Targeted Learning Sessions to enhance the assessment performance of first-year Māori and Pasifika students S2
Section 2: Anatomy of a Targeted Learning Session
The introductory video is a promotion and explanation of TLS, which is pitched to a class the week before a TLS session. It provides an overview of a typical targeted learning session and is also available on their course webpage. The aim is to familiarise the students with the format and get them used to including TLS in their assignment preparation.
TLS are offered to students in a block of three to four hours depending on the class size. Waiting for the students is a reception team of the FYE manager assisted by FYE mentors. The students are greeted warmly and asked to identify what stage they have reached in their assignment preparation. Students who have not even read the assignment sheet or chosen a topic are made to feel as welcome as those who come with a well-developed draft and just want some tips on further resources, structure, or reference style. The mentor then guides them to the most appropriate starting point, explaining how this will help them with their assessment task. The mentors act as ‘sheepdogs’ to ensure the students don’t have to wait in line and are assisted to move between each of the help stations rather than just talk to one person and feel they have to leave. The aim is to normalise the sessions as something everyone does and help them to get the most out of the assistance on offer.
In the front of the space, five to six laptop workstations are set up and manned by library staff. The librarians work in hour-long shifts and actively search relevant databases with each student to locate, assess and select relevant online academic resources and help with referencing. The library workstations are clearly labelled so that students can see what type of help the librarians can offer. This aspect alone of TLS has contributed to a marked improvement in essay content through a wider use of relevant online resources and improved referencing skills.
Figure 4: Database search and referencing workstations
Figure 5: Tips on database search and referencing
Behind the librarian’s workstations, small group discussion pods are set up, where students can sit in a circle and discuss their ideas, ask questions, refer to drafts etc. with their tutor, lecturer or course convenor. This is often the first port of call for the students to help clarify the requirements of the question and focus on content.
In another corner the Student Learning writing tutor works with students who are unsure how to start writing or who have a draft for feedback. The most frequent requests are for help with writing thesis statements and introductions.
How to set up a Targeted Learning Session
Collaboration between the library and the TLS team is essential to ensure that the space and the professional staff support are able to be accessed. Academic tutors are contracted to transfer their office hours to TLS in the relevant week so there is no additional discretionary cost to the teaching unit. Likewise for library and professional support staff who are rostered into TLS sessions as they would be for generic workshops. There should be no or only minimal addition to the workload of professional or academic staff involved.
TLS can be adapted to work within staffing and location options in any institution. You do not need to have a FYE structure to include TLS as part of your student support programme but you do require personnel to plan and deliver the initiative. The collaboration between one academic staff member with knowledge of teaching and learning theory and practice and a professional staff member such as a librarian or FYE manager is strongly recommended.
In the week before a TLS:TLS manager and/or course convenor pitches the relevance and reward of attending the upcoming TLS and shows the video in class
- course convenor makes explicit to students the link between improved academic achievement and attending TLS
- attendance roster finalised for library and support staff
- attendance roster finalised for academic tutors
- mentor volunteer roster finalised to help library staff set up workstations on the day
- academic tutors encourage their students to start preparing for the TLS so they can get maximum assistance from the sessions
- FYE mentors (or similar) encourage their mentees via email to attend the TLS and make times to meet so small groups can go together
- Tuākana mentors encourage students in workshops to attend TLS and organise buddy groups to meet up and attend together
- Māori and Pasifika tutors and Tuākana mentor arrange meeting times for Māori and Pacific tutorial groups to attend TLS together.
Successful Elements check list:
- Promote the link between academic success and TLS to academic staff though faculty Teaching and Learning seminars.
- Work alongside course convenors to re-evaluate assessment structures and integrate TLS into a formative assessment scheme.
- Embed TLS into assessment framework across faculty.
- Brief all professional and academic staff in advance as to the structure and aims of the sessions.
- Provide advice to course convenors to tailor strategies that encourage and engage Māori and Pasifika students in TLS.
- Obtain a suitable location or transform a usually inflexible library space into a temporary drop-in learning centre.
- Timing is critical – exactly seven days before an assignment’s due date proved the ideal. Scheduling a session directly after a lecture always ensures maximum uptake.
- Participation of course convenor and teaching staff is crucial.
- Preparation by tutors one week prior to the TLS to assist students to gain the most value out of the service.
- Cancel tutor office hours in TLS week and roster tutors throughout sessions.
- Ensure that there are always academics from the course rostered on every hour.
Unexpected early outcomes
The very first TLS attracted approximately 300 students from a class of 430 over a period of two three-hour blocks offered on two consecutive days. Previous attendance for all tutor office hours for this course during the week before an assignment totalled approximately 20 students. Student approval for the new way to attend ‘office hours’ was instant.
