Pre-arrival surveys make it possible to meet students where they are

When taking students on a learning journey it helps to know where they are coming from. Sunday Blake investigates the phenomenon of the pre-arrival questionnaire

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

When students enrol at university, they bring with them diverse experiences of prior learning, life experiences, and worries about the next step.

Yet, in most cases in those early weeks, they are still much more likely to be asked whether they enjoyed Freshers and what they think about university marketing than to share insight about who they are that could shape how their institution thinks about teaching, learning, and student support.

In fact, much of the thinking around quality enhancement remains focused on the National Student Survey – an instrument whose weight is out of all proportion to the insight it can provide, given its data only captures the views of students who make it to the end of their programme of study.

It is hard once a student has decided to leave their course early – whose non-continuation and demographic information could provide valuable data points for institutional intervention – to retrospectively draw systematic conclusions about what is going on. Even if outduction surveys were routine across the sector, by this point, the student has already disengaged and withdrawn.

As such, the pre-arrival student questionnaire is growing in popularity among institutions that want to better understand the specific needs of each student cohort as it arrives and adapt accordingly, ideally anticipating and heading off potential problems before they become existential.

Students do not arrive in higher education as a blank slate. Their beliefs and expectations shape how they will engage with learning. Rather than catering to the imagined student norm or to the student demographic makeup of past years, pre-arrival questionnaires enable institutions to begin to get to know the multi-dimensional human beings that have rolled up for their courses.

Prior experience

Ten years ago, Michelle Morgan – then student learning and teaching manager and coordinator at Kingston University and now dean of students at the University of East London and an authority on the pre-arrival questionnaire – noticed a particular kind of student was withdrawing more than others. Specifically, first-generation students, students who had taken BTEC qualifications, or those without A levels. Her response was to create entry-to-study questionnaires, as part of a project identifying all the stages in the study journey and their characteristics. As she says:

I realised that to impact the metrics at the end and to support retention, progression, and success – especially in light of the fee increases and debt burden – we had to go back to the start of the journey to understand the factors that could impact on a poor experience upon entry.

Predictably, Morgan found that there were then – and still are now – differences in the responses of students from different demographics – including the concerns they had upon entry, their expectations of the course, and their prior learning experiences.

Concrete examples of insights that Morgan has uncovered include only a third of incoming students having experience of using a library, that UK-domiciled students favour phones with iOS operating system while international students prefer Android, and that male students were three times more likely to use sports facilities than approach mental health services. Nuggets like these can feed into and inform institutional information services, communications practices and approaches to student support.

In particular, operations can be adjusted to target demographics at risk of withdrawal specifically. For example, Morgan found that after Covid-19, A level students generally reverted to traditional learning, teaching, and study methods. However, for BTEC students, there remained – throughout and after Covid – more diversity in accessing information and a higher use of technology. Logging these initial differences offers a concrete starting point for designing a more inclusive learning environment in which students with different learning preferences and habits can thrive.

Joining the dots

None of this, however, needs to be about setting up new support initiatives – it can be about informing decisions about where to target resources and efficiently connecting the students who need support to what is available. Pre-arrival questionnaires provide institutions with data on which student support services may be in higher demand with an incoming cohort so they can place staff and resources where needed rather than waiting for students to turn up. They quantify what had previously been guesswork on what students might need and what the scale of that need might be.

Nicola Watchman-Smith, deputy director of student learning at Teesside University, says:

The pre-arrival questionnaire has completely changed how Teesside operates. If any student ticks ‘care leaver/experience’, then they immediately get a notification saying thanks for saying and here is bursary/support. Students nervous about making friends can get targeted comms about social events.

Likewise, international students with questions that may need to be answered by multiple service points inside the university can have that initial transition coordinated by a student journey team rather than being passed from person to person. This experience of having to work to get the support needed is frustrating for any student – but will also particularly impact, for example, disabled students who are likely to need support from multiple different parts of the institution.

Some institutions relay the (aggregate) data collected in surveys to students to coincide with the classic “wobble week” period for new students (usually between weeks four and six) in communications campaigns. Knowing peers have similar academic anxieties can help tackle low academic confidence and increase the likelihood of students asking for help. As student communications become more sophisticated, pre-arrival data can inform even more targeted insights and communications with students with particular needs or experiences.

Streamlining support for students is a key benefit for institutions using pre-arrival questionnaires. Emily McIntosh, Director, Student Success at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), has been working on early intervention since 2015. She now leads an early intervention team employing early intervention specialists in each college at the institution who use data insights to “join the dots for the students” in terms of support so students have got one point of contact.

