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?!











The Attainment and Diversity Summit – 5th April, 2017

Every year the Students’ Union at the University of Wolverhampton hold an attainment summit. The summit aims to involve staff and students in working together to develop ways to enhance student attainment and to reduce differential degree outcomes.

I am rather attached to the attainment summits as they came out of a meeting with the Students’ Union about the DiSA Project and WhatWorks at Wolves? The summits were launched in 2013 and there have been four summits in total.  The early summits focused on BAME student attainment, however the latest summit, whilst focusing on BAME student attainment, has also recognised that there are differential degree outcomes for other students groups.  I was heavily involved in the early summits, but now they are led by the SU which has given them more power to generate change.  I am very grateful to still be part of the events and have presented at each of the summits.  On the whole I have given an overview of the University’s work in this area  as well as discussing research that I’ve been involved in that offers some insight into what we could do to make a difference.  This has included:

  • The findings of the Disparities in Student Attainment Project (DiSA) which advocates that there are four areas that can impact on student attainment and appeared to impact more on students from BAME backgrounds. These are relationships (e.g. learning relationships and belongingness), pedagogical issues (e.g. understanding assessment requirements), psychosocial aspects (e.g. stereotype threat, lecturers as interlocutors) and social & cultural capital (e.g. having relevant role models in the academy, knowing the rules of academic engagement or mastering transitions into and through HE).
  • What Works at Wolves (UoW’s contribution to the HEA’s What Works 2) which provides a qualitative evaluation with staff and students, and a quantitative evaluation between and within modules over time, of a student led assessment unpacking initiative. 
  • A Pre-expectations of Higher Education study, that identified 10 gaps in expectations between students entering higher education and the lecturers who are teaching them.
  • The University of Wolverhampton Belongingness Study, that found that there is a difference in the experience of belonging between BAME students and their white counterparts; that black males have a lower sense of belonging than other groups of students and that there is a dip in the student belongingness at level 5 which is more exaggerated for students under the age of 21.

This year I discussed some work I have been involved with that considers student misconduct. Across the country BAME students form the majority of students involved in the conduct and appeals system despite, in most cases, being in the minority in the academy.  Through a context analysis and discourse analysis of misconduct hearings, we considered what students were telling us and what that meant with regard to their experience of Higher Education.  Not surprisingly, this work identified all four of the areas that DiSA identified (relationships, aspects of pedagogy, psychosocial issues and social and cultural capital) were also evident in misconduct hearings.

Conduct and Appeals

Amongst other things, students who are involved in misconduct hearings often:

  • do not have relationships with people, in particular their lecturers, at the University,
  • don’t have a sense of belonging to the University community,
  • struggle with the transition into and through HE,
  • struggle with the assessment point,
  • demonstrate issues with academic skills
  • do not understand the University support systems, both in terms of extensions, mitigating circumstances and leave of absence, and the skills and development support that the university offers.

The project identified quite a complex picture of triggers and vulnerabilities that could be looked out for in supporting students, which could also explain why students from BAME backgrounds are involved in the conduct and appeals system. I’m currently writing up this work, so look out for publications in the near future.

Researchers and Diversity

On the 14th March, I attended an event organised by VITAE at Coventry University that considered the barriers to success for BME researchers.  The event was attended by a variety of people that included researchers, research developers, equality and diversity managers and people interested in the developing an equitable experience in higher education.

I was attracted to attend event for two reasons:

  1. having worked in BAME undergraduate retention and success, I am keenly aware that students from BAME backgrounds who complete their degrees are less likely to graduate with a First Class or an Upper Second Class degree, which is the basic entry qualification for doctoral education.
  2. working in research development, I have noticed a lack of home BAME researchers: BAME doctoral students, BAME members of the academy in academic roles and therefore BAME academics who are research active.

The event provided the space to discuss the barriers to research for BAME staff and to hear the experience of BAME researchers within the academy. These activities provided me with a lot to think about and I left with a few key thoughts.

