P48 – The UK Engagement Survey and Student Doubters: Gaining a better understanding of our students through research.

Room A – MONDAY 16:45-17:45

One hour paper

Sarah Lawther

Centre for Academic Standards and Quality, Nottingham Trent University, UK

Sarah Lawther has extensively researched student transition, retention and engagement and is currently working to use these findings to improve the learning and teaching experience for students at Nottingham Trent University. Sarah is particularly interested in the use of mixed methods in research.


This session describes research that combines our findings from the UK Engagement Survey and research that explores the experience of students who have had doubts about being at university. This combination enables us to better understand student transition to the first year to inform our support of students.


This session shares research that aims to better understand the student transition to the first year in order to inform our support of students at Nottingham Trent University (NTU).

Since 2009, as part of the HERE Project (2008-2011), NTU has conducted an annual survey during the spring term. This survey asks first year students about their experience at university including whether or not they have considered withdrawing from university. In 2014, this annual HERE Project survey was combined with the UK Engagement Survey (UKES).

The UKES survey, organised by the Higher Education Academy (UK), is a UK adaptation of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that was developed in the US. Its aim is to “help institutions understand and improve their students’ engagement with their studies” (Buckley, 2014, p7), by providing a measure of student exposure to and participation in educational practices (McCormick, 2014, p6). It therefore provides an evidence base from which to inform quality enhancement and allows institutions to benchmark their provision against the UK and international sector whilst remaining confidential. It was first piloted in the UK in 2013 with nine institutions (with 8,500 responses). In 2014, a second pilot took place with 32 institutions (25,533 responses), of which NTU was one.

This combination at NTU therefore not only allowed comparison with other institutions, but allowed us to look more specifically at the experiences of student doubters (those students who had considered withdrawing from university) and their engagement with their studies. Although there are limitations of the data, this research has identified useful insights into the experiences of students and a number of themes that are worthy of further exploration.

 NTU respondents were more likely to say that they had found that their course had challenged them to do their best work than UKES respondents, and just over a third of NTU students reported finding it difficult to cope with their academic workload. However, NTU students also reported that they had spent less time preparing for taught sessions than UKES respondents.

 The activities that NTU students reported were most useful were those that require little interaction with staff such as working independently, using online materials and attending lectures. Student doubters were much less likely to find seminars and course tutorials useful, but more likely to find one-to-one meetings with tutors useful, suggesting individual support is particularly important for these students.

 Group work and the support of peers appeared particularly useful for our widening participation, black and minority ethnic (BME) and male students along with our student doubters. These student doubters were less likely to have asked questions or contributed to class discussions and more likely to have turned to peers for help to understand course material.

This session will report these findings in more detail together with relevant current literature and any implications the findings may have for practice.


Buckley, A., 2014. UK Engagement Survey 2014 The second pilot year [online]. Available at:


McCormick, Alexander. Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Indiana University, USA, Director, National Survey of Student Engagement. Foreword. UK Engagement Survey 2014 The second pilot year [online]. Buckley, A., 2014. Available at:


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 [online]. Available at:


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