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Does Randy Swing have anything to teach the UK about Quality Enhancement?

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This page is a short note on whether we have things to learn from Randy Swing's account of recent innovations in USA HE about how to support first year students. (Randy Smith's biography.) I heard Randy at two seminars on 26 and 30 Sept 2003 (his slides), in connection with one of SHEFC's Quality Enhancement Engagements for 2003-4 "Responding to Student Needs" and its part "Providing holistic support for students..." and its subpart "with particular emphasis on the phases of ... the first year of study".

I list seven innovative practices (or interventions) he mentioned, and discuss how they would translate from the USA context to my own university; and hence whether or not they suggest changes we ourselves might usefully try.

Contents (click to jump to a section)


This issue really needs at least a full week doing some reading and writing a proper review. But the question, even in deciding whether to spend time on a review, is whether it is relevant to us. Here then are some basic notes on the issues from our perspective. That is, considering the main ideas from Randy Swing and the USA, what is their relevance to UoG (the University of Glasgow: my own context about which I can speak most directly), and other UK universities.

Randy's basic position is that in the last five years or so several interventions have spread rapidly through most of HE (Higher Education i.e. universities) in USA. There is considerable evidence that they are effective (in terms both of changes in reported student attitude measures and in dropout rates); and they were invented and adopted because of evidence about the experience of first year students, and the unmet needs this research showed.

However in considering whether any of this has lessons for us, we need to keep in mind the basic differences in position between HE in the UK and in the USA. In fact there are relevant differences between HE in the USA, in Scottish universities like Glasgow with a faculty system for the first two years, Scottish universities in general, and English HE. In the US system, students usually have a great freedom of choice in the combinations of courses (i.e. modules) they do. An effect of this is that no two students may do the same combination, and if they do, they won't easily know about each other. In contrast in most UK universities, students are accepted for a specific programme and will do most of their courses with the same cohort of fellow students. However with a faculty entry system as at UoG and some other Scottish universities, before joining a relatively fixed honours programme for the second two years, students have a wide and individual choice of course combinations within their faculty for the first two years, and potentially face the same situation as US students.

These differences are important because one possible reaction is that the US is at last fixing horrible problems the UK doesn't have because of superior structural features; while an opposite one is that the UK is at last moving towards wider (more socially just) HE participation which the US has done earlier, and the UK should learn as soon as possible about the problems this is likely to throw up and their solutions.

Another issue in considering the translation of these issues and interventions from the USA to the UK is that the effects might be on dropout and retention rates (the two sides of the same coin), but might also show on grades and marks achieved, or on the quality of the learning experience, particularly where dropout rates are already low. That is, the same intervention might work, but show an effect on different output measures.

Basic comparative positions

It is important to bear in mind basic differences in the HE systems being considered. I haven't done a thorough job, but here is a start. A good place to start reading is Hall (2001) especially chapter 2, which in turn draws on an HEFCE (2000) report and OECD (2000) figures. Beware that definitions shift about, due to the tension between what a reader would like and what is sufficiently easy to collect. Thus actual numbers vary depending on the definition e.g. those for dropout rate include: number completing, number completing in minimum time (no breaks), numbers "expected to continue" year on year, numbers failing to continue year on year i.e. dropped out that year, but could have transfered or returned later; numbers including or excluding transfers between courses, between HEIs (Higher Education Institutions), etc.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's recruitment and retention survey in 2005 showed that 13% of new employees leave in the first six months. Should universities expect to do any better?
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. (2005) Recruitment, retention and labour turnover survey 2005. (London: CIPD).

List of interventions

The main interventions or schemes that Randy mentioned, in conversation if not in his talks, are:
  1. Attendance: following up non-attendance promptly by a single phone call.
  2. First year (or "freshman") seminars i.e. small group teaching in the first semester of first year.
  3. Learning communities
  4. Supplemental Instruction (Peer Assisted Learning)
  5. Summer reading programmes.
  6. Enrolment, recruitment, and advising specialisation.
  7. Evidence-based educational change.

Surveys on what US HEIs are currently doing are here and also here.

Attendance: the magic phone call

There was a controlled experiment at Mississippi (Anderson & Gates, 2002) that showed that a single phone call expressing concern after a student missed 2 classes in 8 weeks changed (for this group of imperfect attenders) the % getting grade C or better from 55% to 87%. They called this "freshman absence-based intervention". Other research suggests it is the first not second missed class that is the important one. This is a big effect for a single phone call: surely worth the cost. (They employed postgraduates, and trained them at this. It requires the HEI (Higher Education Institution) to obtain attendance records at all classes.) [References: original web page, and local copy
Another article]

However, perhaps UoG could do this for tutorial attendance, where attendance records often are kept (in those level 1 courses that do have tutorials). So we might look at a policy of having someone contact students after missing a tutorial. Variables in implementing such a policy include:

In the first trial, about 40% of the class qualified by their absences for the intervention. Of these 87% of those getting the intervention got grade C or better, while only 55% of the control group did. In the second trial (with no control group) only 58% got a C or better: as if there were no effect. In the third trial, 70% got C or better. However that was in the second semester, when perhaps most of the dropouts had already occurred and the remaining students were much less likely to fail. Differences between the definite success of the first trial, and the possible failure of the others include:

An attempt was made to replicate the Mississippi study at the University of Glasgow for students taking the first semester, first year psychology course. The trigger criterion was missing two consecutive tutorials. Those meeting the trigger were then randomly assigned to receive either an email or else a phone call. No differences were found in dropout or exam grades at the end of the semester between the groups. Dropout was defined as either withdrawal, or credit refused for failing to complete work e.g. non-attendance at the exam.

