Nottingham Trent University (NTU) is a modern university developed from founding institutions which go back to 1843 and currently has around 30,000 students. The quality of the University’s provision has been recognised by being awarded THE University of the Year 2017, Times & Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018 and The Guardian University of the Year 2019. One well-known characteristic of NTU is its sector-leading support for student social mobility; for example 25% of students come from households with a combined income of £15,000 or less.
The University for many years has realised that its main challenge is not recruiting students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, but enabling such students to complete their courses and attain high levels of achievement.
A key element which underpins NTU’s recent success is a sustained programme of systematic collection and actionable analysis of data about its students, including tracking academic progress in near real-time. This has enabled NTU to help students from all backgrounds to thrive.
Early analysis of the first data sets collected several years ago demonstrated a correlation between low engagement with the University by a student and failure to progress or low levels of attainment. And so the award-winning Student Dashboard was born in 2013 and remains a state-of-the-art learning analytics system. This monitors multiple sources of student engagement data, compares in near real-time student engagement across a cohort and gives an engagement rating available to every student and their academic advisor. Of particular interest is the alerting of low levels of engagement, especially multiple alerts. The alert is a springboard to start a conversation to understand and start to address issues, not a prediction.
Of course there are many ways a student can engage with the University, so the system monitors seven different areas. Some of these result from physical presence, e.g. attendance at classes, entry to the library, borrowing from the library a printed book, but in a modern learning environment this is not sufficient. So online engagement also contributes – use of the university’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), electronic submission of coursework and using ebooks and ejournals. The latter is particularly significant at NTU where the library provision is at the sector forefront in the transition to digital content (for example last year there were over 10 million views of ebooks).
The Student Dashboard consists of two components. Firstly, the algorithm which is the behind the scenes, learning analytics element analysing the engagement data and using sophisticated mathematics to calculate the rating. The second element is the on screen dashboard which has two modes: one for a student so that he or she can see in a highly visual and intuitive way how their engagement compares to the rest of the class; and one for academic staff so they can quickly identify students potentially at risk.
NTU recognises that there are two change agents who can address potential issues from low engagement, the students themselves and their academic advisors. Therefore the University, in conjunction with the Students’ Union, puts a lot of effort in explaining to students that this is their tool to help them (every student has their own screen) and how it works. This has helped allay fears about “Big Brother” monitoring and surveillance. There is a high level of awareness and use of the Student Dashboard by the University’s students. The take-up by academic staff has been slower, but increasing numbers now see the benefits supplementing their own experiences of the students they teach and advise.
Subsequent, more detailed analysis of the engagement and success data indicated that low engagement in the first term of the first year is a good indicator that a student may fail to complete the course or get their expected level of attainment. Therefore there is an focus on effective use of the Student Dashboard in the very first few months after a student’s arrival NTU. This means that the conversation between student and an academic can start early enough for interventions that have sufficient time for effective change.
Systems and processes have now evolved to also analyse groups of students with a shared characteristic as well as individual students. Like almost every other university there are unexplained progression and attainment gaps between different groups of students. Systematic tracking of academic progress allows NTU to trial interventions to close these gaps and to gather the evidence to assess their impact.
One example of this is the award-winning use of the “flipped classroom” methodology called Scale-Up. This involves replacing lectures with students learning through solving problems and asking questions, working on tasks together in groups, sharing what they have learned, and giving help or feedback to others. Students engage with material traditionally covered in a lecture outside the classroom, usually online. Analysis has shown that when courses have a sufficient number of Scale-Up sessions, progression gaps are eliminated for BME students and those from lower socio-economic groups and that attainment gaps are significantly reduced for many groups of students.
Similarly in the library, one to one student appointments with library academic skills advisors correlates with better progression and better attainment for all groups of students. Students who engage with the library-led summer assessment support service prior to re-taking exams have better pass rates for almost all groups. This is prompting a campaign to encourage students from all backgrounds to engage with these services using targeted interventions, supported by evidence that they actually make a difference to their outcomes.
The systems are not perfect and we would not expect them to be even as they are refined. This is why self-awareness, conversations and personal interactions remain at the heart of NTU interventions; it is the prompting by academic progress data which enables these to be done effectively at scale.
About the Author
Mark is Head of Libraries and Learning Resources at Nottingham Trent University and is responsible for providing strategic leadership for the University's library services and learning resources. He has led the libraries at the universities of Stirling (2008-13) and Brighton (2002-8) and has worked at the University of Kent, Richmond, the American International University in London and the London School of Economics.
Mark is Chair of SCONUL, the organisation which represents all university libraries in the UK and Ireland and national libraries. He also chairs the Jisc Knowledgebase+ Advisory Group and is a member of the EDINA Management Board.