Macquarie Business School is committed to student success – from start to finish! Student success is one of the main strategic pillars in the Education Portfolio and under that pillar, MQBS is conducting a number of initiatives to improve student outcomes.

TECHE spoke to Lisa Rohanek, the Faculty Lead for First-Year Student Success in MQBS, about their approach and outcomes.

MQBS created a fully work loaded position focusing on first-year student success 

The MQBS education portfolio, led by Deputy Dean Education and Employability, Professor Yvonne Breyer is guided by two major strategic pillars: Course Success and Student Success.

A key enabler for the objectives under both pillars is to enable colleagues to lead in areas of their expertise and passion across the School. In recognition of the important role that the first-year plays in our students’ journey with us, MQBS created a major academic service leadership role which is focused on First-year Student Success. Lisa is passionate about teaching in first year and we are fortunate to have her take up this leadership role.

Professor Yvonne Breyer

In collaboration with Associate Dean Curriculum and Learning, Undergraduate, Associate Professor Stephanie Huang, this approach has enabled a whole of faculty coordinated effort where academic and professional staff have buy-in to supporting first year students.

The first-year at university is a change maker, and when we see units with high fail rates, we run the risk of students withdrawing if they start to lose faith in themselves. We had some issues with high fail rates and retention in first-year units. Improving the success of the first-year is critical to having students in second and later years.

We recognised that first-year students are often overwhelmed from the minute they enrol. They are fragile and unsure.”

Students start university with a sense of excitement, hope, and a touch of trepidation. With wide eyes and open minds, they navigate the campus, form connections with fellow students and wonder about what lies ahead.

However, we often overwhelm them by giving them everything they need to know – all at once – a mountain of information to absorb and digest with little direction on what to do with it. We throw them into uni with a ’Here’s your assessment guide, I’ll see you for an hour a week, thanks for coming and good luck.’ They lack social support and there is little sense of connection. After years of having a strong support structure at school, they are left somewhat to flounder on their own. It’s not surprising that there is such a high dropout rate in first-year.

Disconnected students are more likely to withdraw when they encounter challenges such as low marks or unexpected results. Early signs of overwhelm include poor class attendance and participation, and limited engagement with iLearn.

Academic staff, like tutors and unit convenors, are key in providing meaningful intervention, as they regularly interact with the students and have the strongest connection. Students expect a similar support role to that provided by their schoolteachers.

From high school to university – Insights from Year-12 teachers inform the transition

Despite there being a lot of research on transition pedagogy as a factor for student success, I realised that we don’t do enough for students entering university, considering they are straight from a high school environment that is full of structure and boundaries.

I didn’t realise the hand holding that year 12 teachers do. Being the final year of high school there are assumptions that students can work it out, but the schooling environment is a lot more prescriptive than I realised.

Students often tell me that uni is hard compared to school because “at school the teachers tell us everything we need to do”. There is a lot more guided pedagogy. I spoke to a range of high school teachers who actively encourage students to seek forward feedback on tasks to make sure they are going to get the mark they want. School teachers by nature are very available to students and students actively seek them out to ask questions. The relationship is very mentoring and nurturing. So, this is the existing pattern they have when they come to us.

Year 12 teachers plan with the student in mind. They recognise the journey the student will take and the pressure they are under, so they plan accordingly to provide the necessary support required along the way. This mindset is where their planning starts.

Our students need strong guidance with clear expectations. They need support and encouragement. They need to know they are heard. While we can provide simple solutions that support groups of students, each individual student wants their own situation heard.

We are trying to incorporate part of the school experience into our first-year units to help the students in their transition.

At the end of the day, without first year students we don’t have second, third and 4th year students. Everyone’s journey starts somewhere, and we must meet them where they are to support their journey.

Our pastoral care approach

MQBS developed a strategic approach to first-year units, stemming from the principles of pastoral care. Here are the key strategies we have focused on:

1. Ensuring the right fit in the role of the Unit Convenor

We take great care to ensure we have the right Unit Convenors and teaching team for our first-year units because they have a significant impact on providing a positive first-year experience. We have found it valuable to call for early expressions of interest for teaching these units. Staff often request to teach these subjects, showing their commitment to teaching first year. We are very fortunate in the Business School – our staff are highly empathetic towards students and share a strong pastoral care philosophy. They are focused on quality teaching and improving the student experience. They recognise how education changes lives. This helps us place students at the forefront of our educational approach.

2. Setting clear expectations for students

We establish clear communication expectations. With 1500+ students in a unit, that’s a lot of potential emails. Many students will email the Unit Convenor directly and regularly.

Since teaching staff can’t be as accessible as schoolteachers, students need to understand how to reach out. We provide clear guidelines on where to seek assistance and what steps to follow when they have questions.

The MQBS student experience team is diligently crafting consistent messaging and a road map to show the students what to do and when.

3. Telling students what they need to know, when they need to know it

In the first year, students are overwhelmed. Our approach is to provide them with essential information at the right times, avoiding overwhelming them with everything at once.

What are some signs of student overwhelm?

Overwhelmed students miss classes. Engaged students may not log in to iLearn regularly, but they will come to their tutorial and participate. Students who are overwhelmed are checking out of tutorials and not attending.

We started by paying close attention to tutorial attendance because it’s in tutorials and workshops where students connect with their tutor and peers. These social connections are important to student engagement as they enhance emotional connection and a sense of belonging. Students who skip class are at risk of withdrawing.

