This study aimed to investigate and, to find pedagogical solutions, to support students who appeared to be vulnerable to ‘differential outcomes’ in summative assessments. The students were studying on undergraduate degree courses in the Education department at a college of Further Education in south London. The research was informed by my professional role as director of higher education and I planned the research with my colleagues as a collaborative project.
The twin aims of investigating the causes of differential outcomes, and thereafter, seeking pedagogical responses to these findings meant that I carried out the research in two phases. In both phases I used an interpretivist approach, within a participatory action research methodology. I used mixed, quantitative and qualitative methods, in phase one; a student survey (n=372), in-depth student interviews (n=3), analysis of student support records (n=60), analysis of students’ summatively assessed essays (n= 9). In phase two; student feedback including end of research feedback (n=30), observations of students’ in-class reading behaviours (n=158), observations of students during a coaching tutorial (n= 26) and analysis of students’ assessed work, (n=132).
I also used an interpretivist approach to interpret the data and in-keeping with my intention to centralise the student voice I prioritised student’ feedback as the primary data source. The findings of the first phase revealed a variety of unmet learning needs, the nucleus of which was the students’ challenges in developing deep academic thinking skills. A sub-theme related to students’ academic confidence and their identity as a student, much of which could be traced back to negative early education experiences.
The findings of the second phase showed that students tended to value learning experiences that promoted academic self-confidence and allowed them to develop a more positive self-image as a student. The benefit of enhanced self-confidence was higher levels of autonomy and more independent thinking skills. Additionally, real learning benefits were brought about by opportunities for students to use innovative and practical strategies within a coaching tutorial. This allowed them to develop their academic skills within a very personalised and nuanced learning environment. Students placed significant value on the personalised nature of the coaching tutorial and the opportunity to reflect on their own learning processes and patterns.
A number of practical proposals for staff and the senior management of the college to consider are recommended when reviewing the matter of differential outcomes within the higher education provision. These include; an Institutional Reflective Framework that seeks to capture the matter from institutional level through to individual practice. Opportunities to improve and develop the delivery of tutorials were identified and I have created coaching tutorial guidelines to be considered by those staff who are supporting academically vulnerable students.