2) Dealing with large numbers of students
The concern that having so many students in the area at one time may inhibit individual student learning proved to be totally unfounded. The students clearly prefer the ‘buzz’ of the crowd and frequently commented on how helpful it was to listen to other students’ questions as they are waiting their turn in the discussion circle. This was an unexpected bonus and proved to be a vital element in our goal to promote and normalise help-seeking behaviour for all students.
3) Embedding TLS in assignment preparation
Once TLS was offered in the majority of first-year courses in the faculty, students rapidly began to accommodate them into their assignment preparation. The majority of the class started assignment preparation earlier than experienced pre-TLS, and some students made return visits later in the session after redrafting their introduction, for example. Where sessions are run on two consecutive days for some of the bigger courses students often returned the next day with an amended draft for consultation.
4) Staff satisfaction
Professional and academic staff were unanimous in their enjoyment and approval of the sessions. Many felt that it was the most productive teaching experience they had with students over the semester and were impressed with the evident level of approval and gratitude expressed by the students. Course convenors (many of whom only deliver lectures and do not teach tutorials) received a crash course from students on the clarity of their assignment writing ability. Tutors noted the range of students from the class who attended, including students who never attended tutorials. Library staff enjoyed sharing their database search and referencing skills. The writing tutors were in high demand and discovered that the students appreciated listening to the advice given to others while waiting their turn for consultation.
5) Impact on assessment practice
The high student buy-in was directly related to the assessment-driven focus of TLS. Academic staff appreciated the discussion on assessment planning, structure and resource support prior, which is part of the TLS pre-planning process. Confusingly worded or poorly pitched and resourced assessment tasks were reworked before being released to the students. Convenors were encouraged to include subject matter or question options that were more engaging and culturally relevant to Māori and Pacific students.
6) Location and use of shared library space
The University’s main library was built in the 1970s based on a very different engagement with resources and learning than students prefer and expect now. However, it is still a place of quiet study and there was concern in some quarters that other students using the library would not like the level of disruption. In fact there was the opposite reaction and regularly students from other faculties asked about the sessions and want to know when they would be taking place in their faculty. Institutions with more modern library architecture can easily adapt informal learning spaces for TLS delivery.
7) Influence on projected use of library space
The successful adaption of library space and the additional breakout area used for Māori and Pacific students became an example of how to cost-effectively transform library space. A current proposal to introduce modular furniture and beanbags is a logical development for TLS and a welcome addition to the library for all students when TLS are not in operation.
The sessions normalised asking help to understand the question, how to start researching, how to assess resource material and how to start writing. Consequently there was frequently a higher and more sustained commitment to the assessment task. Students felt more in control of the process rather than feeling disempowered and sometimes punished by the outcome.
In the first year of our FYE programme and the introduction of TLS in the second year we charted a marked improvement in academic performance. It is not possible to gather data that specifically links academic improvement just to TLS as there are many contributing factors but an overall trend can be identified. In 2010 we were only able to track half the students in the faculty which conveniently gave us a control group for comparison. Our first goal was to reduce DNS rates and improve the Grade Point Average (GPA) of first year students. As can be seen in the graph below the group supported by FYE in 2010 did exactly that.
Figure 6: Comparison by ratio of DNS and GPA performance of FYE and non-FYE cohorts 2010
The addition of TLS in 2011 built on this positive trend. We were surprised that the reduction of DNS did not pull down the grade average slightly as more under-performing students completed their course work. In fact students at all grade levels improved their academic performance. Prior to FYE and the introduction of TLS the DNS rate for the faculty remained relatively stable representing students struggling to reach the required academic level, disengaged from their studies or rarely attending university. The following graph, also expressed as a ratio, indicates the continued reduction in DNS rates as the early intervention strategies of FYE and the repackaged way of offering academic support through TLS paid dividends. Note the comparison between 2008/9 and 2012 once FYE and TLS were well established.
Figure 7: Year one DNS rates 2008 – 2012
As the DNS rate steadily fell the upward GPA trend continued to build incrementally each year. The trend in QUT, our benchmark FYE programme, indicated that such gains would level out after approximately three years. This has yet to happen in our faculty but we do expect the gain to slow over the next two years. The following graph indicates a significant improvement in 2011 and a smaller but still a positive gain in 2012. As with the DNS results the telling comparison is between 2008/9 and 2011 when the FYE and TLS programmes are well established and adapting to meet the learning needs of first year students in ARTS.
Figure 8: Increase in GPA of first year Faculty of Arts students 2008 to 2012