Everyone matters: Targeted contextualised study support increases continuation rates

What was the activity?

Our university attracts so called ‘non-traditional’ learners and is recognised for positive social inclusion and mobility. To remove barriers, make a positive impact on the student experience and give them a fair chance at fulfilling their potential, the Faculty of Life Sciences’ Attainment Team provides contextualised study support for undergraduate science students ‘at risk’ of failing their studies. We believe that our delivery of timely, scaffolded, personalised and contextualised study support results in equipped and confident learners. They are thus able to progress and achieve their degrees (Thomas 2006; Lochtie et al. 2018; Brown and Parkin 2020) and are enabled by the sense that they ‘matter’ to the University (Zawada, 2022). By retaining students, we contribute to reducing the non-continuation disparities identified by our Access and Participation Plan (OfS, 2020; University of Bradford 2022a). 

Starting in 2019, we focused on the first year of undergraduate study because this represents a major student transition and contains the largest withdrawal and non-progression rates to address. From 2020, we included later degree stages, taking into consideration the COVID-19 impacts on teaching, assessment literacy and assessment conditions (Whittle and Jenkins, 2022).  

Whilst appreciating the contentiousness of the label (Biggs 1999, Pasura 2015), we target ‘at risk’ learners and identify multiple ways to do so, starting with degree programmes with the highest withdrawal rates.  We work with programme leaders, exams officers and personal tutors to identify individual students, via course-specific early indicators of low engagement, so that we can intervene swiftly. In semester 1 we focus on students repeating more than 50% of their stage of study. In semester 2 we identify semester 1 assessment failure.  Finally, we identify students with multiple or ‘high stakes’ supplementary assessments or a single assessment component where the students must attain a certain baseline score to pass the year. Individuals may directly self-refer to us for a timely intervention, for example, in response to difficult personal circumstances.

We provide one-off or ongoing support meetings over a semester. The meetings last 45-60 minutes and are an active learning process for the student, with the supporter using solution-focused coaching models as a conversational tool.  The students self-identify barriers to their learning and remedial actions to take. We take a team-based approach to resolving issues by signposting to appropriate university resources, for example, the Academic Skills team and Student Counselling (Grey and McIntosh, 2017). Depending on the level of concern, actions may be documented on a personalised study support plan which is linked to the University’s supportive Health, Wellbeing and Fitness to Study process. This live document is editable by the student, their personal academic tutor and a member of the Attainment Team. At the end of the process students are asked to provide anonymous feedback. The team tracks success during the stages of learning. We record the various characteristics of our supported learners including gender, ethnicity, disability and personal challenges, and analyse this data annually.

How did it impact you or your students?

Over the last three years we supported almost 200 students.  

  • 89% of supported students said their confidence in independent learning increased.
  • 64% of students receiving ongoing support passed their stage of study.
  • 51% of progressed students passed their next stage without study support.
  • Students gave examples of how the service had helped. One described how their supporter “reached out to me constantly, pushed me to do my best. Gave me hope and made me realise I could do it if I tried.”
  • Staff value the service, noting it improved student performance, retention and progression. One academic stated, “the attainment team are very good at persisting with getting in touch with non-engaging students and following up on these.” 

Faculty withdrawal rates reduced from 6.5% in 2019 to 4.3% in 2021.  These were especially evident for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students (4.2%) and students in POLAR 4 quintiles 1 and 2 (3.1%). In 2021, the number of students withdrawing halved and 83% of our supported students progressed to their next stage of study.

This contributed to the university reducing disparities with continuation rates. These already are lower than national BAME and POLAR 4 continuation gaps (OfS, 2022). Notably, for BAME students, this has fallen from 6.6% to 3% and for Asian females, from 14.4% in 2019 to 6% in 2021.  

Any advice for others?

  1. Assemble your support team to reflect the diversity of your learning community.
  2. Agree clear selection criteria to identify learners who are underperforming and crossmatch this to your institution’s achievement gaps.
  3. To enhance continuation data and stage outcomes, provide contextualised study support to help students feel they matter, and build confidence and skills with independent study.
  4. Build the support plan collaboratively with the student and work in partnership with other staff to increase the support network and celebrate achievement.

