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Published Date

11th April 2017

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The School of the Built Environment, which traditionally and in-line with other similar Schools within the higher education sector in the UK, experienced significant levels of first year student attrition, in excess of 20%.



Dr Michaele Keenan

Project Description

When the Built Environment Discipline Team began work we initially considered how we could improve induction as a medium to improve retention within three of our thirteen undergraduate programmes.

However, our focus moved to:  How can the School of the Built Environment improve the first year student experience through building (early) belonging, supporting transition and improving retention?

Why this change to a School wide emphasis and why the move beyond the traditional induction period?

Essentially, the discipline team quickly realised that we needed a whole School approach because students across the School frequently:

  • Shared accommodation;
  • Shared transportation to/from campus;
  • Shared learning, modules and team exercises/assessments; and
  • Interacted on a social basis both on and off campus.


The transition of first year students to higher education, their induction and retention are now widely recognised as being fundamentally intertwined (Crosling et al, 2008; Thomas, 2012).

Within this, the development of relationships and support between student-student and staff-student can significantly influence student futures in terms of remaining in and continuing their education.

Indeed, a significant body of research now exists which argues that students are most likely to leave in the first year of entry (Yorke and Longden, 2007; Quinn et al 2005).

Evaluation Approach

The combined impact of these measures are clear and evidence can be drawn from focus groups interviews with staff and students, a post induction questionnaire alongside institutional data including that relating to attrition and student success.

Evidence of Impact

Success includes: a reduction in early leavers across programmes; early transfer of students onto more appropriate courses of study; stronger relationships with students; better understanding of the issues affecting individual students and working to signpost and support students in a timely manner; enhanced working with University departments.

University data from Semester 1 2014-2015 clearly demonstrates the significant and positive impact that this range of initiatives has brought for the School with the semester 1 attrition rate for the Built Environment falling from 9.3% 2013-2014 to 6.6% 2014-2015.  Looking at full year comparisons retention significantly improved within the School with attrition in 2014-2015 falling to 14% in comparison to 22% in 2013-2014.

The retention plan in essence has embedded a number of enablers which have worked to significantly enhance communication with our student whilst nurturing both academic and social aspects, particularly in the transition and settling into the higher education environment. Evidence drawn from focus groups with students confirms that ‘relationships’ with the assigned Academic Mentor, lecturers and peers are the pivotal factor to settling into university life and therefore fulfilling their academic and social needs.  Student’s views on the Academic Mentor initiative can be summarised as being a:

great idea, get to know that person really well and they get to know you, have a point of contact throughout

(Year 1 student)

This contact and face-to-face interactions with Academic Mentors is valued by students and it is clear from focus group evidence that students experience a high quality and consistent communication with their Academic Mentor and view them as being approachable and available. This appears to have helped students settle into the course as well as provided a sense of engagement throughout the semester:

Yeah we see him every Thursday. He had a meeting with everyone in the class in the first semester to see how they are getting on and talk through stuff with him and finding out how they are getting on in the course and stuff like that

(Year 1 student)

The impact can also be seen in the evidence gathered from Academic Mentors:

… the academic mentoring meetings… 2 students had some reservations about university and their ability, both were considering different options.  The meeting give us a good chance to sit down and discuss these options.  In follow up both have confirmed they are happy and it was just transition nerves. If standard studies advice timetables were held I feel that these students could have been missed and may have dropped out as a result

(Mentor No. 1).

In addition, the move of induction activities into week 0 have been warmly welcomed by both staff and students, staff principally as they could spend dedicated time meeting and working with year one students. Qualitative research resoundingly established across all the programmes that students valued the inclusion of induction activities on week 0 noting “I would rather come in and do what we did” rather than to come in and commence class in week 1”. The resounding reasons for this was that the students have been able to actively engage with induction activities which were often team/group focused and they could also could clearly see how they were designed to help them begin to build friendships within the class group and to get to know core staff members for their programme.

Evidence also demonstrates clear examples of the impact of non-engagement with induction can have with students becoming isolated from the rest of their class as noted:

There is a group of us who have really got to know each other and then there are people outside that don’t really interact...We don’t really see them much.

(Year 1 Student)

Students have also described how they “feel sorry for” those students who did not attend induction as they feel that they missed out on the opportunity to make friends at an early juncture.  Evidence also demonstrates that peer support is vital whilst settling into university life as when asked, what do you think it's been that’s helped you settle in and stay here? The response was "... Friends, Friends”.

In terms of building early belonging evidence can be drawn from the week 2/3 early intervention questionnaire which found, in the three programmes initially included in the project, that 100%, 100% and 97% of students stating that they either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel comfortable with my classmates and feel part of my class”.

When asked whether they felt comfortable with their lecturers the response rate was also extremely high with a response rate of 95%, 95% and 100% respectively.

A really positive but perhaps unseen perspective of the Academic Mentoring initiative was in relation to staff job satisfaction as evidenced below:

I have genuinely enjoyed getting to know our year 1 students and despite the enormous amount of paperwork, it has contributed to my job satisfaction and I believe enhanced the quality of the year 1 experience.

(Mentor No .2)

Reflective Commentary

There are a number of lessons learnt which may be helpful:

  • The role of academics in supporting the first year experience is critical.  Separating the functions of attendance monitoring for example from academics may lead to a fracturing of potential relationships that can be developed between staff and students;
  • Effective induction cannot be carried out alongside a normal teaching schedule – it needs to be standalone;
  • It is critical to have a plan B in relation to the integration of students who did not or could not attend induction.  Evidence from these students has told us that this can be very challenging and with some students dropping out of University as they feel they have missed out and can’t fit in.  This can be prevented but must be planned for as it is easy to forget about this element until its too late;
  • Never assume!  There have been a number of times during the project where we have learnt this lesson including:
    • assuming the email addresses of students for pre-induction contact are correct and active when we found they often were not.
    • Assuming that by week 6 students in a class know all of their classmates by name.
  • You can’t measure all the benefits in statistics.  In fact statistics often don't demonstrate the extent and positive impact that work in this area can have.  It is also important to be patient as it often takes time for change to happen.


Through the development of psychological profiling and employability skills training for students within this project affords an opportunity to develop student’s sense of belonging, motivation and self-belief.


  • Andrews, J., Clark, R., Thomas, L. (eds) (2012) Compendium of effective practice in higher education retention and success, Birmingham/York: Aston University and the Higher Education Academy.
  • Crosling, G., Thomas, L. and Heagney, M. (eds.) (2008) Improving student retention in higher education. New York: Routledge Falmer.
  • Foster, E., Lawther, S., Hardy, C., Kirby, R. and Molineaux (2012) Nottingham Trent University’s Welcome Week: a sustained programme to improve early social and academic transition for new students, in Andrews, J., Clark, R., Thomas, L. (eds) (2012) Compendium of effective practice in higher education retention and success, Birmingham/York: Aston University and the Higher Education Academy.
  • Foster, E., Lawther, S. and McNeil, J. (2011) Learning Developers Supporting Early Student Transition, in: Hartley, P., Hilsdon, J., Keenan, C., Sinfield, S. and Verity, M. (eds). Learning Development in Higher Education. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Harvey, L. and Drew, S. (2006) The first year experience: briefing on induction, York: Higher Education Academy.
  • Quinn, J., Thomas, L., Slack, K., Casey, L., Thexton, W. and Noble, J. (2005) From Life Crisis to Lifelong Learning: Rethinking Working-class 'Drop-out' from Higher Education. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
  • Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, York: Higher Education Academy.
  • Tinto, V. (1993) Leaving College: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • What Works? Student Retention & Success (2012) Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change:  Final Report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success Programme.  London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
  • Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2007) The first-year experience in higher education in the UK: Report on Phase 1 of a project funded by the Higher Education Academy, London: The Higher Education Academy.


This case study was part of a three-year What Works? Student Retention & Success Change Programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, co-ordinated by the Higher Education Academy (now, Advance HE), and Action on Access.

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