November 19, 2014 Nick Preston

Pre Academic Programme (PAP)

The Pre Academic Programme (PAP) at the Erasmus University Rotterdam is a new programme of summer courses aimed at first generation students (140 per year). The programme helps student navigate university life with practical skills (e.g. academic writing, critical thinking) and fosters a sense of belonging and self-awareness.

Objectives of the Intervention

The Pre-Academic Programme (PAP) has the objective to provide first-generation students (i.e. students who enter higher education as the first of their families; they lack ‘natural information sources’) with the guidance and motivation other students are thought to receive from parents and other family members who went to higher education (and thus function as role models). The programme targets first year students at the Law Department (2013; 123 beneficiaries) and the Department of Pedagogical Sciences, both at Erasmus University Rotterdam (2014; about 220 beneficiaries). This summer programme does not only help these students to learn how to navigate the university/department, to develop relevant skills sets (such as academic writing, debating and critical thinking) and foster a sense of belonging and self-awareness, but also forms the foundation for a tutor programme throughout their first year. This integrated approach helps these students to navigate their first year within a network of peers and tutors they have already formed strong connections with. This programme is the first of its kind at the university, but does stem from a long line of different interventions to support students from underrepresented groups at the university.

Origins and rationale of this initiative

The idea of a summer course was inspired by several initiatives in the USA and has been translated to the Dutch education context by the different parties involved in developing and implementing this programme. The rationale behind this initiative derived from growing concerns over drop-out rates and low retention/completion rates among certain groups of students as compared to other students; these were first generation students and/or students with ethnic backgrounds. A substantial number of these students must adapt their self-regulating learning behavior if they start in a new learning environment, such as the research university. The idea is that a good preparation before the start of the academic year will contribute to effective (learning) behavior and study success. The general administration (in particular the senior staff responsible for student support, access and enrolment) in conjunction with the Law Department has initiated this programme to improve retention and attainment rates among these and other students. The programme is open to all students, but in its design it particularly targets aforementioned groups. The starting point of the thinking is: generic is diverse. The summer course is in part based on the Inclusive Excellence framework. This is a tested and widely implemented framework in the US, and it is founded upon innovative, inclusive, student-centred and critical pedagogies and policies. Teaching and policies based on the Inclusive Excellence framework have markedly improved retention rates among underrepresented students, and simultaneously among all other students, at different higher education institutions in the US.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

In 2013, 123 students took part in this summer course, among whom about a third are first generation students and of whom many have migrant backgrounds. About 70% are female. These groups also tend to come from low socio-economic backgrounds in Rotterdam and environs. The intervention is implemented on the following level: students.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

The institution’s management supports this initiative because it is geared towards improving academic success among all students (even if designed to target specific groups), and the Board subscribes to the goal that the diversity of successful students should be a reflection of the diversity of the population in the Netherlands. Accordingly, it is in line with the institutional strategy that focuses on promoting excellence, and with national and local education policies aimed at improving academic success among all students in higher education. The main stakeholders are the department and administrative units that initiated the programme and its current success may lead to future replication in other departments. The programme is driven both by surging dropouts and low retention rates and by demands from the job market that needs students who thrive on critical thinking, who have diverse backgrounds and who are able to operate within diverse work settings. With regard to larger political discourses, shaped by an electorate that is increasingly moving to the right, interventions that target migrant groups in particular would be widely taken as highly controversial. Hence, this programme is both structured and promoted to serve all first-generation students who are starting with their studies at the Law Department and the Department of Pedagogical Sciences. The main factors contributing to its success hinge on the collaboration between the administrative unit, the department and external experts in the field.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Central themes in the Pre Academic Programme (‘Master your Future’) are personal leadership and the creation of students’ own future. Every day has a specific theme: Quality, Capital, Chances and Direction. The programme consists of an intensive four-day summer course in which participating students are:

  1. introduced to each other, their tutors, the department, faculty members, the available educational trajectories, and to specific academic demands (managing expectations): QUALITY;
  2. encouraged to reflect on their own life histories and identity constructions and how this educational course fits into their own aspirations (developing personal leadership skills and a strong sense of self): CAPITAL (social, cultural, intellectual);
  3. trained to develop specific academic skills such as critical thinking, academic writing and debating (developing academic skills): CHANCES;
  4. guided to consider different strategies to deal with inevitable challenges (developing emotional, social and mental skills): DIRECTION.

An important part of the programme is the so-called Declaration: every student as well as every tutor group construct and perform in a declaration what kind of student or tutor group they will be during their study.

These four elements will result in a personal plan that helps individual students to set targets for themselves, reflect on progress (holistically) and contact the right staff members when issues arise. At the same time, this programme is integrated in a tutor trajectory during the first year, and thus the atmosphere, the social and academic connections (with peers, tutors and staff) and the multiple skills development are maintained throughout. This has led students to foster a growing sense of belonging to the department, have greater academic confidence and show higher performance rates. Simultaneously, preliminary evaluations show a possible downward trend in dropout rates among this group of participants, but it is too early to make tangible conclusions, as these students have not completed their first year yet.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

This programme is quite recent and is thus still in its pioneer stage, and each year the initiators seek funds from the department and institutional management. Data to support its legitimacy are therefore crucial (see 9.) This particular programme has not been replicated elsewhere, but there are a few similar programmes at other institutions in The Netherlands.

Summer programmes like PAP are not standard within the Dutch curriculum. So far the VU University Amsterdam and the Erasmus University Rotterdam have taken the initiative to start these programmes with the aim for students to be better prepared in enrolling successfully in the first year. Both programmes were based on a handbook “Een vliegende start” (“A Head Start”) developed by ECHO. The sources ECHO used to develop the handbook were inspired by examples of good practice from the US, for example the summer courses for 1st generation students at UCLA, Cal Tech and MIT.

Resources used in the initiative

The total budget is about K€45.000 (2014) annually. The Departments pay a certain amount and also make a form of commitment. The other part comes from a government fund, earmarked for this purpose. A very important part that is not funded concerns the management and coordination of the programme by the general administration, which is estimated at 150 hours. There are no volunteers involved.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

A qualitative evaluation was conducted both during and after the first summer course in 2013, and this data was triangulated with a quantitative impact assessment. The indicators for success were both qualitative (sense of belonging, academic skills, academic confidence, academic commitment, level of social interaction with peers, tutors and staff) and quantitative (fewer dropouts, improved performance rates and, eventually, higher retention rates). These data sets are still quite tentative as the surveys were done halfway through the first academic year. More data will be available at the end of this academic year (2013-2014). The data thus far show that the programme has contributed in particular to academic performance and social interaction (both with peers, tutors and staff). These are key elements of a sense of belonging and are expected to translate to higher retention and completion rates among these groups at the Law Department, hence the summer course is continued this year.

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