Any other contextual details?

The University of Bradford is situated in the north of England, in an area of high deprivation. We take an equality and inclusion approach to remove barriers to eradicate all access and participation gaps and create equality. We are committed to social inclusion, to improve the life trajectory of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, expand opportunity and enable students to reach their potential. As an institution, we are ranked highly for social mobility and inclusion (University of Bradford 2022b).


Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: The Society for research into Higher Education and Open University Press. 

Brown, G. and Parkin, D. (2020) Creating socially distanced campuses and education project leadership intelligence report: The challenge of access, inclusion, belonging and supporting students from vulnerable groups, York: Advance HE.

Grey, D. and McIntosh, E. (2017) ‘The case of building communities of practice’, UKAT Annual Conference, Leeds, 5-6 April 2017. 

Gurbutt, D. J. and Gurbutt, R. (2015) ‘Empowering students to promote independent learning: a project utilising coaching approaches to support learning and personal development’, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 8, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.47408/jldhe.v0i8.225

Lochtie, D., McIntosh, E., Stork, A. and Walker, B.W. (2018) Effective personal tutoring in higher education. St. Albans: Critical Publishing.  

Office for Students (2020) University of Bradford: Access and participation plan: 2020-21 to 2024-25.https://apis.officeforstudents.org.uk/accessplansdownloads/2024/BradfordUniversity_APP_2020-21_V1_10007785.pdf  (Accessed 25 March 2022)

Office for Students (2022) Access and participation resources. Findings from the data: sector summary. Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/978ffe7f-633a-464c-8ce9-9b7ac4a4d734/access-and-participation-data-findings-from-the-data-v2.pdf (Accessed 31 October 2022)

Pasura, R. (2015) ‘International students in the private VET sector in Melbourne, Australia: rethinking their characteristics and aspirations outside the deficit model’, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 2015 Vol. 67, No. 2, 203–218, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13636820.2015.1022580 

Robshaw, T.R., Warden, J. and Azmanova, M. (2022) ‘An integrated personal support system for at-risk life sciences students’. Infographic 6 – Conference Infographic Gallery – LibGuides at University of Hull. Available at: https://libguides.hull.ac.uk/c.php?g=702699&p=5053085 (Accessed 10 July 2022)

Thomas, L. (2006) ‘Widening participation and the increased need for personal tutoring’, in Thomas, L. and Hixenbaugh, P. (eds.) Personal Tutoring in Higher Education (pp. 21-36). Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.

University of Bradford (2022a) Access and participation plan.  Available at:  https://www.bradford.ac.uk/access-and-participation/  (Accessed 20 October 2022)

University of Bradford (2022b) Social mobility ranking system puts Bradford top in England for second year running. Available at: https://www.bradford.ac.uk/news/archive/2022/social-mobility-ranking-system-puts-bradford-top-in-england-for-second-year-running.php (Accessed 25 March 2022) 

Whittle, R. and Jenkins, L. (2022) ‘Is there such a thing as a COVID-19 cohort?’ UKAT Annual Conference, 4- 6 April 2022.

Zawada, C. (2022) ‘Exploring the links between ‘belonging’ and ‘mattering’ and the impact on student achievement’, UKAT Annual Conference, 4- 6 April 2022.



  • Julie Warden

    Julie works at the University of Bradford where she utilises extensive experience in teaching and managing within further education to focus on awareness of the student experience.

  • Tom Robshaw

    Tom combines academic and scientific advising to contextualise student support delivery at the University of Bradford.

  • Maria Azmanova

    Maria has specialisms in medicinal chemistry and international student support.

How to cite

Warden, J., Robshaw, T. and Azmanova, M. (2023) Everyone matters: Targeted contextualised study support increases continuation rates. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/everyone-matters-targeted-contextualised-study-support-increases-continuation-rates/. (Accessed: 21 September 2023)

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Posted in Edition 3, Recipes for Success