There were big differences in the effectiveness of the two methods in reaching the students and gaining an acknowledgement. There was no sign (in an extensive survey) of any problems in the phone calls being seen as intrusive or unwelcome.

Email group Telephone group
Total no. of students meeting the "trigger" 30 30
No. of students who were definitely reached 5 20
Of these, no. who had already dropped out 2 5
Total no. of dropouts by end of semester 17 17

First year (or "freshman") seminars

What this means in the USA is putting on a full for-credit semester-long course run in groups of about 20, rather than hundreds, by academic staff (not postgrads, TAs, ...). This is new because hitherto first year classes had essentially all been huge lecture-based ones with no tutorial component. It could be seen as extending induction, especially if the content is study skills.

There's been some research, and no consensus yet, on the content of these courses. Because this has been very widely adopted, but with great variation in what each HEI means by it, there is data on what features are associated with most success.

To what extent do first year tutorials cover this function? At UoG a first year could get 3 tutorials a week, one per subject, although there is no uniform policy. Furthermore tutorials may not be weekly but fortnightly. They only last 50 minutes (not 3 hours). They are typically not taught by academic staff. They may or may not have a substantial study skills component.

All of this suggests to me that level 1 tutorials aren't just one part of a reasonable technical provision for certain subjects, but may be the most important factor determining quality, student performance, and dropout rate in level 1. If it turns out that they are, then this implies that substantial changes in their provision (in their frequency, content, length, and who acts as tutors) could yield large benefits. Overall, it means that our understanding of their aim and purpose should be changed: not just providing a bit of assistance with the content of the least advanced courses, but the locus for supporting the step change to different study habits, and forming the relationship between them and the subject and indeed the university.

Furthermore, my recent experience with PAL has made me think that experience in groups with no more than 5 students is important for some things, such as willingness to speak out and to engage in meaningful conceptual discussion. this means that larger groups may just not be effective.

Learning communities

This technique seems to consist only of putting into mutual touch groups of students doing the same courses. The idea is, that people who know each other talk about what they have in common, so if they share courses, they'll automatically talk about academic stuff. (Randy said that it works even better if the faculty coordinate their courses too.)

In most UK universities this is automatic, where students enrol from the start in a given subject. In a Faculty system, we could do it by using the Registry database to extract the sets of students sharing all 3, (or failing that 2) subjects in first year; and giving them the list of each others names and emails. Perhaps also organise a "social". We might also consider using this in allocating students to tutorial groups: bunch together those a) with the most overlap in the courses they take, b) living in the same hall or area, c) with the same major declared on their UCAS university application form. In early tutorials, put on the agenda a) introducing themselves b) noting what other subjects each person takes.

In judging both the need for and success of such schemes, the main measure should (I think) be how often students talk to other students about their academic work. If the people they socialise with don't do the same courses, this will be seldom; if they do, it is almost certain to be high. In fact it seems to me likely the real need is to have a minimum number of acquaintances on the same course(s); but after that, knowing diverse people is good.

The simple underlying idea is that people learn best in communities. If the people students know share the same experiences, then they will automatically talk about it, and learn more (and feel less isolated). The US system of free choice of courses makes for consumeristic "freedom of choice" at the price of isolation. The English system automatically largely avoids this. The Scottish faculty entry system suffers from this for the first years: exactly the students most at risk of isolation. Freedom of learning choices has been allowed to entail isolation and the absence of academic community. Lecture audiences in the hundreds mean that people never sit next to the same person twice unless they know them so well they arranged to meet beforehand: new acquaintances cannot be formed there. Even tutorial groups of 20 are not always good for this in practice.

It is also worth thinking of this in terms of halls of residence: again, use databases to put people in touch who have most in common (both courses taken and living in the same hall). Note that the Oxbridge college system might score badly in this respect.


Though he didn't mention it until asked, he said Supplemental Instruction schemes (known as PAL in the UK) were demonstrably very effective and would have been the next thing he'd talk about if he had more time. They are now offered in about 60% of US universities like Glasgow. More on this in my notes on this, and the biggest USA site on Supplemental Instruction.

Summer reading programmes

The idea is to create a learning-oriented community in another way. All students are sent a book (paid from their summer fee) to read. Discussion sessions early in year/term; at half term a speaker on it. Idea is to give everyone a book in common and so promote common experience and discussion.

