Dr Helen Pierce together with Dr Lisa Collinson and Dr Heidi Mehrkens from the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy tell us about the development and implementation of new methods of improving student retention.

The problem

During the 2016-17 academic session, History staff worked together to try to improve Level 1 retention in the short-term, and to develop methods of further improving that retention in the longer term. It had been noted that within DHP, History had a particularly high number of students (10.9% in 2015-16, or 17 students) dropping out at Level 1.

The solution

Making History (HI1027) was introduced in 2016-17 as a new, 15 credit course, and compulsory for all Single and Joint Honours History students at Level 1 during the first half session. This compulsory element enables students get to know each other and History staff more quickly, building a sense of community. The course provides an overview of the wide range of topics and approaches students encounter during a History degree; it was designed and is currently co-ordinated by Dr Colin Barr, who has experience of raising retention in a US university. During the first half of the course, students are required to respond to lecture content through MyAberdeen, using short ‘Tweet-style’ comments; this enables staff to track general engagement with course materials, and intervene as necessary.

Dr Lisa Collinson assumed the new role of Level 1 History Co-ordinator, overseeing a small team of History PhD students as ‘advisers’. Students were invited to meet their advisers at weekly group sessions, and/or in one-to-one sessions. Dr Collinson also met many students individually to offer advice and support; she liaised regularly with staff in Student Support and undertook training in Mental Health First Aid.

During the second half session, Dr Collinson continued to update a developing list of students identified as of concern. Attendance data in MyTimetable and the C6 monitoring system were regularly consulted. Light ‘check-in’ emails were sent to students where problems were identified or anticipated, and many individual meetings were held, as during the first half session. The four student advisers were now attached to either one of the two Level 1 History courses running, rather than individual students, with one drop-in session per week each.

Conclusion & evaluation

HI1027 is now a compulsory component of both the single and joint MA degrees in History. Across the course a broad overview of Level 1 engagement and attainment is captured through MyTimetable (tutorial attendance) and MyAberdeen (engagement with course materials) and documented and tracked through a spreadsheet updated by Dr Collinson. A short report was produced by Dr Collinson at the end of the 2016-17 academic year, in which she reflected upon the successes and drawbacks of the Level 1 History Co-ordinator role. The following conclusions were drawn:

The majority of students of concern reported mental health problems – many already diagnosed before arrival. Almost all students with attendance and/or submission problems reported confusion and disorganisation as barriers. Many problems of confusion and anxiety started in Freshers Week. These issues were compounded by students failing to read email. Several students reported finding the number of emails they were receiving from the University overwhelming. One-to-one, face-to-face interaction seemed extremely helpful to the students who were willing and able to access this. From a staff perspective, one-to-one meetings could be interesting and rewarding, but in some cases they could be very challenging — particularly when the underlying issues were complex, or potentially life-threatening. Mental Health First Aid training helped with this. Record-keeping using the Level 1 spreadsheet was time-consuming.

HI1027 has been subject to the usual modes of student feedback, including discussion at SSLC meetings and through the SCEF form, and this generally positive feedback has been reflected upon in the Annual Course Reviews for 2016-17 and 2017-18.

Impact

Overall there has been a significant drop in the rate of non-continuation and withdrawals in History, to 7.0% in 2016-17 at level 1 (13 students). 5 students have withdrawn or decided to not continue their history degree at level 1 in 2017-18. It is difficult at this point to link these actual numbers directly to the introduction of HI1027. Reasons for students to drop out of their studies vary considerably and often include ill health or other difficulties unrelated to the students’ academic experience. The strong focus on level 1 student experience is nevertheless seen as one way towards fostering a stronger sense of belonging to a History learning and teaching community, with the potential to improve student satisfaction on all levels of the degree.