THE CHALLENGE: According to the United Kingdom’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, one in five students at U.K. universities is studying business and related subjects, making business one of the most popular courses of study. As bachelor’s and master’s programs in business grow larger to satisfy demand, all business schools will face a similar challenge: How do we offer a personalized educational experience within large student cohorts?
The bachelor-level programs in business at Nottingham Business School (NBS) at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) are by no means the largest in the U.K., but even so, we wanted to create a truly personalized experience for each of our 3,500 undergraduates. That’s why, from 2008 to 2012, NBS used a balanced scorecard approach to study and analyze the results of all of our activities, including levels of student engagement and progression for all programs. We conducted this analysis via student focus groups, workshops, and evaluation systems. We also used data from the U.K.’s annual National Student Satisfaction Survey.
Students told us that they felt “mass-processed,” as if our program treated them more as a homogeneous group than as individuals. Such “group treatment” had increased student disengagement, which led to slower degree progression and lower likelihood of degree attainment among certain groups. We came to an important realization: Our students had been silently demanding to be treated as individuals.
Our analysis led the business school’s leadership to develop a new framework for learning, which we launched at the start of the 2015–2016 academic year. As part of this framework, students and their professors co-create individual learning plans that meet students’ unique needs, enhancing their educational experiences at NBS and increasing their potential for success in their future careers.
THE APPROACH: Before we developed this framework, NBS had provided a number of ways for students to personalize their journeys that were loved by many students—including study abroad, internships, community projects, yearlong work placements, and startup opportunities during their second year. But because these programs were voluntary, many students chose not to take advantage of them. Our approach to engagement at the time was insufficient and ad-hoc, based on programs that were not part of a wider system of engagement with our students.
Under our new plan, we follow a personalization framework that we describe as a “multidimensional tailoring” of every student’s total educational experience. This framework includes four axes of learning—knowledge, pedagogy, experiential learning, and career development. To design this framework, we appointed a team leader and invested in 12 faculty full-time equivalents across the school. The team spent four months developing the program, which we supported financially with the university’s Strategic Initiative Fund created by our vice chancellor, Edward Peck. We rolled out the new system in 2015.
Our goal was to design a system that would create opportunities across all four axes while also achieving three primary objectives: to embed personalization into the fabric of our program; to increase students’ active participation in the learning process; and, most important, to put the student at the center of the learning process.
In our new approach, we work with students to plan the best course of study for them, choosing from a range of professional development activities, second-year study abroad options, internships, community projects, and entrepreneurial opportunities. To allow students to learn in ways that suit them best, we offer online content delivery, simulations, adaptive learning tools, and tailored independent study opportunities.
In addition, we developed several programs to help students discover their long-term educational and career goals:
An academic mentoring system. We assign faculty mentors to all students to help them identify individual career aspirations and preparation plans. Throughout the year, students attend both group mentoring sessions and one-on-one sessions with mentors who support students’ educational journeys.
New courses. All of our approximately 1,200 first-year students now take a mandatory course called Personal and Professional Development I (PPD1). They take PPD2 in their second year and Leadership and Employability (L&E) in their final year. Each course is taught in seminar groups of 18 students, by the professor assigned to mentor those students. Each week, activities might include required readings; lectures on topics such as studying abroad, enhancing employability, and crafting a personal brand; and online learning modules and assessments in areas such as establishing a strong digital presence, writing a résumé, strengthening study skills, and avoiding plagiarism. During this course, students work with their mentors as they create their personal development plans.
Our faculty debated a long time over how, and whether, to grade students in PPD1 and PPD2. In the end, we decided to make it a compulsory “pass/fail” course—all students must pass the course to continue to the next year in the program. We took this approach to be sure that students would complete the material and view the course as important to their educational experiences. The debate about grading these courses will be revisited as we collect evidence about their efficacy.
Students told us that they felt "mass-produced," as if our program treated them more as a homogeneous group than as individuals.
Students who complete PPD1 and PPD2 also complete graded e-portfolios that document all of their educational and developmental activities during their programs. If they choose, they can show these e-portfolios to potential employers while they’re conducting job searches.
