Classroom/virtual learning communities facilitated by students and by R8VDq9

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LTDF 2008 Project Proposal: First Year Interest Groups (FYIGs) in Engineering-
learning communities facilitated by students and championed by personal tutors.
A retention project engendered in the process of extended induction.

A. Whittaker1, A. Browitt2, L. Walker2, G. Green3

Summary

The project aims to enhance the student first year experience and engagement with learning in the
Faculty of Engineering as described in the Learning and Teaching Strategic Objectives. By creating
a programme of activities for First Year Interest Groups (FYIGs) we aim to improve social and
academic integration and promote inquiry-led learning, one of the key principles of the Learning and
Teaching Strategy. Learning communities will be created in the spirit of Freshman Interest Groups
(FIGs) common in institutions of further and higher education in the USA. Small groups of first year
students will be brought together at the start of their university careers with second year student
mentors, a research student and a staff tutor to create ‘student support cells’ during the transitional
period and extending induction throughout first year. The support provided by mentors and peers
and additional one-to-one meetings with staff tutors will be crucial in terms of student retention. By
working in group sessions throughout first year on activities related to their curriculum and interests
it is expected that student learning, understanding and enthusiasm for their subjects will be improved.

The project will pilot FYIGs in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2008-09. Materials
and processes will be developed and the pilot will be evaluated quantitatively and qualitatively to
inform the design of FYIG programmes before roll out across other departments in 2009-10. In
2009-10 it is anticipated that FYIGs will be embedded in departmental/Faculty learning by linking
the programme to the learning, teaching and assessment of a credit-bearing course. Roll out will be
supported, monitored and evaluated before the end of the project in December 2009.

Aims and Outcomes

The aim is to improve the student learning experience and retention through promoting engagement
with the Faculty by increasing contact with staff and with students both within the year group and
across years. This will be undertaken both in small groups of peers and on a one-to-one basis with a
personal tutor.

The proposed scheme will support the teaching and learning process by creating learning
communities (FYIGs) focussing on inquiry-led learning. It is envisaged that the process will be one
of extended induction beginning in Week 0 or Week 1. ‘Student support cells’ will be formed at the
beginning of the students’ first semester and activities will promote reflection on University learning
throughout the first year.

Initially first year students in the pilot department will benefit from the project, up to approx 120
students. With roll out across the Faculty of Engineering and with continued involvement by some
students in their second year it may be expected that up to 500 students per year from session 2009-
10 onwards will benefit directly. Due to the design of the scheme with second year students
remaining involved with FYIGs and mentoring the new first years the project should be sustainable
after the initial 17 months and will become embedded in the first year curriculum. It is expected that
students will find the proposed FYIGs a more effective way of instilling a sense of belonging than
having a traditional personal tutor. At the same time, the use of graduate teaching assistants and

1
  Faculty of Engineering, Associate Dean (L+T)                                                    1
2
  RAPS
3
  Department of Mechanical Engineering
student mentors should mean that the time commitment of an academic staff member will be less
than that associated with being a traditional personal tutor.

The outcomes of the pilot will be measured qualitatively in terms of improved academic, social and
personal experiences and quantitatively in terms of improved student retention and progression in
level 1 assessment. The pilot will develop materials and inform procedures to allow the FYIG
programme to roll out across the Faculty and potentially elsewhere in the University.

Background/ Previous work

Research shows that students prefer student-centred, active learning rather than lectures (Harvey and
Drew, 2006). Thomas (2008) argues that group learning contexts are the contexts that most enable
students to engage with the learning process. She says “Active group learning strategies promote
engagement with peers and provide opportunities to check understanding and clarify meaning.
Furthermore, classroom interaction can be extended into the social sphere with additional benefits for
the learning experience and integration into higher education more generally” (Thomas, 2008, p72).

Freshman Interest Groups (FIGs) originated in the mid 1980’s in the University of Oregon and have
been widely adopted in Institutions across the US. They can run along various models and formats
but in general involve small groups who take the same courses and form a community of learners
around a shared subject. Tinto (1998) says that the outcomes are that students fare better
academically, socially and personally than those in comparison groups, particularly at risk students.
Further, it’s argued that the students’ styles of learning are deeper and more integrated.

