What Works Conference – April 11th

The final WhatWorks2? Conference was held on April 11th in London.  It was a day of celebration for the hard workout the HEA team, and the 13 UK HEI that took part in the programme and had developed interventions to support the retention and success of their students.  The programme specifically aimed to:

identify strengths, challenges and priorities for change at the strategic and course/programme level

  • improve the strategic approach to the engagement, belonging, retention and success of students

  • implement or enhance specific interventions in the areas of induction, active learning and co-curricular activities in three selected discipline areas

  • evaluate the impact of changes in both formative and summative ways, drawing on naturally occurring institutional data, bespoke student surveys and qualitative methods, such as phone or face-to-face interviews with staff and students

The 13 HEIs had been asked to identify 3 subject hotspots, where retention and success was an issue and develop an intervention that either focused on induction, extra-curricular activity or active learning and teaching.  This led to universities exploring one of these areas in 42 different discipline areas. See the table below which is taken from page 16 of the full WhatWorks Report (Thomas et al, 2017)

Table 1: Discipline teams’ choices of thematic areas.


Active learning and teaching


Accountancy (UU) Built Environment (BCU) Business (GCU, SU)
Built Environment (BCU, UU) Business Management (UOB) Combined (NUB)
Business Management (USW) Computer Science (UOC) Computing (UU)
Criminology (UOC) Creative Technologies (UU) Education/Interdisciplinary Studies (UOG)
Drama (SMU) Engineering (UOG) Engineering (GCU, SU, UOS)
Education (NUB) Life Sciences (UOG, UOW) Life Sciences (GCU)
Law (UU) Media (BCU) Media (BCU)
Life Sciences (UOG) Nursing (UU) Music (UOS)
Management (SMU) Psychology (NUC) Music Technology (SU, USW)
Media (BCU, UOB) Sport Science (UOW) Occupational Therapy (YSJ)
Nursing (UU) Textiles and Design (UOW) Performance (UOS)
Radiography (BCU) WCYPF (NUB) Psychology (UOC)
Social Science (UOB) Radiography (BCU)
Sports Science (SMU, UOS) Sport Science (YSJ)
Textile Art, Design and Fashion (UU)
Theatre (YSJ)

Most HEIs developed unique initiates for each discipline area, however the University of Wolverhampton team, which included myself as Project Lead and:

  • Martin Khechara – Discipline Lead for Science
  • Mark Groves – Discipline Lead for Sport
  • Peter Day – Discipline Lead for the Arts

decided to take one approach around inclusive assessment activities and apply it to all discipline areas.  We hoped that by piloting this approach in a the sciences, arts and performance based subjects, we would be able to develop and evaluate an approach that had appeal to all subject areas and would, therefore, generate a strong likelihood of roll out and embedding across the University.  The approach is encapsulated in the case study below (taken from Thomas et al [2017] pages 38 – 40)

University of Wolverhampton

Inclusive assessment approaches: Giving students control in assignment unpacking101

I was going to jack it in [the course] but … afterwards I thought I can do this, so I decided I’d stay and try to do the assignment. (Male, level 4 student)

It felt like we were in control, we were taking the lead in finding out what we needed to know to do the assignment. I left feeling that I knew what I needed to do to complete the assignment and that I could do it. (Female, level 4 student)

Academic assignments and feedback mechanisms are an important way to engage students and progress their learning. If managed poorly, they can create unnecessary anxiety, cause confusion and become tipping points for student withdrawal. The inclusive assessment intervention at Wolverhampton aimed to a) make assignment briefs transparent; and b) ensure students understood what was being asked of them.

The key elements of the improved process were:

• Reviewing the quality of assignment briefs against evidence-based criteria;

• Ensuring briefs were concise and clearly written, including information on processes, marking criteria and learning outcomes;

• Institutionalising opportunities for students to unpack and discuss assignment briefs together, with students discussing and forming shared understandings and then feeding these back to the lecturer;

• Providing opportunities to ask anonymous questions. Information was provided and misconceptions were addressed by lecturers in class and included in an FAQ on the university’s VLE.

Managing change

There were questions that surprised me, I thought they’d know about that by now, but quite a few didn’t seem to know. … and I have reflected on what was asked and what changes I need to make to the assignment brief. (Female lecturer)

Lecturers were provided with clear guidelines and a structure. However, the structure was flexible and ensured that staff could deliver the intervention in different ways. A number of delivery approaches were developed and observed, including the use of voting systems and the implementation of the Socrative app, roleplay-based peer groups incorporating marking/feedback and ‘mocked up work’, to name but a few examples.

Indicators of success

• Increased levels of student engagement;

• Increased levels of student confidence in themselves and their ability to complete the course;

• A marked decrease in the number of students requesting one-to-one tutorials to discuss assignment briefs;

• A significant reduction in the number of students who failed to submit;

• Improvement in the numbers of students who gained 50% or more, with a marked difference to those students who gained 70% and above;

• A significant reduction in the attainment gap between Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) and white students.

50% and Above 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 Impact
BAME 37% 72% 74% +37%
White 53% 61% 70% +17%

What Works? Student Retention & Success

Lessons learnt:

• Promoting a single initiative can be a powerful way to instigate broader change.

• Support from senior leaders and management at both the university level and the faculty level is critical to the success of interventions.

• Discipline-level advocates can champion buy-in, refine design, and ensure initiatives are ‘fit for discipline’.

• Location is important: situating project management and control within academic and pedagogical 41 40

We were rather pleased with the impact that this work achieved and difference it made to student success, retention and student experience.  The work now being rolled out across the Departments in which the work was piloted, as well as being written into the Universities communications with students…


and will also be used in our assessment charter.

So all in all, WhatWorks2 has worked for UW.  What  result?!











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