While we can’t see the students at home to know when they may be anxious or stressed, some of their emails may hint that they’re feeling overwhelmed. Like all good educators do, we remind them of all the available support but often need to guide them directly to the services they require. Overwhelmed students may not be willing to take that first step – so we connect them directly to the necessary services.

4. Identifying early risk factors and taking action

Students who miss assessments are contacted promptly. iLearn Insights is fully built for this purpose and is an excellent and easy way to send personalised messages based on criteria such as a missed assessment.

We monitor student attendance in tutorials and workshops and reach out when they have missed two consecutive classes.

In cases of several class absences across multiple units, our faculty support team initiates contact through a phone call as part of our risk management strategy.

5. Getting first year students socially engaged and connected

Class engagement fosters social connections and motivates students to be on campus. Their intellectual and academic development is nurtured by their tutors and unit convenor, but their social development can be enhanced in class by providing active learning activities that allow students to work together to establish their own social network. The earlier this happens, the stronger the student’s sense of connection.

To help students feel connected in class – learn their name. It really does matter that you know who they are, or you remember something about them. This makes them feel valued.

In session one, the Department of Marketing, in collaboration with the Macquarie Marketing Student Association, organised a BBQ for students in two first-year undergraduate units, and a first-year postgraduate unit. This social activity was designed to allow students to chat with each other and the teaching staff.

A lot more work can be done in this space, but tutors are encouraged to be positive, open and welcoming, even welcoming back students who have been away. Teaching moments are used to help students find common ground and a sense of belonging.

6. Centralising attendance monitoring

iLearn Insights is a valuable tool, but it’s really only telling us if they’re engaging with iLearn. It’s not capturing class attendance or whether they’re engaging in class, which is what I’m particularly interested in.

Most tutors already take class attendance. We’ve now implemented a centralised system with individual spreadsheets for each unit. We’ve set up conditional formatting so that as soon as any student is away, the cell in the spreadsheet is red and as soon as they’re away for two weeks that’s a flag that it’s time to e-mail that student and say, “Hey, how are you going, we haven’t seen you, we would really love you to come back. How can we help?”

Missing 2 weeks of class to me is a signal that they’re disengaging because they don’t have that commitment to coming. They miss one class – stuff happens. They miss two classes in a row – we’re hitting a bit of troublesome spot – especially if we haven’t heard from them and there’s no special consideration request submitted.

7. Reviewing assessments across first-year

We reviewed all assessments across first-year units and made sure there was an even spread of due dates – so if a student was enrolled in any two of those large units, the assessments weren’t due at the same time. This is an example of planning with the student in mind.

8. Getting everyone on board with a high touch experience

We’ve got all these teams working towards a common goal and I think that’s really wonderful, because you don’t really see many university faculties have a shared project where so many jump in to support it as is happening with this first-year student success project.

Our Educational Services and Student Experience Teams, who are professional staff in the faculty, assist by setting up generic templates and comms that are sent out to the Unit Convenors to ensure consistent messaging and language to students. They are working on the backend too, reviewing all the data every week, identifying the at-risk students and then phoning them. For example, they might notice that there are 6 students who have missed multiple classes across multiple units – they will each get a phone call to see how we can help them to get back on track because it’s not just one class that they have missed – it’s now multiple classes across multiple units.

9. Developing a strategy for students who are repeating a unit

Once a student fails a unit, they are at risk of dropping out because they’ve got a mindset of already failing. The Department of Economics piloted an approach last year targeting students who had previously failed a unit. They applied a pastoral care approach, reaching out early and offering additional classes and consultations for those students attempting the unit for a second time so they could cover the complex topics again. We contacted them within the first two weeks and said “Hey, welcome back. So glad to see you giving it another go.” It is important to identify why the student failed – whether it is due to failing to pass or failing to submit – as the message and approach is quite different.

The results exceeded expectations

* Every single unit showed improvement
* Pass results in the large first year units were improved by up to 10% in some units
* Retention improved across all units by about 2% – so more students finished and passed
* Unit Convenors who teach the students in their second session or second year notice the difference in the student’s confidence, independence and their learning.

What we learned and what we’re focusing on next

While our strategic approach has been successful, some aspects were time-consuming and had a high workload, making them unsustainable. High touch points for first-year students are critical but manually driven tasks can be an administrative burden. We methodically review participation for students in class and online, but when checking across a suite of units, technology limitations increase administrative costs. The one-to-one approach, while meaningful, can be difficult to sustain.

This session, our focus is on early identification and intervention of at-risk students. Students don’t disengage or withdraw without warning. There are early signs that we can pay attention to and Unit Convenors play a vital role in connecting personally with these students, ensuring they are noticed, cared for and supported. In large units, it’s easy for students to feel overlooked, but we are putting our time and effort into noticing the students.

We’re extending this approach to all large first-year units and a few second-year units.

Like to know more? Contact Lisa Rohanek

Coming up next: In a follow up post (coming soon on TECHE), Lisa will outline some of the approaches she has been taking in her own first-year units to support the faculty strategy.

Post edited by Kylie Coaldrake
Banner Image: Photo by Dean Drobot on Shutterstock
Overwhelmed student: Photo by Prostock-studio on Shutterstock
BBQ: Photo by LBeddoe on Shutterstock

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