What works?

A three year change programme with the aim of promoting belongingness in first year students

Ulster University took part in a three year change programme (2013-2016), supported by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and funded by the Paul Hamlyn foundation.

The programme included two reports, 'What Works?', a student retention, and a success programme, 'What Works?2' examined how higher education (HE) providers can improve student retention and success.

'What Works?2' involved 13 UK Universities with the aim of promoting belongingness within the first year student cohort. Research by Liz Thomas (2012) shows that it is critical to addressing the issue of early leavers in higher education.

The full 'What Works?2' report, published by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, draws together evidence from 13 institutions, 43 discipline areas, and many interventions and changes over more than three years.

Research aims

The aims included:

  • improving the strategic approach to the engagement, belonging, retention and success of students
  • implementing or enhancing specific interventions in the areas of induction, active learning and co-curricular activities
  • evaluating the impact of changes in both formative and summative ways, drawing on naturally occurring institutional data, bespoke student surveys and qualitative methods

Core team

The core team was made up of:

Discipline teams

Seven discipline areas were involved at Ulster University. This is more than other institutions, where only three areas participated.

The disciplines team made up of:

  1. Law - Amanda Zacharopoulou
  2. Built Environment - Dr Michaela Keenan
  3. Creative Technologies - Terry Quigley
  4. Accounting - Claire McCann
  5. Nursing (Mental Health) - Iain McGowan
  6. Computing - Dr Michaela Black
  7. Textile Art, Design & Fashion - Alison Gault/ Hazel Bruce

Research outcomes

Drawing together impact and learning, and reflection on the change programme process.

This change programme has highlighted for us the multifaceted nature of student engagement.  The outcomes and impact of the interventions suggest the importance of maintaining a strong focus on the affect or emotional dimension of student engagement as well as the behavioural and cognitive dimensions.

Our research has allowed us to identify four strong themes which we believe should become priority areas on which to focus further enhancement of the first-year student experience, these are:

  • pre-entry contact
  • mainstreaming pastoral care
  • ways of thinking and practising the discipline
  • peer support

In addition, we have found that the characteristics of effective practice across the discipline areas have included:

  • building of trust relationships between staff and student and student-student;
  • engagement through partnership
  • and the building of communities of practice which incorporate ongoing formative feedback

As part of this project, additional research was undertaken by Roisin Curran (2017) which explored the impact of staff and students working together in partnership.

The paper is called Students as Partners—Good for Students, Good for Staff: A Study on the Impact of Partnership Working and How This Translates to Improved Student-Staff Engagement and is available to download from the International Journal for Students as Partnership (IJSaP) website.

We believe that the individual interventions chosen within each discipline area, in the main, work well in that discipline.

However, it has become evident that ‘one size does not fit all’ and future implementation of enhanced practice needs to take account of disciplinary differences.

In addition, the course teams have identified two factors for consideration. Firstly, that each year group can be very different and student diversity can change the dynamics of each cohort.

Therefore, each course team, whilst adopting what works must remain vigilant and be prepared to adapt their practice to support the students that they have in front of them on an ongoing basis.

Secondly, that whilst interventions may impact positively on first years in semester 1 and semester 2, there can sometimes be a dip in belongingness, engagement and self-confidence amongst second years.  Therefore, it will be important to consider further the second year student experience and how this may be enhanced.


Case Studies of effective practice

Ten case studies of effective practice are available.  Seven of these give further detail on the implementation and evaluation of specific activities in one discipline area.

The other three provide further details on key learning points that have emerged from the change programme process.

The case studies are:

Case studies and accompanying short videos can also be accessed at CHERP SupporTaL


Conclusions and implications

The What Works?2 change programme at Ulster has been a very successful and highly visible project.  There are tangible outputs which will be invaluable to the development of Ulster strategies and policies going forward.

There has been learning at both the discipline and institutional level and further appreciation of the needs of today’s learner.

Recognition of our work was achieved in 2017 when the What Works?2 team were shortlisted as one of the finalists for the national HEA CATE award

Although the programme has officially ended, there is a strong impetus to continue the innovative work that has begun and through our recommendations, we will continue to use the strong evidence base generated to make informed decisions regarding all aspects of the student journey.

This will encompass the four impact themes identified above.

Contact Roisin Curran for further details on any aspect of the 'What works' change programme

Dr Roisin Curran

Senior Lecturer in Higher Education Practice

Cherp