What was the activity?
The Personal Learning Advisor (PLA) project is one of the Open University’s Access and Participation Plan (APP) initiatives aimed at closing awarding gaps between different student populations. The project delivers coaching and mentoring support for students from under-represented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds via a team of 22 Personal Learning Advisors.
Coaching is an ‘asking not telling’ intervention where, in theory, a coach-mentor has no predetermined agenda (Knowles, 2021, p.91). In the PLA Service, coaching is used alongside mentoring approaches to improve student experience and satisfaction, and support students to achieve their goals. The intervention is offered with a recognition that it seeks to address an institutional (not student) deficit by removing barriers and providing a tailored, personalised service.
In 2021-22, our priority was to support Black students as part of a wider strategic focus on removing the largest institutional awarding gap between Black and White students. This was alongside a series of test and learn campaigns supporting students in other APP groups. We offered one-to-one coaching and mentoring to Black students between October 2021 and August 2022, alongside group workshops premised on ‘coaching for learning’, active learning and self-discovery, ‘leveraging’ the lived experience and subject expertise of the group (Britton, 2010; Wang, 2012).
Eligible students were identified by ethnicity data combined with pass percentage probability (modelled utilising 70 factors including demographic data, previous studies, qualifications and engagement) to ensure we were targeting students who may benefit most (the total target population was 2312 students). Students were contacted via emails, bulletin board announcements, SMS messages and phone calls with a 17.1% take-up for one-ones rising to 21.2% (incorporating group workshops).
In 2021-22, our priority was to support Black students, whilst delivering a series of test and learn campaigns supporting students in other APP groups. We offered one-to-one coaching and mentoring to Black students between October 2021 and August 2022, alongside group workshops premised on “coaching for learning”, active learning and self-discovery, “leveraging” the lived experience and subject expertise of the group (Britton, 2010), (Wang, 2012).
Eligible students were identified by ethnicity data combined with pass percentage probability (modelled utilising 70 factors including demographic data, previous studies, qualifications and engagement) to ensure we were targeting students who may benefit most with a total target population of 2312 students. Students were contacted via emails, bulletin board announcements, SMS messages and phone calls with 17.1% take-up for one-ones rising to 21.2% incorporating group workshops.
How did it impact you or your students?
We conducted a robust and comprehensive evaluation informed by APP targets and an evaluation strategy, plus internal and external monitoring and reporting requirements. PLAs used a scaling questionnaire with students at the beginning of the intervention to better understand their perceptions of their strengths at the outset. Themes were analysed with time planning, balancing life/work/study and reflecting upon achievements being areas students felt they had greatest room for growth.
A statistical measurement among students (in the low-mid pass percentage probability range) found that there was a higher completion rate (by 6.9 percentage points) and pass rate (by 7.1 percentage points) in the test group compared to the control group. Whilst not yet conclusive this has better targeted our subsequent efforts and evaluations.
Almost all 66 respondents to our group session student feedback survey were satisfied with the workshops, and agreed that they are likely to try and adopt new approaches learned with a detailed analysis of this feedback informing our 2022-23 induction programme.
One hundred and two satisfaction survey responders who had received repeat one-to-one interventions agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the support from their PLA, who explored how they could work together and encouraged them to choose the coaching focus. Almost all agreed or strongly agreed that the PLA took time to get to know them, listened with empathy, helped them access support and kept clear communications.
Thematic analysis (using word frequency and auto-coded thematic nodes) on students’ free-text responses on the impact that working with their PLA has made to their personal growth and development, elicited four key areas as follows.
- Improved self-confidence and self-efficacy
- More proactive help-seeking behaviours
- Recognition of strengths and achievement
- Personal growth and self-awareness
A PLA team review identified six significant barriers to success for Black students ordered from most prevalent to least prevalent.
- Communications from the institution
- Academic Literacy/Academic English Support Required
- Disability Support Required
- Digital Literacy and Digital Poverty
- Inconsistencies in tutor support
- Non-representative curriculum/feelings of being an imposter
Any advice for others?
• Coaching and mentoring for students from underrepresented, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised backgrounds (identified in the APP) can play an integral part of an institutional commitment to enhance their experience, providing encouragement and advocacy.
• Coaches and mentors should have a formal mechanism for feeding back on the main barriers to student success to ensure deeper institutional change for underrepresented students.
Britton, J. (2010). Effective Group Coaching (John Wiley)
Knowles, S. (2021). ‘Coaching for learning and growth in Positive Psychology Coaching. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88995-1_10
Wang, Q. (2012). ‘Coaching for learning: Exploring coaching psychology in enquiry-based learning and development of learning power in secondary education’, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 69, pp.177 – 186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.11.397