonstrated high levels of resilience amongst university students during lockdown. That said, they also acknowledged that their options weren’t great. Frankly if they withdrew, there weren’t many appealing alternatives available.
What about satisfaction?
Which perhaps reflects the second concern: student satisfaction and quality of experience. Very few people have had a “good” pandemic, so of course student satisfaction has been hit. Our internal research suggests that satisfaction with learning and teaching has largely held up, but satisfaction with social and community activity has taken by far the largest hit.
Whether by government instruction, or students’ own caution, one inevitable feature of the pandemic is that students have been physically more distanced from their places of study. This presents major challenges for the way that we support them. Corridor conversations with tutors or walking past the front desk of student support services every day can make it that little bit easier to engage with the support available.
Recognising that challenge, and aware that the students who had recorded very low engagement during lockdown were at high risk of withdrawing at some point in the academic year, the university used the NTU Student Dashboard as a means to break down some of those barriers. Throughout the pandemic, we adapted our existing learning analytics work to help us target support to students who needed it most.
Alerts and calls
As part of this approach, low engagement alerts were sent to a dedicated team who contacted students via a telephone call. The team would email each student and then 24 hours later attempt to ring them to offer pastoral support and/or signpost them as appropriate. The call approach wasn’t perfect; around 40 per cent of students didn’t pick up and it required considerable organisation. However, the service offered a consistent and focused approach to making contact with students.
While all good data wonks will warn that correlation does not imply causation, we encouragingly found that the engagement of those students receiving the call as part of this service increased more rapidly in the subsequent days and weeks in comparison to an, erm, comparator group, who had only received the email. We will continue to experiment with this approach to see if we can carry lessons learnt in the pandemic into our normal working practices.
As final year attainment and progression data for the 2020-21 student cohort has become available, we have found that this year of unprecedented disruption has not been as harmful as we thought it might be in terms of students’ academic outcomes, thus reinforcing our weekly discussions. Students have successfully progressed and attained at levels similar to previous, Covid-free years.
While the weekly monitoring of student engagement and withdrawal data – and the associated student support mechanisms put in place – have played their part, these successful outcomes are testament to the resolve, resilience and tenacity that our students have exhibited, against the backdrop of such unprecedented challenging circumstances.