At the same time, the findings of the current Faculty of Engineering LTDF retention project with first
year students have indicated that some examples of good practice that promote engagement emerged.
However, the findings of the project also highlighted a number of areas most frequently mentioned
by students as being on their ‘wish lists’. These are: -
1. One-to-one meetings with a personal tutor/more contact with staff – many students mentioned
    that this would be highly valuable
2. Small group meetings with 2nd year or above students – among other things students found small
    group practical work to be the most interesting and challenging way to learn. The Aerospace
    Engineering mentor scheme was specifically mentioned as highly valuable, and information from
    current students was seen as the most valuable for a true reflection of the course.
3. An opportunity to meet and get to know peers in the class during Orientation Week – the
    appointment for Advising was identified as a time new students already are together which could
    possibly be developed to this end.
Comments included: -

One-on-one meetings with your adviser of studies (I'm still unsure who mine actually is), more
insight into what the courses entail before you arrive, much more extensive use of Moodle between
both staff and students, greater support for the newer technologies.

The mentoring scheme is a really good idea as any trivial problem can be sorted with an older
student instead of looking like a twit asking a lecturer.

The only thing I'd maybe suggest is allocating a mentor BEFORE the course starts. That way we
could be given prior notice on what to look out for in first year, and that will keep us prepared for
the shortfalls that first years currently make now within the first few weeks of uni.




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For example, if someone had told me, BEFORE I started uni, that Structure Of Industry lectures
would be as they are, I'd have had the ability to take appropriate lecture notes from the very
beginning.

It would be good to have an icebreaker week at the start of the term to meet everyone properly on
your course. This way, you wouldn't feel so stressed between socialising and studying when proper
work started because you would already have made friends on your course ie. you could go to the
library between lectures rather than chilling in the union, without seeming really unsociable,
because by that point people would all know each other.

We would also use any relevant findings or outcomes from other LTDF projects around the
University, when available, to inform this initiative in practice.

Methodology

FYIGs will be organised on a departmental basis to create ‘student support cells’ consisting of a
small group of around 10 first year students, a staff tutor, student mentors and a research student.
These would form the basis of learning communities for on-going group activities and mentoring
throughout the year, fulfilling the aims of improving the student learning experience and
engagement. One-to-one meetings with the staff tutor each semester will provide further support.
The project will become self-perpetuating and sustainable through recruiting first year students to
become second year mentors. It will be coordinated and evaluated by a Project Coordinator. It will
begin on a pilot basis in the Department of Mechanical Engineering from the start of session 2008-
09, to be rolled out across the Faculty in 2009-10. The team from the last LTDF-funded Engineering
project not involved directly in the pilot will be asked to form the project steering group to ease the
intended roll-out.

For full details of project methodology please see ‘Timetable’.

Potential Applicability/ Transferability

The benefits of the project outcomes identified in the pilot year will be transferred to other
departments in the Faculty of Engineering and will be transferable to other departments across the
University.

A final report will be produced and submitted to the Learning and Teaching Committee. This will
highlight the benefits and practical issues involved in the project for use by other
departments/faculties. We will disseminate outcomes at seminars internally and externally as
required.

Evaluation

Evaluation will be ongoing throughout the period of the project. Formative evaluation of the pilot in
2008-09 will inform redesign for roll out to other departments in the Faculty in 2009-10.
The pilot will be evaluated qualitatively and quantitatively in terms of the impact on students’
learning and engagement, retention and improved progress in first year in comparison to previous
years using data collected in previous LTDF project. Advice will be sought from staff in the
Learning and Teaching Centre on how best to evaluate the effectiveness of the project in terms of
student learning.
The final summative evaluation will take place after the first session in 2009-10.



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Timetable

A. Pre-entry 2008-09: - pilot Department of Mechanical Engineering
 Identify mentors, research students and staff to be personal tutors in pilot departments and provide
  training where appropriate (for example, from Student Network);
 2nd year students prepare material to send in advance of the initial FYIG meeting – including case
  studies on their experiences of first year in the Department, approaches to learning; questions
  designed to promote the student’s awareness of the learning requirements in HE and knowledge of
  course materials;
 Contact students pre-entry by email to promote FYIGs and pre-entry preparation, and provide
  welcome to the Faculty/ University.

