In an age where technology plays an increasingly important role in education, it is vital that we utilise available technologies to provide effective and targeted support to students during their crucial transition into Higher Education (HE). This snapshot outlines the SaPRA initiative at the University of Bradford, which supports students’ transition into HE and helps them begin to develop their skills for learning, using a range of tools such as social networking and e-portfolios.
All learners have the opportunity to engage with the SaPRA materials. Some cohorts have the materials timetabled into their induction programmes (e.g. nursing, engineering, foundation year, BioMedical sciences) whilst other programmes have used SaPRA to underpin their personal development inputs (e.g. pharmacy).
Courses vary in how they use the online materials, but some (midwifery, SLED) have established online groups in the ning community with pre-entry tasks and activities. Others have left interactions to develop from the student perspective with students joining in with the online community.
Completing SaPRA enables students to reflect on their prior learning experiences and to think about how they will adjust to being at university. Students are asked to rate their levels of confidence on a scale of 1 of 5 in nine skill areas that include academic reading and writing, numeracy, IT and group-working skills. Each skill area is broken down into sections of between four and sixteen specific statements that are then rated. The outcomes of SaPRA feed into an action planning and evidence reviewing activity which kickstarts the personal development planning (PDP) process. Students are requested to provide evidence for the skills they feel confident in and articulate their experiences. For the skills they lack confidence in they are requested to think about what they will do to gain confidence and to complete an action plan for development.
SaPRA was developed from work done by De Montfort University (Bloy and Pillai, 2005) and Caroline Jacobs (Portsmouth).
Support for students takes place through the following three strands: (i) online discussion / social networking for new students http://developme.ning.com (ii) extensive online resources such as reusable learning objects www.brad.ac.uk/developme (iii) a reflective skills activity using an e-portfolio (SaPRA)
These are described in more detail below.
Figure 1 Cycle of student engagement in online materials
The aim is for students to have access to all of these prior to or at the point of arrival to ease the transition into HE. The activities are suitable for undergraduate and postgraduate students, and those from home, EU or International backgrounds. Specific activities have also been tailored to meet the needs of different cohorts e.g. student nurses, pharmacy students, engineering etc.
Online discussion forums in Ning http://developme.ning.com have been established to help students meet each other prior to arrival. Generic University and Student Union information is added to the site on a regular basis. An events calendar provides up-to-date information about events on and off campus. The most important feature of the site is the ability for students to meet other students at the University in a safe environment where, unlike other social networks such as FaceBook, everyone is part of the same community.
Self study materials and learning materials are housed in the Develop Me! website. These include:
Our SaPRA (Skills and Personal Reflective Activity) tool has been developed in-house and supports student self reflection and action planning. Completing SaPRA enables students to reflect on their prior learning experiences and to think about how they will adjust to being at university. Students are asked to rate their levels of confidence on a scale of 1 of 5 in different skill areas (e.g. academic reading and writing, numeracy, IT and group-working skills). The outcomes of SaPRA feed into an action planning and evidence reviewing activity which kickstarts the personal development planning (PDP) process. Tutors are given an anonymous overview of a cohorts responses in order to identify any additional areas that need supporting.
Since the original inception of SaPRA and the introduction of a social network for the University, more and more academic staff have become involved in supporting their students using these tools. At the time of publication, SaPRA is being used to underpin the personal tutoring system in a number of courses including Pharmacy, Pharmaceutical Management and Engineering. This is a radical development of the process and shows academic commitment to the process of PDP and skills development outside of the formal curriculum. Academic colleagues are also leading the development of private groups within our Ning site by moderating and facilitating discussions between new students. Some courses (e.g. those in our School of Lifelong Education and Development) have embedded engagement with the Ning site into their induction programmes to give students a chance to meet and talk with each other prior to arrival in the hope that this will promote social and academic cohesion.
All of the activities are self developmental and are therefore not formally assessed. However aspects of SaPRA have been assessed for Pharmacy students as they are required to submit a completed version of SaPRA for their end of year assessments.
Further development of the SaPRA materials and facilities will be informed by our evidence-gathering work. Two major questionnaires are conducted annually. The first, completed prior to arrival, asks students what their expectations of University are. This work is followed up by the First Year Experience (FYE) Questionnaire which is held twice during the first year allowing data to be tracked and managed effectively. The results of these questionnaires feed into policy changes at institutional level.
The support has mainly been provided by Becka Currant, Neil Currant, Ruth Whitfield, Michael Cross and other members of the Learner Development Unit at the University of Bradford – see http://www.brad.ac.uk/lss/learnerdevelopment for more details on the staff.
Take up of the online community strand has been equal to approximately 1/3 of the overall intake for the academic year (circa 1000 students).
Extensive use has been made of the online materials, with links being made by staff to learning materials in Blackboard, they have been promoted in course handbooks and personal tutors have been signposting/referring students to them as necessary. Over 1550 different students have accessed materials on the website during 2008/9 and approx 1000 students have completed SaPRA during the academic year.
In the two years that we have been delivering SaPRA, we have received very positive feedback about the process from staff and students. For many students the major benefit of SaPRA has been the opportunity to realise that at the beginning of their studies they do not need to know everything from the outset. Our annual FYE survey has found that for some students university is a very daunting experience and they feel they are unable to admit weaknesses to staff or other students for fear of being ‘found out’ and this has led to anxiety about the required levels of engagement during the first year. SaPRA helps students validate their feelings and understand that no one can excel at everything all the time. It also helps students start to understand the complex process of developing independence and autonomy. One student reported
Others have commented how SaPRA has helped them to
Tutors comment that it has helped students to be more strategic in the support that they seek and how that has helped to inform their interventions with their tutees.
Our experience has demonstrated that providing online pre-entry materials has a beneficial impact on the student body. It helps them to feel more confident about the process of initial transition and engagement. From the institution’s perspective, it has helped the University to respond more effectively to students before they come and understand what issues they are facing. Bringing together previously disparate materials and support has benefited the students and helped them to manage the process of transition to Higher Education more effectively.
Our approach has been replicated in a number of other HEIs. Our biggest challenge has been in securing wholesale institutional buy-in to the processes and we have tried to achieve this through proactively involving senior management in the project from the outset. Using pilots and champions within courses and Schools has also helped to embed the approach more systematically across the institution. Our new induction framework draws on the lessons we have learnt and the success we have had in implementing this approach.