  1. Often we don’t do inclusion properly. Inclusion is taking the best of what diversity has to offer and integrating it in to practice, rather than providing a transition platform for those with diverse background into what is provided.
  2. Just as belongingness is important for students, it is important for staff too. If you are the only BAME academic in your department, one of a few BAME researchers in an Elite University or one of a few BAME doctoral researchers in a cohort, can you have a sense of belonging?
  3. Does unconscious bias training actually help remove unconscious bias; especially when it is delivered online?
  4. What are the barriers for BAME researchers in my organisation and what can I do as a Research Developer to remove some of these?

There is no easy answer to any of these questions, but doing something is better than doing nothing. So here I go again.  I need to do some research to understand this area better and then I need to talk to people who can help make a difference.

From observing the gap to bridging the gap

Recently I was invited by the Faculty of the Arts to present at their Equality and Diversity Conference.  The Faculty provided an interesting and varied day As you will see from the agaenda. I was asked to talk about gaps in attainment and how the research I’ve been involved could provide an evidence base for changes to practice. During the Disa Project we implemented a ‘one small change can make a big difference’ campaign where we offered an evidence based of where changes could be made to improve attainment and left colleagues to make evidence based changes around something that reonated with them. We also asked them to report back their findings. Some people provided evaluation data, others provided anecdotal evidence, but it was very evident that small changes make big differences.

I focused this presentation around providing evidence from a synthesis of a number of projects I’d led or been involved in and again reintroduced the concept that a small change can make a big difference and provided some examples where this had been achieved.  One of my most favourite examples is from one of our Law lecturers who used positive talk to express an expectation of success to her students. When making the abstract concrete, she would say ‘when you are a solicitor or  when you are a barrister, you will use this….’ And would then provide an example of the application. Students reported that they left the lecture with no doubt that she expected them to succeed.  

Therefore my main message was that when bridging the gap, bridges can be complex, feats of engineering, ornate or simple.  Each have their own agenda and reason for being what they are, but we must not forget a simple wooden bridge also allows us to traverse the divide. This is important to remember in our time strapped environment. Just because you don’t have time or resources to do something complex or ornate, it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything at all.

Some of the presentation is available on Periscope, I didn’t know I was being filmed, so this has provided me with some food for thought  – in particular my constant ‘errr ing’  The ‘errr’ video is here.

The Doctoral College Round-Up of 2016

The Doctoral College Round-Up of 2016

I work in a Doctoral College and there are three main area of work that I either lead or support the Director in his lead of.  These are:

  • the development of researchers across the organisation – to ensure that researcher of all levels have access to developmental opportunities, that allow them to develop, progress in their careers and deliver impactful research that is nationally and internally recognised.
  • the development of the research environment – to provide a vibrant and engaging University level research environment that is attractive to students, staff and the local community.
  • enhance the footprint of level 8 education within the University and its partner organisations.

As a result one area of my work involves the support and development of doctoral researchers at the University.  Here’s a round up of some of the things we done with our doctoral research students.  Not bad for two people (one of whom was on medical leave for quite a while) and half a Policy Officer.


January 2016 started with many of our Doctoral Students and Professors attending the University’s Holocaust Memorial Day Lecture.


A very moving lecture was given by Mala Tribich about her experiences of living in the Jewish Ghetto in Poland.

More information about Mala’s lecture can be found here



In February the Doctoral College celebrated the achievements of its most mature Doctoral Students (see featured image).

Did you know that there are 14 Doctoral Students at the University of Wolverhampton who are over the age of 68 and that they have a combined age of 1,008?

Information about this event is here.



In March we celebrated the graduation of our successful Doctoral Students at a ceremony held in the Grand Theatre.


We also launched our Internal Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (iPRES), in which we saw a 40% increase in PGRS reporting that they attend workshops from the Doctoral College’s Research Skills Development Programme



The Doctoral College launched its first Symposium in April.  The day, which focused on methodology, was well received.


