Dr Claire Felix-Baptiste, Course Director for the BA (hons) Social Work degree programme between 2014 and 2019, identified that, within her course, black students were not performing as well as their white counterparts. Indeed, black students were more likely to be referred, deferred or to withdraw from social work education.
In response, and based on research for her professional doctorate, Claire and her team initiated a comprehensive course review to address this attainment gap, a move which changed how the course was delivered and assessed, being designed around individual learning styles and needs. This included developing a more meaningful relationship with personal tutors and collaboration with LSBU departments and stakeholders, whilst giving consideration to her students’ identities. The outcome of this intervention was that between September 2016 and July 2019, 89% of Claire’s students received First Class or Upper Second Class degrees.
This case study explores a deep redesign of course content as part of the revalidation process. Together, these changes have made a big impact, however you might find that just some of these tweaks could have a positive impact on your outcomes.
The BA (Hons) Social Work attracts approximately 50 students per year. In recent years, the course has attracted predominantly BAME students, around 80%, with some 35% entering via the access route.
Factors which triggered the interventions
Claire has had a social work career as a community race activist, having spent 7 years as National Race Equality Lead for Rethink, the UK’s largest mental health charity, as well as being the chair of the National BME Mental Health Network (Campaign for Change group) from 2002 to 2009. Claire’s efforts in race equality were recognised and showcased by the NHS in their Delivering Race Equality Consultation Document (2006).
Claire was the Course Director for BA (Hons) Social Work from 2014 to 2019. The interventions were triggered when Claire began a professional doctorate entitled ‘Factors that Influence Academic Success on the Social Work Degree: A Black Newly Qualified Perspective’. During the data collection process, Claire noticed that her student cohort had a long history of differentials in progression and attainment levels, something which was exacerbated by ethnicity. Claire was curious about what might be happening.
Critically reviewing the data
As the Course Director, Claire noticed that her students had a large attainment gap and brought this to the attention of her teaching team. Claire’s team had an honest and open discussion about the attainment gap issue; this allowed for self-reflection and subjective positions were considered, something which remains a key feature of their work.
Based on their data review and subsequent team discussions, Claire and her team agreed to undertake five key steps:
1) Better engage students in the learning process
The team agreed a strategy to better engage students, particularly the final years. This involved monthly meetings with students (or their reps) three times per semester.
They also ensured that the course was delivered by a diverse range of social work educators who better reflected the student identities, thereby role modelling and getting the students critically to reflect on how their own identity was central to learning. This strategy sends a powerful message about race equality and LSBU.
All students were allocated a personal tutor for the 3 year course duration to maintain a continuity of support where possible. Accordingly, students were encouraged to identify their personal learning style and they then developed an academic action plan which was reviewed by their personal tutor.
Claire also encouraged self-directed group work as a third mode of learning. Given the diversity in the student population, this approach can help to promote cross cultural learning.
Additionally, Claire offered academic development workshops at key stages of progression in partnership with colleagues from LSBU’s Centre for Research Informed Teaching (CRIT) and Library and Learning Resources. This initiative helps students prepare for the forthcoming elevated academic levels, as in Biggs’s (1996) theory of ‘constructive alignment’, a teaching approach which brings together the assessment criteria and subject content.
Claire and her team also facilitated weekly placement surgeries, where students could pop in and receive on the spot advice on academic or placement issues.
2) Review the assessment processes
Claire and her team initiated service user involvement in student recruitment, curriculum development and teaching and assessment.
One of the most important outcomes in terms of assessment processes was that Claire introduced diagnostic, formative assessments and feedback in all modules. Her team also offered exemplars of modelling and standard setting at every opportunity.
3) Improve our communications about LSBU academic standards
Claire introduced a newsletter twice a year to keep students informed about practice developments, key features including practitioners, students, academics and research being consulted on key disciplinary issues. Moreover, aspects of anti-discriminatory/oppressive practice have been embedded in all modules demonstrating we are serious about equality.
4) Improve engagement and feedback
Claire and her team demonstrated a visible commitment to student feedback by developing and circulating a Feedback Pledge – a statement focused on tutors’ commitment to providing quality feedback. Students were also encouraged to give tutors modular feedback throughout the semester; they were no longer obliged to wait until week 12 to give feedback. Together, these initiatives created a responsive cycle of feedback between student and teacher.
5) Review the course content and core reading
Finally, Claire and her team audited all module reading lists and broadened them to reflect the diversity of the student group.
For the academic years between 2016 and 2019, 89% of students consistently achieved good degrees of First Class or Upper Second Class degrees. Claire is particularly interested to see whether similar outcomes have been achieved anywhere else in Health and Social Care faculties (or even across the university). Claire observed that Social Work’s BAME students perform well, perhaps because they are in the majority population and their identities are not at threat.
The evidence-based and proactive steps taken by Claire and her team showcased the impact that timely interventions can have. This example has shown that a holistic approach, certainly when devised and implemented by an entire teaching team, can allow both students and staff to benefit from an enhanced learning experience.
References:Biggs, J. (1996) ‘Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment’, Higher Education, 32(3), pp. 347-364