Written in collaboration with Jonas Nicolaï (Project coordinator Mentoraat Plus) & Dr. David Corradi (Policy officer Diversity & Post-doc researcher CeMIS)

How can teachers promote the progress of students with one or more risk-status characteristics (e.g. Non-corresponding prior education, a language other than Dutch spoken in the home, a background of migration, academic delays and/or parents with a low level of education)? The following tips could help in this regard.

Be very transparent with regard to the expectations and evaluation criteria that have been set.

One of the most important predictors of academic success for students is their level of integration – the extent to which they are able to adapt to the context of higher education. Students belonging to disadvantaged groups often experience particular difficulty with this adjustment. Transparency in teaching can help them (and all other students) to adjust to the new educational environment better and more quickly.

For example, it is often difficult for students to know the best way to address the available course materials, particularly when multiple sources (e.g. syllabus, slides, manual, supplementary reading materials in the Blackboard learning environment) are available. Teachers should therefore specify the importance of the available course materials with regard to the examination. Although this could be done at the beginning of the lecture series, it should also be repeated at other times (e.g. shortly before the examination periods). In particular, practice lectures and trial examinations offer an ideal way to clarify expectations and make them transparent to students.

A second element that often leads to adjustment problems for students is the scoring scale from 0 to 20, as applied in Flemish higher education. It is therefore of considerable importance to inform students as clearly as possible concerning which levels of knowledge/skills/competences that correspond to which scores on this scale. In addition to being helpful to students who must exert additional effort to adjust to the context of higher education, transparency concerning scores can help high-scoring students by making them more aware of the aspects that need further attention in order to maintain their current level. It would obviously be preferable not to save such transparency until the final phase of a module. Whenever possible, interim feedback opportunities should be built into the module, so that students can be clear at an early stage with regard to the expectations and their own knowledge and abilities, making adjustments as needed. For such adjustments, students could possibly make use of reinforcement programmes (examples at the University of Antwerp: Mentoraat Plus, Monitoraat op Maat, guidance through the Study Advice and Student Counselling Service). Greater transparency with regard to the stated expectations allows for more targeted support through these programmes.

Normalise support

In some respects, any form of formal higher education is a support programme for students. This programme, however, is not customised to each individual student. It could therefore be worthwhile to invest in an additional range of services for the very strongest students (through ‘honours programmes’), as well as for disadvantaged groups. A broad range of support initiatives for these groups of students is also available through the central services, as well as through the departments. These initiatives focus on training academic competences (monitoring programmes, practice lectures, additional practice sessions), as well as on the development of metacognitive or psychosocial aspects (e.g. training concerning fear of failure, guidance in study skills).

In many cases, the specific background characteristics of disadvantaged groups can make it more difficult for them to approach such support. Teaching staff can fulfil a key function in alerting students to the existing range of services and referring them to specific central services or faculty activities. It is therefore quite important to normalise the support initiatives. In many cases, participating in any form of support is still likely to be perceived as a sign of failure.

Ways to normalise support could include announcing the availability of existing faculty or central support initiatives at the university. Teachers are in the best position to stress the importance of particular forms of support for specific modules or course content, or to refer to the general utility of such support. Another possibility could be to take time during the lectures at the beginning of a semester to draw attention to existing forms of guidance. The lecture could thus provide a more accessible stepping stone to support, if needed, and it could help some students find their way to these services more quickly, so that they can receive further assistance.

Students as ‘prosumers’

While students in higher education have often been described as customers or consumers in recent decades, new trends and theories in education suggest that the student’s role is developing into that of a ‘prosumer’. As prosumers, students are actors who, alongside the other actors within the institution of higher education (e.g. members of the senior academic staff and the administrative and technical staff), can have an influence on policy and help to shape their own educational processes.

One tip that emerges from this observation focuses on urging students to adopt learning strategies aimed at ‘problem posing’. This approach teaches students to construct their own questions concerning content, in addition to drawing on metacognitive thinking skills, increasing the students’ awareness of the expected final competences (transparency) and possibly strengthening their self-directed learning skills.

As a concrete example, a trial examination in an initial Bachelor programme and/or for bridging students could be supplemented by a component in which students formulate their own questions on the course material. At the end of a lecture, the teacher could also add an opportunity for reflection in order to have the students formulate several questions on the content that has been presented. During the next lecture, the teacher could refer to a few of these questions could as a review and as a springboard to the new lecture.

Problem posing can also serve to reinforce students during self-evaluations and peer evaluations, while making them more involved in their own educational processes.

Problem posing operates as an inclusive measure that can address obstacles experienced by generation students from disadvantaged groups and improve their academic integration. At the same time, methods aimed at problem posing can offer additional challenges to strong students. Note that measures for disadvantaged groups can often also serve to enhance quality for all students.


Want to know more?

You can get more information about the Mentoraat Plus project at the university of Antwerp by mailing at mentoraatplus@uantwerpen.be.

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