Enrolment staffing

I didn't catch the force of this. He commented that a medium term trend had seen recruitment, enrolment, advising for new students being handed over from academic staff to specialists, and seemed to see that as bad; perhaps because it is yet another reason for new students not to have contact with academic staff, when that has appeared as a big predictor of retention. He also made the point that existing students are important in enrolment decisions by new students, and when available their advice is attended to more than that of any other source.

Evaluation method: the general approach

All these interventions are underpinned by evaluation (called "assessment" in the US) of institutional performance: systematic questionnaire data from most students plus dropout and other data. (See NSSE: the national survey of student engagement.) Problems indicated are addressed by introducing new interventions, as outlined here, and the effectiveness of these are similarly measured. This is evidence-based educational change or quality enhancement, done in many HEIs in the USA so that national comparisons give added strength to the findings of individual universities.

This could and should be adopted here for the same reasons that evidence-based medicine is being progressively adopted.

If any of the implications of these US interventions are tried here, it should be with evaluation measures to determine whether first the same problem and then the same intervention apply in the new context.


All of these can be understood in terms of seeing university education as having an essential community aspect or dimension, in which learning is not just an autistic or solipsistic absorption of knowledge but also an induction into a community. Newcomers may well need special help in entering the community; this will depend on the amount (and quality) of their contact with senior members (permanent academic staff) and with peers doing the same subjects and so the same activities. Enjoyment, motivation, adoption of habits by imitation and implicit learning, access to information from others (i.e. having someone to ask and feeling comfortable asking), and access to useful conceptual discussion all depend on this.

This view is in contrast with the common view of learning as an individual cognitive activity, with social interaction only an indirect, auxiliary factor. It is however in line with the alternative view of learning as apprenticeship developed by Jean Lave (1988, 1991) and others. It is also consistent with Tinto's concept of academic and social integration in the literature on dropout and retention. Another way of looking at it is in terms of the easily measured objective factors e.g. amount of interaction with staff, with other students, etc. It could also be seen as related to Piaget's views of the role of peers as external stimuli that promote the internal conflicts and reorganisations necessary to development and learning. Or more simply, as to do with getting the students to feel that someone, or the organisation, is paying attention to them. Or more simply still, it just reminds them, prompts them to think about, their activities rather than letting it drift without any real learning actions.

It is particularly important nowadays for a traditional, campus-based, face-to-face (as opposed to distance-learning) university such as UoG to consider this. Unless it is able to deliver an effective experience of learning community by exploiting the potential advantages of the copresence of learners with the same aims and experiences, then it will be as poor for learning as a crowded shopping mall.

The change from school to university is a huge change in learning environment and required habits, and this requires scaffolding. This will apply more strongly to those ("widened access") who do not come from schools and/or homes where staff and parents have been orienting pupils to university from their experience and through their expectations.

This may imply we should reconsider the use of tutorials in level 1. If this social-induction function is established as of major importance then this amounts to a new (or rather, newly explicitly identified) requirement on tutorials. This in turn may imply that all level 1 courses should be required to offer tutorials, and that these tutors should be recruited and trained differently (i.e. not just on the basis of their subject-specific technical knowledge, operating as demonstrators somewhat like a telephone helpline for computer problems) in line with the newly identified requirement.

Principles for what is important in effective first year teaching

The American work often expresses itself around "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" (Chickering & Gamson, 1987)
  1. Encourages Contact between Students and Faculty
  2. Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation among Students
  3. Encourages Active Learning
  4. Gives Prompt Feedback
  5. Emphasizes Time on Task
  6. Communicates High Expectations
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning

What I'm going to do

Some of the ideas derived from Randy Swing's talks seem to me worth trying out immediately. So I currently (October 2003) plan to advance:


Anderson,C. & Gates,C. (2002) Freshman absence-based inervention at the University of Mississippi Listserv posting and a local copy for printing.

BBC tables for HE performance at dropout and social inclusion

Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson (1987) "Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education" American Association of Higher Education Bulletin pp.3-7

John C. Hall (2001) Retention and Wastage in FE and HE: A Review (SCRE)

HEFCE (2000) Performance Indicators in Higher Education (London: HEFCE; HEFCW; DENI; SHEFC).

Lave, Jean (1988) Cognition in practice : mind, mathematics and culture (Cambridge Univeristy Press)

Lave, Jean (1991) Situated learning : legitimate peripheral participation (Cambridge Univeristy Press)

NSSE: The national survey of student engagement: The college report

OECD (1997) Thematic Review of the First Years of Tertiary Education. Country Note: United Kingdom.

OECD (2000) Education at a Glance.

OECD (2003) Education at a Glance.

Robertson,D. & Hillman,J. (1997) "Widening participation in higher education for students from lower socio-economic groups and students with disabilities" (part of the Dearing committee work)

Tinto,V. (1982) "Limits of theory and practice in student attrition" Journal of Higher Education vol.53 no.6 pp.687-700

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