Skip to content

Improving the experience of non-traditional university students

20th Feb 2018

Great progress has been made in improving access to university in the UK, including work conducted by colleagues at BIT [1] [2]. However, disadvantage does not vanish the moment a student steps onto campus. In fact, “widening participation” students (those from backgrounds that mean they are less likely to enter higher education) participate systematically less in university life and do not go on to enjoy the same labour market benefits as their peers.

We’ve been working with King’s College London to understand how we can bridge this gap, so that all students, regardless of background, have full and enriching experiences at university. In January this year, we launched the full report of this two-year collaboration, which included student workshops, ten RCTs and a Pulse Survey where we asked over 700 King’s undergraduates to tell us, at six key points in the year, what they were doing and how they were feeling.

My colleague Lucy Makinson and I presented some of the key findings from the research, including interventions to increase attendance at the KCLSU Welcome Fair and to increase the proportion of students signing up to an online study skills module. We saw that an email with the line, “Lots of students find that adapting to university study takes time” more than doubled the number of widening participation students signing up for the module (you can find this one in the report itself).

We also presented some key findings from the Pulse Survey: including that widening participation students are systematically less positive about their connections to peer groups.

Lastly, I spoke briefly about the new What Works Department at King’s, which sits in the Social Mobility and Student Success Directorate, and which I have been seconded from BIT to King’s to help establish.

We were excited and encouraged by the turnout to the launch event: around 200 attendees, from within and beyond King’s, came to hear about the results and to hear from other speakers including senior leaders within King’s and across the sector, and Dr David Halpern, BIT’s CEO, about the future of evidence-led practice in higher education.

There were a few things that stood out to me from the launch event.

Behavioural insights approaches in higher education have an exciting future

We were launching some interesting results related to highly topical issues of the student experience at university, which we expected to generate significant interest. They did—but what stood out was the level of excitement about what we might do next in this space: how What Works could continue these strands of research, and how behavioural insights could help HE professionals within and beyond King’s deliver a better student experience, particularly for widening participation students.

Sharing unsuccessful trials is just as important as sharing those that worked

The first graph we presented was of an unsuccessful trial, where planning-focused SMS had not increased the proportion of first years attending their first set of exams. As we at BIT know, it’s important to present null results, both because they can be learned from, and because publication bias is an immense challenge to evidence-based practice. However, to practitioners in the HE sector, this also reassured them that in the process of learning What Works, it is natural to find some things along the way that don’t.

Student voice matters

A cornerstone of this research was understanding the student experience through asking students themselves. We did this both through the student journey workshops, and through the Pulse Survey. In the last wave of the Pulse Survey, we also asked students how they had felt about participating—they were overwhelmingly positive. But instead of simply putting up some charts to show this, we thought a better way to demonstrate the impact and importance of student voice to projects like KCLxBIT was to let the students who participated express what it had been like directly:

Unsurprisingly, this video was one of the most memorable parts of the event. It certainly reminded everyone in the project team why we had undertaken this work in the first place: to help students from all backgrounds get the most out of university. King’s and BIT both look forward to continuing to explore ways to do this over the coming years. You can sign up to the KCL What Works mailing list (and follow us on Twitter) if you’d like to stay in touch about what we’re doing.