Measuring Student Success in Higher Education

Measuring student success in higher education (HE) is a mix of engagement, retention, attainment, flexibility and finally, grade. But it can also be viewed through the important lens of equality and diversification. Determining how they can be measured isn’t a simple process. 

With technological changes to how HE identifies success and engages with its students, the higher education system is becoming more data-driven. So how does a HE institution marry the qualitative and quantitative results to get an overall picture of student success?

The Statistics on Student Success

The current state of student success is very much focused on hard outcomes, such as viewing success as purely academic. However, success isn’t based solely on results. It also covers areas such as employability, student engagement, retention, attainment and flexible learning. 

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest the conventional approach to viewing success isn’t the wisest:

  • IIn 2016/17, 8.8% of disadvantaged students dropped out of university. 6% of more advantaged students also dropped out in their first year.
  • There's also an issue with the gap between white British students receiving first class or upper second class degrees compared to BAME students. According to the ‘Equality of higher education’ report (2018), 66% of BAME students achieved a first or 2:1, compared to 79.6% of white students.
  • In HEA’s UK Engagement Survey, when asked about the top skills students developed while at university, they rated becoming an independent learner as highest and employability skills as lowest. 

These statistics and reports show HE still has a long way to go before compiling a truly accurate representation of student success, one that accounts for more than just grade.

Four Steps to Determining Success

Determining and measuring student success in HE is very similar to measuring engagement, which we’ve written a blog on that you can explore here. It includes eight methods of measuring engagement which you could alter when measuring success.

Measuring student success is essentially a way of proving ROI, but comes with the same issues. Namely, what you measure and how you link those results to specific strategies and initiatives.

NB: there are many differing theories about how to measure student success and we must state that what we explore in this blog isn't definitive. 

While there are some external factors that can’t be accounted for, you can provide a strategic framework for measuring student success. This will help you build an iterative view of your institution and increase what you learn.

1. Choose a Student Population to Analyse

Different courses will have varying retention rates, grades achieved and student numbers. This means you shouldn’t determine success as an average of the entire student populace.

The way to begin is by determining an analysis group, which could be based around course studied or more individual factors, such as race or gender. 

By narrowing a scope, your results are more accurate as they’re less affected by external factors. It also means any changes can be specifically tailored to that student populace, depending on their needs. 

2. Develop Goals And a Planning Methodology

At this point, you need to determine your goals. These could be based around what you define success as, which could be a mix of what we’ve previously mentioned:

  • Student retention.
  • Engagement.
  • Grades attained.
  • Employability.
  • Diversity (and how disadvantaged students perform).

You then should create a planning methodology that's mapped backwards from these goals. For example, a goal could be based on raising average grades within a specific subject. You’d need to determine the pre-conditions for that and then design an initiative that satisfies those pre-conditions. 

You can then use that ‘roadmap’ to progress with your measurements.

3. Identify the Measurable Metrics

By using your planning methodology, you can easily determine what metrics to measure. These can be measured term-to-term. They help you determine if the initiative is working, resulting in greater student success.

You can further differentiate between a process metric and an outcome metric. A process metric is something to be determined during term and could be a smaller or contributory factor within your initiative, such as the measurement of student satisfaction. An outcome metric could be the standard of student work at the end of term or the end of year, which the process metric will influence. 

4. Begin Iterative Change

The final goal of measuring student success in higher education is to ultimately use those metrics to influence your change process. This is a way of creating a more democratised, fair and successful environment for students of all backgrounds to learn in. 

At this point, you can compare your current results to any past results you might have been achieving. It's also wise to gain student feedback as they can give you a more accurate picture of how they’re engaging with what a university provides, be it curriculum or overall culture. 

If you’re measuring course by course, are there any that are performing drastically better than the rest? If so, how can you implement the success they’re experiencing on a wider level?

Similarly, if something is evidently not working, do your metrics or student feedback tell you why? How can you improve in future?

Student Success Shouldn’t Be Purely Quantitative

The HEA writes in their ‘Enhancing students in higher education’ framework that:

What represents success for one student may not be for another. Individuals will have different motivations for, and experiences of, studying in HE and thus will want (as well as take) different things from the experience.

We must reiterate that it's still difficult to reach a definitive conclusion about what success is defined as and how it can be measured. Success, on a student level, is something affected by a large amount of both internal and external factors. 

Ben Walker, senior lecturer in Academic Development at Manchester Metropolitan University, said on the subject, “There are research studies out there that try to measure increases in students’ confidence and self-esteem in the course of their life during a programme…isn’t that just as important?”

“There are multiple factors: every individual is a complex entity. At a strategic level, there needs to be more appreciation of those soft outcomes [and] how they link to the hard outcomes because we all know that on the ground those are really, really important.”

The point Walker makes is that success is more than just quantitative. By using technology to receive an individualised view of a student, it’s easier and more accurate to determine what a university is doing right, rather than just focusing on increased grades.

For example, there are technologies out there that allow student engagement to be tracked in analysable terms, such as Salesforce Advisor Link, Campus Labs® Engage or Ellucian CRM Advise. These are platforms that offers personalised views of students that tracks engagement and other factors to build a well-rounded picture. It’s good practice to research what’s on the market and find the best solution for your circumstances.

Technology such as this has the potential of fostering a closer link between students and their departments, rather than the sole interactions being the marks they get on essays.

If you’re looking for more information on how HE can improve the overall student experience, download our guide.

Improving the Student Experience

HE needs to focus on marrying the qualitative and quantitative metrics that can be found within its institutions, providing a very granular level of detail on the experiences of students. With our guide, you’ll discover a non-exhaustive list of the best practices surrounding this. 

It also covers current statistics and the development of crucial student experience strategies.

Click on the link below for your copy.

Download your free guide to improving student experience in higher education