The beginning of KCLxBIT

By Anne-Marie Canning, King’s College London | 

At King’s College London we’ve always known that helping widening participation students to ‘get in’ is not enough but needs to be coupled with a focus on helping those students to ‘get on’ too. That’s why we have a full lifecycle approach to widening participation:

Full lifecycleIn recent years the Office for Fair Access has become increasingly concerned about student success as well as student access, and rightly so. We know that the student experience at university is highly stratified and the consequences of this have been expertly detailed by my colleague and friend, Dr Anna Mountford-Zimdars, in her 2015 report for HEFCE ‘Causes of differential outcomes.’ It impacts in terms of social belonging, outcomes and labour market progression. If we’re serious about enhancing social mobility trajectories we need to have a joined up approach to student access and success.

An abundance of opportunities

I often think about the student experience as something like a jewellery box. The undergraduate experience is abundant with opportunities. I imagine some learners reaching into that jewellery box and taking out internships, study abroad experiences, research projects, societies and many more ‘high return’ co-curricular activities. We know that these activities are highly valued by employers and have a positive impact on student belonging and satisfaction.

‘Who does what’ at university became a preoccupying issue for me after dipping into the datasets and observing distinct patterns of participation. These ‘game changing’ experiences were concentrated in sections of the student body and I hypothesised that we could shift this by helping students to connect with the right opportunity at the right time.

Always carry books around with you

In June 2015 I had been reading Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. I’m not sure why I picked up the book but I was having a great time reading it when I met with Professor Jonathan Grant, Director of the Policy Institute, for an introductory meeting. I explained to Jonathan that I had been thinking about how behavioural economics could help to improve the student experience for widening participation learners at King’s. Jonathan kindly offered to introduce me to the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) at the Cabinet Office.

Fast forward a few weeks and I was presenting the challenges of full lifecycle widening participation and explaining how I thought behavioural insights could play a role in improving student outcomes and experiences to David Halpern, CEO of BIT. Interesting work on the application of behavioural insights to the university experience was already being led by Professor Ben Castleman (mastermind of the Obama ‘Better Make Room’ campaign and author of ‘The 160 Character Solution’) at the University of Virginia, and Professor Philip Oreopoulous (author of ‘Behavioural Economics of Education: Progress and Possibilities’) at the University of Toronto.

Following my conversation with the team at BIT they agreed that this could be an interesting collaboration and so we commenced the first ever project looking at the application of ‘nudge’ in a UK university context.

A two-year pilot project

The project was considered by the ethics office at King’s College London and we moved into a two year pilot programme overseen by an expert advisory board. Student journey workshops and the King’s Pulse Survey have given us rich insights into the lived student experience.

What is so exciting about these models of exploration is the way in which they asked students about them rather than about the institution. This represented a significant departure from the traditional higher education satisfaction survey model and allowed us to work out what matters to students and when we might best offer an intervention. We have delivered a range of complex and simple randomised controlled trials within the King’s College London ecosystem using institutional datasets to measure efficacy. First year students have benefited from a range of programmes and pointers to help them make the most of their time at the university. Acrobatic analysis and application of machine learning techniques has helped us to understand the impact of our intervention on different student groups and begin to reshape how we structure the student experience at King’s.

Our blog will detail the tribulations and triumphs of our experimental approach. We look forward to sharing our results and lessons learned in the hope that others can take encouragement from our work and adopt behaviourally inspired methods in their own contexts. By bringing new ideas together with old problems I believe we can make faster progress in helping students make the most of their talents and opportunities.

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