Personal tutors can’t solve the crisis of student engagement alone

Ed Foster examines the role that data and technology can play in supporting student engagement

Ed Foster is NTU's Head of Student Engagement and Analytics

Universities are contending with an apparent collapse in student engagement post-pandemic.

It’s not all students and it’s not all the time but across the whole sector there’s something going on that’s making students exhibit lower academic confidence, greater anxiety, and a greater tendency to drift away from their learning.

We want to do the right thing by our students; we want as many as possible to thrive academically and fulfil their potential. Yet no matter how committed we are to this cause, helping students adapt to new ways of working, new responsibilities and building the capacity to overcome personal challenges is difficult and time-consuming.

I’d argue that the primary focus ought to always be on making our courses and institutions welcoming, inclusive and intellectually challenging. However, there will always be a need to identify those students who are struggling to engage, particularly in the current environment, and helping them to get back on track. Given the size of our institutions and funding per student, it can be difficult for individual staff to identify and support individuals. We need to use institutional data to identify students who are disengaging and be systematic about offering ethical empowering support to them.

Agents of change

At NTU, our work with learning analytics has two agents of change: the students themselves and the staff supporting them. From the beginning, the vendor (Solutionpath) provided capacity for students to access their own engagement data. Feedback suggests that students generally find it a valuable resource, but the ones who appear to gain most benefit are students who are already engaged and use the feedback from the system to sustain their motivation.

Students who are less engaged are less likely to log into the system and less likely to be inspired to engage more. If students are feeling overwhelmed or deflated (or are simply in denial) For these students in particular we believe that we need staff to offer support and guidance.

Personal tutors are expected to use the StREAM learning analytics system in one-to-one tutorials, but this is only helpful for those students engaging enough to actually attend tutorials. Therefore, the system generates “no-engagement” alerts. After a gap of ten days with no activity on any of our systems (VLE, library, attendance monitoring, card swipes etc.) the system generates a warning to reach out to the student.

Our original model was to send these alerts to each personal tutor. They would receive a message from the system asking them to check in with their tutee. While the motivation of personal tutors to do the right thing remains high, this model is, in many respects, a bad fit. Academics have highly diverse jobs switching between teaching, research, administration, and all manner of other activities within a single day. If a student responds immediately then each alert is relatively easy to manage. If they don’t, personal tutors could find themselves with a case management workload of multiple students at various points on the communication and support process. Of course, some tutors excelled in this role, but most are mere mortals.

Moreover, while the temptation can be to simply give personal tutors responsibility to bridge disengaged students back into learning, that puts tutors in a very difficult position when students have complex needs or simply don’t respond to contact. Personal tutors aren’t always equipped to deal with the range of support students may need, and the worry about the wellbeing of an unresponsive student can amp up anxiety if the tutor has no obvious path of recourse, but still feels responsible for that student’s wellbeing.

Hello, is it me you’re looking for?

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the university initiated a telephone call campaign to contact students who appeared to have been most seriously disrupted by the first lockdown. Data from our learning analytics system was used to identify those students who had simply stopped engaging once lockdown started. Evaluation showed that students appreciated the call and so the university further developed the approach.

Now, instead of sending the alerts to personal tutors, the alerts are now sent to a dedicated contact team. The contact team is trained to adopt a coaching approach and has developed an understanding about university systems and students’ needs. Once an alert is generated, the team emails the student to let them know to expect a call and 24 hours later the team will try and ring the student.

Student feedback is overwhelmingly positive. The callers often speak to students who are in a low place. Some students are uncomfortable admitting that they’re struggling to someone on their course and don’t know where to start. Sometimes students are struggling with significant personal and mental health problems. Often the call is just what they need to start the process of re-engaging with their studies or dealing with their problems.

The approach isn’t problem free and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Young people everywhere tend to be reluctant to pick up the phone, yet we need to communicate in a way that grabs their attention; electronic communication is often far too easy to ignore. Yet we are ever on a mission to try and improve the pick-up rate (currently at around 50 per cent).

We are a large organisation and are continuing to work on better work processes and policies that serve not just the contact team but integrate with professional services and with personal tutors giving the best possible experience for our students. It’s also very likely that our approach can be improved. Should we try to contact students earlier? What role does text, or instant messaging play? Might a “truancy police” approach work better than a coaching one? We still have a lot to learn.

By adopting this approach, we are seeking to maximise our impact. Personal tutors are most valuable to their students when helping them understand the course, not when they are checking to see who has responded to emails. Similarly, we built up a contact team who work efficiently and are highly skilled in the job of coaching students into taking positive steps back to engaging with their studies.

Ed will be speaking at Kortext Live in London on Tuesday 25 April – find out more and book your ticket here.

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