The teams also take a joined-up approach. The early intervention team works with school-based colleagues and associate deans to look at the data and pinpoint which students are most at risk and then develop individual action plans. She explains that they are using the data to look for patterns of disengagement before the disengagement occurs:

We are building a model to ensure we intervene early. We use data insights to anticipate when and where challenges will come, based on what we know about the student journey. My team is building knowledge around each academic programme re assessments, placements, and what students may find challenging around those times. This initiates a conversation and collaboration with relevant colleagues to put in place additional support, perhaps from student services (including international student advice and academic skills), perhaps from careers or from a relevant academic colleague.

These insights aren’t solely into the general academic life cycle, but also those specific to the UWS student body. McIntosh gives the example of a recent insight showing that students from India were struggling with a spell of cold weather, which led to enhanced communications and support on an issue the team would have otherwise not considered.

Back to belonging

The bigger picture here is about students’ sense of belonging – having been asked about their preferences and experiences and having had the opportunity to raise questions or issues and connect to support helps to create a firm foundation for early engagement on arrival.

Harriet Dunbar-Morris, in her time as dean of learning and teaching at the University of Portsmouth spearheaded the application of the Being, Belonging, Becoming (BBB) framework to support student transition during the Covid-19 pandemic. She has been awarded funding by the Association of National Teaching Fellows for a project she continues to lead in her new role as pro vice chancellor academic at the University of Buckingham. In that project a pre/early-arrival and end of first year survey instrument is currently being piloted across the sector, supported by evasys, focused on understanding applicants’ prior learning experience and expectations and, subsequently, capturing their learning experiences and connections in the academic community.

The tool is flexible enough to allow any institution to evaluate what they do in their context to enhance the student experience at any level to see if that works for them as an evaluation tool. This is vital because the diversity of the sector means a copy-and-paste approach to student support is unlikely to be sufficient. Individual institutions need to understand their own incoming student cohorts and design and evaluate support in light of this insight.

At Portsmouth, in developing the BBB framework, and based on student feedback, the university introduced short online courses on learning, higher education, and what to expect for university life and study. This was designed to help students – specifically non-traditional students with different prior learning experiences and future expectations – become part of their learning community as soon as they are firm applicants. Dunbar-Morris explains:

We start to develop a relationship with them in those summer months after they have finished their exams. They then want to know more about Portsmouth and have some desire to become part of our community. They’re keen to do things that help them prepare for university. So we get them involved with some online resources and two online courses. This gives them an early opportunity to consider what aspects of their ‘being’ they will be bringing with them to their higher education journey which will see them develop being, belonging and becoming.

These pre-arrival activities are as much about getting the student to take part in an activity which they know other students are also doing, and forging peer connections, and thus a sense of belonging, as they are about preparing the student individually for higher education. For example, Portsmouth adopted the use of Discord – a popular instant messaging social media platform – to engage with firm applicants pre-arrival, until they are familiar with the university’s own online platform.

Pre-arrival support and tailored orientation for incoming students were specifically cited in Portsmouth’s TEF Gold award. Pre-arrival questionnaires create a foundation for the evidenced articulation of education gain, likely to feature in future iterations of TEF, and can also be an essential component in understanding and closing awarding gaps and addressing differential outcomes.

Some might be worried about take up, or of contributing to the dreaded survey fatigue before a student has even arrived on campus. But survey fatigue can be read as a function of perception of a lack of authenticity rather than as a universal phenomenon. As evasys managing director Bruce Johnson stressed at a recent evasys student engagement conference:

The pre-arrival questionnaire seeks information beyond what students might assume their institutions already have from their UCAS application. We think that many students will be willing to share additional details if the institution communicates a genuine commitment to supporting their transition to university, rather than merely fulfilling a marketing requirement.

Where there is lower takeup of a pre-arrival questionnaire, this can itself be a prompt to action – Johnson cites an example of a survey that saw good response rates in general but much lower completion for students who had come to the institution via Clearing – prompting an outreach effort targeted to this group.

As more universities adopt pre-arrival questionnaires, there is also the potential to aggregate data across institutions, generating comparative data and insight that can inform sector-wide policy and practice such as the Scottish enhancement themes, or English institutions’ approach to meeting the B conditions. Our sense is that though the various national regulators vary in their approach to quality assessment and enhancements, all will increasingly see effective and timely gathering of student insight as an essential tool in the quality toolkit.

This article is published in association with evasys.

2 responses to “Pre-arrival surveys make it possible to meet students where they are

  1. Love the article. Positively put advantages of getting to know your new students.
    Pre-arrival surveys are excellent. I use them to inform the design of the teaching students receive in their first semester at University. Students tell me they want a warm and friendly welcome where they can connect with each other and the staff teaching them. That’s what they now get. ‘Wobble week’ has becomes the point when students can manage their own learning and understand their assessments. It’s also the time we take in students transferring from other courses and give them the same welcome. It is all about facilitating peer to peer, peer to group, peer to cohort, and per to staff connections. Mattering and connections are key.

  2. useful for teachers before giving any course to evaluate interests and knowledge of students and delete any “a priori” ideas …

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