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Beginning with hope: A Flying Start to University study

10 Sep 2018 | Cheryl Reynolds Flying Start is the winner of the Guardian HE Award for Curriculum and Course Design, 2018, due to its success in raising students' sense of belonging, confidence and engagement at the University of Huddersfield.

Cheryl Reynolds is a Teacher Educator and Senior Lecturer at the University of Huddersfield.  Her research is on technology enhanced and game based approaches to teaching and learning. She has a particular interest in education for social justice and is currently Project Manager for the OfS-funded Catalyst-Funded collaboration between the Universities of Huddersfield, Lincoln, Coventry and Manchester Metropolitan 'Intervention for Success'. In this blog post she reports on a ‘Flying Start’ to academic study that promoted a stronger sense of belonging amongst 900 undergraduates during September, 2017.

Cheryl Reynolds

In September 2017, Flying Start achieved a vital curriculum shift for students in their first two weeks of term on eight courses across the University of Huddersfield.  Winner of the Guardian HE Award for Curriculum and Course Design, 2018, its success in raising students' sense of belonging, confidence and engagement and the greater sense of connection tutors report with their students means that this number will grow to 30 courses in 2018.   The entire first year undergraduate cohort in two Schools will take part and courses in every School of the University are represented.  Partner institutions are exploring its transferability, with a guide to implementation, an Advance HE webinar and a range of conference papers and presentations to help others to follow suit.

Funded by the Office for Students as part of the Catalyst Intervention for Success project, Flying Start grapples with the lower than average retention, degree classifications and employment outcomes for UK students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and from black and minority ethnic backgrounds (OfS 2015), as well as the dissatisfaction they report with teaching, curriculum and support in HEIs (NUS 2011).  Intensified government monitoring to hold universities to account for these differences and stories from staff of disengaged students, ill-prepared for higher level study paint a bleak and challenging picture.  Flying Start turns away from this deficit model, moving towards a pedagogy of hope to bring students and academic staff closer.  It draws on national and institutional research (HEFCE, 2015, Thomas, 2012, Thomas et al, 2017), as well as the work of Paulo Freire and bell hooks on education for social justice.

One of the biggest challenges facing institutions in the early weeks of a student's first term is how to support their transition into HE, embedding the powerful message that the University IS its students and everyone here belongs.  Not only does this prevent early drop-out, it sets up more positive and supportive relationships to support all of the hard work ahead.  Students know who to go to for help, are encouraged to access this and come to realise that they are not alone in facing the significant challenges ahead.  To this end, Flying Start was a complete overhaul of the first two weeks of term for 900 undergraduates and their tutors, replacing information-heavy, teacher-centred induction with an intense, subject-specific and participative programme from 9am - 5pm, five days per week.

With strong leadership from the Pro Vice Chancellor in Teaching and Learning, work began in April 2017, using data to identify courses with higher than average withdrawal rates and students in our target groups.  Deans of Schools liaised with course teams to identify those most keen to develop a Flying Start, finally settling on Accountancy and Finance, Biological and Chemical Sciences, Contemporary Art and Illustration, Computer Games Programming, Law and Sports Science.

OfS Catalyst-funding was vital in appointing Project Coordinator, Jane Wormald of the University of Huddersfield, an experienced teacher educator able to lead on student-centred pedagogies and to take on the significant logistical challenges attendant on such a large-scale shift in staffing and timetabling.  With the vital support of senior institutional commitment, central timetabling and funding for additional accommodation and staff, Jane's tenacity, good humour and expertise tapped into the the creativity and hard work of course teams and their management.  She brokered relationships across the whole institution between tutors, library staff, careers, student support and the Students Union.  Throughout, Jane was able to tap into a strong desire for change among some tutors, frustrated previously by the inertia and resistance that curriculum development invariably meets in institutions.  The combined weight of institutional support and the commitment of course teams were pivotal. 

Jane used a 'logic chains' approach (Hill) that stipulated the resourcing at one end and the intended outcomes at the other.  Crucially staff then had latitude to decide, with support, how to get from resources to outcomes, taking ownership of the curriculum design process and tailoring it to their particular discipline.  The outcomes set were around generating a greater sense of belonging and peer support, excitement about the subject and understanding the intensive and demanding study patterns needed to succeed.  Activities included guest speakers, visits to local art galleries, study sessions supervised by Graduate Teaching Assistants, student-led exhibitions and presentations, a nutrition bake-off event, fake news activities, video diaries, film clubs tapping in to exciting aspects of the discipline, the #hudcards campus orienteering activity and lots more.  Students particularly relished meeting successful alumni, expanding their understanding of the opportunities available to them on graduation.  Raising both aspiration and motivation to study this helped students to begin to plan their own career development from the outset. The institution's graduate attributes were also recognised as being embedded right from the start.  Links made with a local faith centre, theatre, Enterprise Centre, law firms and community arts group valued local students’ home town knowledge. Further, the integration of academic librarians, personal academic tutors and student consultants in the co-design and delivery of the activities has stimulated new connections within the institution that are continuing to have an impact across the academic year. 

We evaluated the impact of Flying Start using an adapted version of the Yorke (2016) 'belongingess' survey with 1,017 respondents, revealing that Flying Start students, particularly males, scored significantly higher than others for relationship formation, confidence and a sense of belonging. In addition, a focus group of tutors revealed stronger rapport at an earlier stage and earlier identification of risk factors such as attendance, commitment and study skills. Tutors also noted a dramatic difference in students' levels of confidence compared with previous years, and that students were much more likely than previous cohorts to ask for help, to contribute in group sessions and to engage in critically reflective activities.

We are currently developing a guide to implementation and planning a webinar hosted by Advance HE for anyone interested in finding out more and welcome questions from interested parties.  We are also very interested to hear about the experiences of others trying to make similarly ambitious changes.  What are your achievements what challenges do you routinely face?



HEFCE (2015). Causes of difference in student outcomes. Retreived from:,2014/Content/Pubs/Independentresearch/2015/Causes,of,differences,in,student,outcomes/HEFCE2015_diffout.pdf

Thomas, L. (2012). Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Retrieved from:

Thomas, L., Hill, M., O’Mahony, J. & Yorke, M. (2017). Supporting student success: strategies for institutional change What Works? Student Retention & Success programme: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Retrieved from: file:///Users/seducr/Downloads/what_works_2_-_full_report.pdf

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