Read more about the event in the Director of the Doctoral College’s blog



In May we welcomed Doctoral Students who had started their research degree within the past four months to the Doctoral College’s Research Student Induction.

It’s been lovely to see so many of you at the other sessions that form the Research Skills Development Programme.



In June we welcomed nearly 70 Doctoral Students and their supervisors to a workshop that was delivered by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Geoff Layer, which focused on how research can influence policy.

The University of Wolverhampton’s Annual Research Conference also took place in June.  There was a brilliant turnout for the Research Student Poster competition and fantastic entries for the PhD Depictions Photo Competition.  Well done to everyone who entered.

The winning entries can be viewed here.



July saw the second Doctoral College Symposium, which focused on the thesis write up and the Viva Voce.


Pictured are some of our recently conferred doctorates, who we are looking forward to welcoming to the Easter Postgraduate Graduation Ceremonies.



In August the work of two doctoral students in FSE was discussed in a press article about brain cancer.  Read more at: http://www.expressandstar.com/entertainment/weekend/2016/08/09/brains-of-britain-behind-the-scenes-of-the-war-on-cancer/#TFjZC5phBFqGoXv3.99

Rebecca Ball, Doctoral Student from the Faculty of Social Sciences, was selected by the Dean of Research to attend the prestigious ‘Life Beyond the PhD’ Conference on behalf of the University of Wolverhampton.

Located within the grounds of Windsor Castle, it is hard to imagine a more idyllic place to visit than Cumberland Lodge. Steeped in history and breath taking to behold – this was the setting for the ‘Life beyond the PhD’ conference. Cumberland Lodge is an education charity with the important aim of promoting lifelong learning for all, the exchange of ideas and to initiate fresh debate.



September was a busy month.  There were more doctoral graduations as part of the University’s Annual Graduation Ceremonies.

The Doctoral College also launched its Inaugural Researcher Residential Week, which was very well received.

In response to feedback from research students the Doctoral College launched its enhanced Research Skills Development Programme. We now provide 44 workshops and 4 monthly drop in sessions that respond to the doctoral life cycle and the relevant milestones involved in this.

Also, the work of University of Wolverhampton Doctoral Student Victoria Yaneva from RIILP was reported in the press.  To see Victoria’s interview with ITV and hear more about how her work helps people with autism to read, see the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YbLfekcx8w



October was another busy month. The Doctoral College launched the Research Student Almanac which gathers together all research talks, events, training sessions, workshops and social meetings, extends a very warm welcome to our postgraduates, staff and, in many cases, the wider public, and allows for advance planning in terms of those sessions that you wish to attend.  The Almanac can be found on the Doctoral College’s Research Seminars and Events webpage.

The Doctoral College welcomed another group of new Doctoral Students to one of their Doctoral College Induction programmes.

We also held our first doctoral viva ‘hot seat’ event, which provided PGRS with the opportunity to experience a mock viva and answer viva style questions about their research.

The Doctoral College also took part in some outreach activities, including attending an employability conference at Burton Borough School that provided the opportunity to talk with students who have ambitions to become researchers.



In November the Doctoral College held its Inaugural University of Wolverhampton Lecture, which was delivered by Professor Geoff Layer.  Over 90 people attended the event which examined ‘Research in UK Higher Education: The Challenges and Opportunities’.


The lecture was live streamed and is available here https://www.periscope.tv/WLV_DoctoralCol/1mnxejrMrgRKX?t=37

For further details about the University of Wolverhampton Lecture Series and future lectures, please visit www.wlv.ac.uk/lectureseries



December brings us to the end of a busy year and included the launch of ‘Research Matters’, our termly publication to celebrate the University of Wolverhampton’s research successes and opportunities.

Research Matters is available here

We finished the year with a Doctoral College Christmas Get-together, where our social media competition winners were announced.


So congratulations to Evelyn Price and Jo Mills who were the completion winners.  Both will receive Amazon gift vouchers.


All that is left to say is Merry Christmas every one, have a great festive season.  Here’s to an equally productive 2017.