Case study: HE academic support service

Translating the culture of higher education

How an Academic Study Skills Support Service for higher education students in college can make a positive difference to their confidence and resilience

The North East is one of the two regions in the UK where young people are least likely to enter higher education. A key priority within the North East Local Enterprise Partnership Strategic Plan (NELEP) is to raise aspirations and access to jobs for all people at all stages of their lives. It sees education playing a crucial role in meeting this target.

The plan calls upon education establishments to provide a mix of world-class academic, technical and professional education and apprenticeships, in all growing areas of the North East economy, to ensure that those entering the labour market have the right skills and that talent is regionally retained.

Colleges are well placed to respond to this challenge, having a strong history of delivering technical education to meet the needs of local employers. College-based higher education makes a major contribution to widening participation in HE: the students are generally older, study part-time, are from economically disadvantaged localities, and for many it is their first experience of higher education. 

The multi-college project at New College Durham, Sunderland College and Darlington College has put in place HE Academic Support Tutors to provide a positive study skills support experience that enhances student learning, boosts engagement with course content, and raises students’ confidence and resilience. 

The HE Academic Support Tutor is an additional ‘straw’, offering distinct, yet complementary, support to that already available.

The tutor functions as a ‘translator’ of higher education culture and structures which may be foreign to students from low participation areas. The project offers overt points of access to expert learning developers and provides discrete help-seeking spaces.

The students

Learners across the three institutions can be classed as ‘non-traditional’ higher education students both in terms of their demographics and academic routes taken. A significant number of students enter with BTEC level qualifications and have progressed internally from within the same institution. The students usually have a small radius of travel to attend college, with an average distance of less than 10 miles. Local universities are within easy commuting distances but many students are unwilling, or unable, to travel beyond their locality.

These students also face diverse challenges including: studying alongside other significant commitments such as work, family or other responsibilities; and additional time pressures, where for example, many study part-time or attend college one day per week. This means that students are unlikely to be on campus outside of teaching hours to engage with the service. The HE Academic Study Skills Support Service, therefore, has to be sensitive to the individual needs of each student and be mindful of not treating HE students in FE as a homogenous group.  

Building confidence

A key intervention of the project is to build the confidence and resilience of students studying HE in FE colleges. Practical support with academic skills is given, for example referencing or academic writing, which student feedback indicated as the most common reason for accessing one-to-one support.

More broadly, building confidence requires engagement with some of the social and humanistic factors underpinning learning. Within the terms of our project, through one-to-one support and building positive relationships with learners in tutorials, students are empowered to progress to Level 6 and beyond. The confidence-building aspect of the project is evaluated by administering Angela Duckworth’s GRIT questionnaire, which measures ‘grit’ – the ability to sustain interest in and effort towards long-term goals, such as academic study. To track progress, these short questionnaires are distributed at the first session, and again at the last session.

The teaching staff from the colleges have reported an improvement in the quality of student work and levels of confidence with academic skills since the project started.

Student feedback on the service

Of course, the service is only successful if students requiring this kind of support access it.

Engagement with key groups has been good: 76 per cent of those accessing support are from the four groups least likely to enter higher education – young white males, students with mental health difficulties or physical disabilities, and those from POLAR 3 quintiles 1 and 2.

For one-to-one tutorials, the majority of attendees have been female mature students on courses such as Counselling, Social Work and Education/Childhood Studies.

The project has identified a number of hard to reach groups, such as those on Engineering or IT courses, which are consistent across the colleges. Various strategies have been used to engage these groups, requiring flexibility on our part in terms of scheduling and embedding academic skills support effectively.

New College Durham trialled drop-in evenings, located in different parts of the campus, which were not well attended. However, when the drop-in format was changed to bookable twilight appointments, this proved more successful at engaging students.

At Darlington College, from the beginning of the academic year, a bespoke ‘Welcome to HE’ series of workshops has been embedded in the first five weeks of the Engineering and Construction courses.

At Sunderland College, delivering the service across three campuses has proved challenging, but the Moodle site - providing online interactive resources on academic skills topics - has been well utilised across different course groups. These resources can be accessed anywhere, supporting those on day release or on part-time courses, as is the case with many students in hard to reach groups. 

It is anticipated that across the colleges the service will continue to evolve in response to student demand and the successful changes that have been implemented so far.

The multi-college project comprises: 

Case study author: Gillian Askew, HE Academic Skills Project Manager, New College Durham

Published 02 January 2019

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