How early engagement can give a glimpse of students’ academic future

Data analytics is key to ensuring that students continue to progress throughout their studies, according to Helen Higson of Aston Business School

Fountains outside Aston University buildings, including the business school on the right   Credit: Elliott Brown/CC BY-SA 2.0

Data gathering and research are the key to forming good practice and policy. Some universities have been using a mixture of research and data analysis to uncover ways in which they can make themselves more accessible for all – investing time into understanding how they can be inclusive in their outreach and provide opportunities for a wider group of students.

Our discourse must, however, move beyond how to enter higher education – known as access – and onto the progress and success of current students. 

Like most universities across the UK, Aston University students kick off their academic year with a plethora of induction events during freshers’ week – mixing social and academic onboarding; introducing them to their new courses and to the next significant stage in their lives. 

But how can a single week realistically equip our students with what they need to succeed over the next three or four years? And what can we learn in these initial few weeks as practitioners? 

Our research into engagement within the first three weeks has found that measuring student study activity, through the likes of learning analytics, is a good predictor of future behaviour in students.

At Aston, our practice is research-driven. That means we find out how things are currently working at our institution, and we make decisions based on those results. 

Our MyEngagement platform – based on the StREAM learning from specialist software firm Solutionpath – helps staff gather accurate insight into how students are moving through our institution and most importantly, what is influencing their progress and future success later. 
It is essential that the platform, which is available to students from the moment they start studying, is user-centred, to ensure that information comes from the students themselves, rather than through assumptions based on demographics and labelling bias. 

Interactive and integrated into their journey, the platform will give personalised notifications in response to what students have or have not done towards their degree. It almost works like another personal tutor looking out for them. 

Introducing the platform to students from the beginning is key for us. 

Our research into engagement within the first three weeks has found that measuring student study activity, through the likes of learning analytics, is a good predictor of future behaviour in students. The findings, which monitored 1,602 first-year undergraduates, revealed that those who had achieved the highest end-of-year grades were also those who were most likely to be high engagers in the first three or four weeks  of their course.  

In other words, we get a glimpse into a student’s academic future through some of their very first engagement behaviours with their studies, rather than through their demographics. 

But as time goes on for that student and they move through the course, what can be done to positively influence their progress and take action on whatever those first few weeks of induction are implying?

Reinforce induction
Induction is a big part of our students’ first week or two at university. But what about those weeks, months and years beyond? Research has revealed that UK students who drop out of university are worse off than those who never attended at all. 

As a university we, therefore, see it essential to continue the induction process long after the start of the academic year. This ensures that not only are we retaining students, but we are looking after their wellbeing and maximising their success throughout their time with us. There are various ways in which we can reinforce induction, and thus keep refocusing on progress and success. This may include having a second or final year induction, and encouraging our students to take ownership of their own development by continuing to use MyEngagement to keep track of their trajectories.

Our institution has seen a rise in January starters, who traditionally do not experience the same freshers’ week activities as their September peers.      

Currently, we are collecting the data, with the help of Solutionpath, to see if there is a performance advantage or difference between September and January starters. From these results, we will be able to determine how best to personalise our student support throughout a course, and work to maximise every student’s progress, regardless of when they choose to begin. 

By taking the time to understand the learning needs of each individual, we prevent barriers which could otherwise stagnate the process of progress and success. The higher education approach must look through a wider lens to suit the variety of individuals and the circumstances they are facing during each year of their studies. 

Our successful future direction in HE practice and policy are already being developed, but we need to delve deeper in order fairly and considerably to maximise student learning in terms of progress and success. Whilst research and data analysis are the key to unlocking this venture, institutions must now look at how they can integrate these components throughout the entire length of a student’s course.

This is so that they do not just finish their first week, month, or year on a high note, but continue that momentum up until they graduate. 


Sam Trendall

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