Preparing Unconfident Adults to Access STEM Degrees

In the second of our series on widening participation, Dr John Butcher at the Open University reflects on the benefits of the ‘Preparatory Programme’, aimed at supporting mature students succeed in STEM courses.

Recent vocational, technical and higher education (HE) policies all point to a pressing need to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates in the UK. While significant strides have been taken by many universities to widen the access of 18 year olds across HE (OFFA, 2017), there is a group of disadvantaged learners, many of whom are interested in studying STEM disciplines, who remain excluded.

Adult learners (defined by HESA as aged 21), the majority of whom can only study part-time, disproportionately represent characteristics associated with widening participation: more likely to be from the lowest quintiles of economic deprivation, from low participation neighbourhoods, to be disabled, to have caring responsibilities and, to be working while studying. In many instances, adults study (successfully) despite a combination of overlapping disadvantages. However, a dramatic decline of 61% in part-time adult learners since 2010 (HESA) paints a bleak picture. If this trajectory of decline is allowed to continue, adult learners will disappear completely from HE.

The academic literature suggests the STEM disciplines have a problem when it comes to widening participation. Gender imbalances have been regularly examined, while underachievement and attrition of BME students has been extensively reported. The relatively few studies of adult learners entering STEM identify a major issue of learner confidence and the need for bridging preparatory courses. Three key themes emerge:

  • The science curriculum as a barrier to learning for a more diverse student body (especially around ‘math-anxiety’, and the need for integrated entry curricula teaching skills, rather than abstract/theoretical knowledge)
  • Personal attributes as obstacles to achieving in STEM (females lack confidence and experience alienation, black students suffer ‘imposter syndrome’)
  • The need for preparatory programmes for STEM students with low prior entry qualifications (PEQs).

At the Open University, we have offered a 30 credit Level 0 preparatory STEM module since 2013. Recently, a scholarship project sought to better understand how our module helped students to succeed in their first undergraduate science module. Based on evaluative survey data and a series of interviews with students and tutors, we established, on starting Access, adult students:

  • worried about their studentship skills, (carrying a negative prior experience of education),
  • had a strong fear of failure and lacked learner resilience.
  • Crucially for STEM, lacked confidence and feared maths.

By the end of their STEM Access module, and halfway through their first undergraduate science module, these adult learners had:

  • Developed effective study skills and enhanced their learner confidence
  • Enjoyed being part of a virtual learning community, (peer support was especially valued by disabled learners) and developed digital literacy skills (crucial to preparing for fully online learning on their first L4 Science module).
  • Revised study/career aspirations by reflecting upon cross-discipline approaches (thus avoiding a major cause of premature withdrawal, wrong subject choice)

Preparation for STEM study was considered effective because, on the Access module:

  • Maths skills were embedded ‘little and often’, resulting in a smooth and digestible enhancement of confidence in maths
  • The unique model of pro-active 1-1 ‘phone tutoring resulting in nervous adult learners building trust with, and enjoying sustained support from, a sympathetic tutor (who developed a positive personal relationship with them).
  • STEM skills were applied in a cross-disciplinary context, and science debates engaged adult learners.

However, the impact of a preparatory experience targeted at mature STEM learners was not simply psychological. We compared STEM learners who started with an Access module to those (with low prior entry qualifications) who entered directly at Level 4 (The Open University retains an open access policy, so new learners can start studying regardless of any entry criteria).

Retention on L4 Science was 82% if students had begun with Access, compared to 58% for low PEQ students who entered directly.

Pass rates on L4 Science were 64% if students had begun with Access, compared to 40% for low PEQ students who entered directly.

Assignment submission rates on L4 Science were 84% for the final assessment if students had begun with Access, compared to 65% for low PEQ students who entered directly.

Attainment across the range of assessment tasks were very similar, but better submission rates suggests students who began with Access had learned to study strategically, demonstrating tenacity, resilience and what we are calling ‘stickability’. These attributes are crucial in enabling adult learners, many of whom are vulnerable and start with little self-belief, to persist and achieve in STEM.

We believe findings are applicable to entry-level STEM regardless of the mode of delivery, and offer the following recommendations to colleagues across the sector:

  • Design preparatory curricula with supported small steps to learning (especially by embedding digestible maths skills).
  • Induct STEM learners with tasters across the disciplines and a supported trajectory towards digital learner competence.
  • Integrate generic study skills into STEM activities
  • Personalise tutoring to enthuse learners about undergraduate study.

Further details can be found in the case study:

Butcher, J., Clarke, A., McPherson, E., and Wood, C. (2017) ‘For the first time in my life I was actually starting to enjoy the challenge of maths’: does a Science, technology and maths Access module prepare students to succeed in UG Science?, 9-15

John Butcher
John is academic lead on the Open University's Access Programme and heads the Access Observatory