What we've found out so far...



This study is concerned with aggregates of properties and tendencies relating to first year undergraduate students who commenced their studies at Middlesex in September 2007 but who have decided to temporarily interrupt or completely withdraw from their courses. This study specifically looked at students who had taken the decision and had informed the University of their intent by the end of November 2007. Only 98 students had a withdrawn or interrupted status code in MISIS who fully met the specified criteria. This made it possible to look at the full number of possible participants thus avoiding complex sampling designs and making allowances for differing probabilities in the selection.


Once a full list of research participants was established letters were sent to both term-time and home addresses informing them of the research project and offering them the opportunity to opt out. Of these, 4 ex-students chose to opt out and 1 letter was returned as undeliverable. Also excluded from the research was 1 student, who appeared to have dropped out this year, but has been attempting to start a course for a number of years and has postponed it twice in the past. Such a case could provide an interesting life history approach to HE studies which could form the basis for undertaking subsequent research on HE entrants, but not one which would help answer the research questions.

A total of 92 individuals took part in this research out of a possible 98 who withdrew from the first year of their HE undergraduate courses between September and November 2007 whilst studying programmes aligned to a total of 13 different subject areas. This large sample affords a high degree of generalisability which would not have been possible if a different sampling strategy was employed.

It appears that the majority (57.2%) of Middlesex students withdraw by the end of teaching week 3, one month after physically coming onto the campus. This is well below the 6-8 weeks specified in the literature (Parmar and Trotter, 2004) allowing very little time to put support structures in place which would assist them in persevering with their studies. The majority were female accounting for 72.5% of withdrawn students and over three quarters of them were under 25 years of age with an average age of 23 years.

Middlesex students are usually introduced to OASISplus during induction week, however only 12 individuals logged on during that week. This brings the total of students who had not logged onto OASISplus by the end of induction week to a significant 87%, indicating that more could have been done to assist these participants in persevering with their studies.

Exactly half the participants never logged onto OASISplus thus returning a 50% of ‘non-respondent’ rate for this phase of data collection. However in this study, this is not viewed as a troublesome characteristic, but is considered a finding. Participants who did not log on do not fall into any specific age bracket or sex (50% male, 50% female) but in 2 cases (figure 1) there appears to be a difference depending on the subject to which they were aligned. Of those studying a health-related programme who chose to withdraw/interrupt 76.47% logged on at least once compared to an average of 41% across all subject areas. The opposite is true for those studying a programme aligned to education, where the majority (75%) never logged on. This finding could potentially indicate a level of participant bias which can only be established in the next phase (interviews) of the research. For example, it is possible that tutors where responsible for encouraging/incentivising OASISplus usage in health-related programmes, where as little importance may have been placed on the use of OASISplus by tutors in education-related programmes.

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For the participants who did log onto OASISplus at least once it appears that a total of 473 logins were recorded, with a mean score of 10.28 and a median score of 5.5 (multiple modes exist). As the number of logons per participant varied from 1-65 times the median score is being used for comparative purposes as it is insensitive to extreme scores.

The time of day during which these students logged on is representative of OASISplus usage patterns (internal document) and does not highlight any key areas for further investigation, even though some where accessing OASISplus in the middle of the night (figure 2).

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Out of those who logged onto OASISplus only 5 students accessed support materials with regards to dyslexia, however only one of them had declared it as a disability to the University. Further information needs to be collected with regards to dyslexia for participants who did not log on. This will allow us to understand how many ex-students could have benefited from the materials as well as whether a correlation exists between having a declared disability and not logging on.
Of those who did log on there appears to be a peak of activity during week 3 (figure 3) in all four categories of tools/materials offered on the VLE, possibly due to academic staff promoting the use of the VLE at this time or formative assessments taking place. It is not surprising that assessment-related activities are the least accessed as most modules have not incorporated any on their online component. With regards to the other three areas of the activity within a collaborative constructivist view of learning it is not unexpected that communication-related activities appear to be important to users of the system. However, content delivery continues to be the dominant paradigm of education in the online environment. Management tools are also explored however it is thought that learners at this stage in their studies have not fully realised the relevance of these tools or have not yet demonstrated an ability to take control of their own learning.

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Now that the analysis of the secondary data is completed it is envisaged that a short description of each participant’s interactions would be mailed to them as a means of member checking. As the participants are no longer studying at the University and may be physically remote, short semi-structured telephone interviews would follow in order to corroborate the findings of the secondary data analysis.

Limitations of study

It is acknowledged that this study looks at the use of the institutional VLE by ‘at risk’ students however, this does not mean that other technologies were not used to support their studies. Therefore, only partial patterns of behaviour emerge of how the participants engage with e-learning.

Furthermore, although the sample size allows for a high degree of generalisation and validity, it is representative of individuals who choose to study at Middlesex. It is possible to make inferences about ‘at risk’ students at institutions with a similar profile (large, city-based, widening participation agenda, etc) and making allowances for cohort differences but it is by no means representative of the entire UK HE entrant population.

Further Exploration

Following the interview phase this project will be attempting to identify how the behaviour of ‘at risk’ students differ from students who are not at risk and comparisons will be made with characteristics exhibited by students who have demonstrated successful progression. Additionally the project will be looking to establish whether online behaviours differ depending on students’ access route to HE (direct, UCAS, partner institutions, etc).


© Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou, Middlesex University