Alumni mentors. We have instituted an Alumni Fellowship Program, in which we train alumni volunteers to serve as mentors to our students. We then match each student to an alumni mentor whose experience complements that student’s career aspirations. So far, we have trained 160 alumni mentors; we plan to increase that number to 500 next year and to 750 the year after that.
A systematic approach to experiential learning. To make sure our experiential learning opportunities are offered systematically and comprehensively throughout the curriculum, we introduced the NBS Experiential Learning Cycle in 2013–2014. It is founded on an evidence-based learning cycle in which students learn the theory, practice the theory, and experience and observe the theory in real-world applications. Then, they reflect on what they have learned in order to reinforce learning and improve performance when they apply the theory once again. This ensures that our students experience and observe the world as it is, not just as the idealized, simplified, and “sanitized” versions they encounter in case studies and in the classroom.
All of our courses adhere to this experiential cycle. Students also complete this learning cycle in internships, learning projects, international exchanges, and our school’s business incubator— activities designed to connect students to the business world.
Personal tutors. We have brought in personal tutors to work with any students who are struggling in their courses. If we see students showing signs of disengagement, we will contact them and ask them to talk to their mentors and work with their tutors; we even will refer them to counseling, if necessary. In addition, this year we began offering a three-day confidence-building program for a targeted group of students who need greater encouragement in their studies.
To make our personalization framework effective and support learning across all four axes, we had to have a means of tracking each student’s progress and level of engagement. That led to what is an integral part of our personalization efforts: our online student dashboard, which is accessible to students and their faculty mentors. The dashboard was developed in partnership with Solutionpath and with contributions from NBS deputy dean Melanie Currie and a team of academics from across NTU. Introduced in 2013–2014, the platform won a Times Higher Education Award for “Outstanding Support for Students” in 2014.
The dashboard is a predictive analytical tool that provides a real-time log of students’ engagement levels. The dashboard aggregates data derived from several university sources to track students’ attendance, use of online study tools, faculty assessments and feedback, and tutor comments. It then creates a graph that provides each student with an “individual engagement score.”
Shown below are sample graphs from our student engagement dashboard, which indicate a student’s individual week-by-week engagement rating and cumulative engagement score, respectively. The graphs also indicate a student’s engagement compared to that of his or her peers over time. These scores are calculated using multiple sources of university data, such as those that track library use, access of online materials, and faculty assessments.
INDIVIDUAL ENGAGEMENT SCORE - WEEK BY WEEK
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INDIVIDUAL ENGAGEMENT RATING - CUMULATIVE
>Click to view a larger version
We combine that data with a set of diagnostics to measure students’ strengths and weaknesses in several learning dimensions. Students work with their mentors to look at the data and identify points where they are not taking full advantage of the opportunities available. If students’ scores ever drop too far below the average score of their peers, or remain flat over time, our mentors intervene and work with the students to establish individualized plans of action.
We have found that when we combine this technology with face-to-face guidance, we can provide a more holistic learning experience for each student. The more our academic mentors and alumni fellows develop professional relationships with students, the more we learn about each student’s needs, aspirations, and capabilities—and the more students become co-creators of their learning experiences and take advantage of the opportunities available.
For us, embedding more personalization has been a strategic response to a persistent problem of student disengagement and, in some cases, lack of progression through the program. So far, we have invested about £700,000 (about US$910,000) in developing our personalized learning framework. Those funds primarily have been used to support the deployment of the program, as the cost of the dashboard is centrally funded by the university.
Our internal metrics and an end-of-year survey indicate that the investment has been well worth it. We have seen a positive impact across the entire student body, with rates of student engagement, participation, and satisfaction showing a marked improvement. The number of students who have signed up for next year’s international student exchange programs has doubled, and the number of student requests for internship placements has increased by 12 percent. We plan to continue to measure the full impact of the personalization framework on an ongoing basis during the 2016–2017 academic year. Now that we have tested the framework in our bachelor’s program, we plan to adapt it to all of our postgraduate and postexperience students. We look forward to seeing our progression rates and degree completion rates continue to improve and our student satisfaction scores increase even more.
While improvements in these areas offer financial benefits to the school, such benefits are not our primary driver. Rather, we feel as if we understand our students better now than we did before. We want to make certain that, from now own, NBS treats students not as a group, but as individuals.
Baback Yazdani is the dean and a professor of product development at Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom.