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Published Date

11th April 2017

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The School of Computing & Information Engineering (SCIE) within Ulster University delivers a number of computing courses: BSc Hons Computing and two themed pathways - Game Development and Internet Systems.

The School also has ‘Computing major’ students who study Computing in conjunction with a minor subject. In all of these courses, the students study two Programming modules in year one.

Within the UK HE sector, the study of programming has a long history of being a subject with difficult threshold concepts resulting in low student achievement and engagement. Students also tend to become very isolated even though they were developing the skills for a very team based profession.



Dr Michaela Black

Project Description

To address these issues, SCIE use a Community of Practice (CoP) to design and develop the SPICE methodology. SPICE offers a model of collaborative student partnerships in curriculum design and complementary dynamic learning landscapes that delivers reactive dynamic courses with enhanced student engagement and belonging.

The Community of Practice (CoP) initially consisted of the teaching team, technical support team and PhD students employed as demonstrators to provide support. Over time the demonstrator role has evolved into a mentoring role. The CoP has gradually extended to include the final year students in this mentoring role. Mentoring opportunities are advertised to year 3 students about to finish their compulsory placement year. Applicants are shortlisted against strict criteria and following interview are appointed to the role. These students make excellent mentors for a number of reasons e.g. they are similar in age to the first years and having completed a placement year bring a wealth of current knowledge and experience. The CoP also includes year 1 and 2 class and senior representatives. Mentors become student partners of the CoP and are provided with an initial induction session which highlights that they are now key collaborators to the model. Training and ongoing support is also provided. Figure 2 shows the mentors from 2014-2015 academic year.

The SPICE model incorporates key team review meetings throughout both semesters. At these, the mentors are invited to assist the teaching and support team to review and adapt the current curriculum model and learning landscapes. These mentors will have been exposed to the modules in their own first year so they are well placed to share experiences and propose and design enhancements. Proposals are reviewed and if they can be resources, a pilot of the new enhancements can be undertaken. The modules has been iteratively revised and reviewed using this CoP model resulting in positive enhancements in student engagement and learning as outlined below.


There are approx. 100 students in each year 1 programming module. Students studying Computing come from a wide range of educational backgrounds: approximately 50% of the student cohort has A’ levels, the remainder have a more vocational background such as an Edexcel programme.

SCIE’s entry criteria do not require previous Computing experience although 40% of the student cohort will have some previous experience through topics such as ICT, Business IT or Computing. Within SCIE, a CoP for Programming has evolved and is now in its fifth year of operation. This CoP has a focal point in the year 1 programming modules

Evaluation Approach

Qualitative & Quantitative Feedback and Student Feedback

Evidence of Impact

Annual evaluation of these pilots has continually shown an improved engagement and achievement of the students. The programming modules have now one of the lowest attrition rates within the School (7%) with very strong coursework and examination perfromances. This has been maintained alongside introducing challenging material such as the introduction of Android Apps for real-world charities via Ulster’s Science Shop programme. At course level, the attrition figures for the BSc Hons Computing (Game Development) have improved significantly from a disappointing 13.6% in 2012-13 to 7.7% in 2014-15. For semester 1, 2015-16 this figure currently lies at 3.6%. This is a similar story for the BSc Hons Computing programme with the following comparative figures: 2012-13 (10.6%), 2014-15 (6.9%) 2015-16 (Semester 1) (2.3%).

Reflective Commentary

The most challenging aspect for a mentoring project is to ensure you recruit early and effectively for the final year mentors.

This helps ensure you get the right people for the role.

The mentors also need a well-designed program of induction followed by a series of scheduled planning and reviews meetings throughout.

This helps ensure the mentors manage expectations from academic staff and from their mentees. It also helps them manage their time commitments. We have received very positive feedback from past graduates regarding the mentoring role and the impact on their development and careers prospects.


This work is now embedded within two schools in the Faculty and both are showing positive outcomes. As further development we are involved in another project ASPIRE: Assistive Student Profiling for Improved Student Retention and Engagement where we extended the use of mentors from across three Schools from three different Schools: Built Environment, SCIE and Sport.


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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