B. FYIGs session 2008-09: - pilot Department of Mechanical Engineering
 First meeting in Week 0 or Week 1 to include small group discussions based on the case studies on
  transition and learning in HE– facilitated by 2nd yr students and a research student to set up the
  student support cells; tutors may introduce mini-project topics for subsequent sessions;
 FYIG group sessions will occur fortnightly facilitated by 2nd year student mentors and research
  students. Materials for sessions will be designed and prepared by academic staff and research
  students with support from Assoc Dean (L&T) and RAPS co-ordinators, and other Services as
  appropriate (LTC, SLS, Careers/Employability). Proposed material to be developed to include –
  mini research projects and practical projects (with prizes for projects sponsored by companies);
  study skills and PDP; external speakers from industry; student-led sessions later in the year where
  FYIGs decide their own learning requirements;
 One-to-one meetings between first year students and their personal tutor at key points in session
  eg. early/mid Semester 1, early Semester 2 - to discuss results of mini-projects, Maths diagnostic
  test, Jan exam results, ongoing progress or problems;
 In Semester 2 students will be encouraged to become FYIG mentors in their second year and will
  be helped to write their own case-studies on their experience of transition to learning in HE and on
  their courses.

C. Ongoing project co-ordination and evaluation throughout session 2008-09: -
 Hold focus groups with tutors and mentors in pilot FYIGs and administer questionnaires to first
  year students to evaluate the pilot qualitatively;
 Provide support for tutors in contacting non-attending students or those causing concern. By
  collecting and collating questionnaire information from withdrawing or struggling students
  themselves, tutors and mentors we would aim to discern the true first year issues and reasons for
  withdrawal as in the past we’ve only been able to survey successful and/or self-selected students;
 Modify and adapt the FYIG materials and procedures on the basis of findings – particularly
  addressing induction needs of specific subgroups of students, e.g., local ‘commuting’ students;
 Raise awareness and liaise with steering group and staff across the Faculty;
 Faculty Teaching Committee to identify credit-bearing courses to link FYIGs into to embed the
  initiative into the curriculum if pilot proves to be a success;
 Identify personal tutors and research students across the Faculty;
 Identify and train first year students from other departments to become 2nd year mentors for
  learning communities in 2009-10;
 Develop materials for FYIGs 2009-10.

D. Summer 2009-10: -
 Evaluate the pilot quantitatively on the basis of assessment and attendance data;



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  Prepare materials for initial FYIG meetings in each department and send in advance to new intake
   of students;
  Web discussion boards active over the summer pre-entry, facilitated by student mentors and
   possibly staff or research students;
  Student mentors could contact their first year group by email to promote FYIGs, the web
   discussion board and act as e-mentors pre-entry;
  Organise and hold initial departmental FYIG events to roll out virtual and classroom learning
   communities to other departments of the Faculty of Engineering.

 E. FYIGs session 2009-10 (end of project Dec 09): -
  FYIGs continue and all students meet one-to-one with their personal tutor, ongoing throughout
   session. Project will self-perpetuate as first years are trained within their tutor groups to be
   mentors in the subsequent session;
  Monitor and evaluate roll out by first year questionnaire and mentor and tutor feedback, write final
   report.

 Budget

 The work will be carried out by academic staff in the Faculty of Engineering and research staff in
 RAPS. While work will in the most part be considered as part of normal duties funding is requested
 for the role of Project Coordinator for:
          Ms Alison Browitt
          Salary Scale L06
          0.4fte for 17 months
          Arrangements- to be made to extend from 1Aug08 contract held in RAPS.

SALARY                           0.4fte Project Coordinator                                        £19373
                                 (with on-costs)
                                 Research students @ £10 per hour demonstrating rate               £2000
                                 Employ 2 UG mentors for 60hrs each in Aug08 to                    £864
                                 develop initial material @£7.20 per hour
INPUT FROM STAFF IN              Not expected
UNIVERSITY SERVICES
EQUIPMENT                        See Running Expenses
RUNNING EXPENSES                 2008-09 consumables for pilot to cover general costs              £5000
                                 and as required: materials - design resources (possibly
                                 small pieces of equipment); expenses including travel
                                 for visits; expenses for external speakers
                                 UG mentors: Amazon vouchers as incentive/                         £2000
                                 Disclosures/ training
                                 Focus group transcriptions                                        £200
                                                                     BUDGET TOTAL:                 £29437

 Approval & Signature of Project Leader

 See supporting letters.

 References
 Harvey, L. and Drew, S. (2006) The first-year experience: a review of literature for the HE Academy
 Thomas, L. (2008) in ‘Improving Student Retention in Higher Education: The Role of Teaching and Learning’
 Tinto, V. (1998) Learning Communities: Building Gateways to Student Success


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