Exploring attainment differentials and the role of curriculum

Considering the role of learning and teaching in student attainment and outcomes links to all of our curriculum principles, notably support the needs of all learners and articulate a course-wide approach to learning.
Curriculum development is explicitly connected to attainment differentials; its role and our institutional commitments to addressing undergraduate Home UK attainment are outlined in our Access and Participation Plan. English universities are heavily regulated in terms of undergraduate Home UK attainment differentials, though it is important not to lose sight of undergraduate international student attainment and of attainment at PGT level.

How are attainment differentials and curriculum linked?

There is an explicit evidenced link between students’ degree outcomes and curriculum. Where students of particular identities or demographics may be performing differently, research points to underpinning factors within learning and teaching for these disparities. A critical review undertaken by HEFCE identified four key explanatory factors for attainment differentials:

  1. Curricula and learning, including teaching and assessment practices: Different student groups have different levels of satisfaction with the higher education curricula and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  2. Relationships between staff and students and relationships among students: A sense of ‘belonging’ is a key factor that influences student outcomes.
  3. Social, cultural and economic capital: There are recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and engagement with learning and extra-curricular activities.
  4. Psychosocial and identity factors: How far students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their organisations and with staff members is important. Such interactions can both help and limit students’ learning and attainment.

Starting points

Starting points might include:
  • Looking at the four areas above, your course can take particular action in relation to 1,2 and 4, whilst being aware of 3.
  • Return to your Phase 1 stakeholder data where it involved reflection on degree outcomes; which areas did you or your students identify as needing attention and has your analysis pointed to explanatory factors in your local context, e.g. did you look at assessment and outcomes?
  • Review your NSS data (preferably with students) and identify your hotspot areas.
  • Consider your approach to transition and improving the sense of belonging or learning community, including the role of peer-to-peer approaches such as Peer-assisted learning. Find out more on the Transitions page.
Examples from Bath:
  • Civil Engineering’s Phase 1 Curriculum Transformation evidence shows their full lifecycle approach to supporting the needs of all learners, including careful consideration of attainment differentials; they want to look at cultural awareness development and global outlook, have made links between assessment/outcomes data and between academic progression/outcomes and entry qualifications, and have made an explicit commitment to reviewing entry requirements.
  • Maths incorporated discussions about attainment differentials into their Phase 2/3 curriculum design workshop as part of Curriculum Transformation. Their departmental chair of Equality and Diversity committee, their Outreach Officer and the CLT’s Curriculum Development Officer (Inclusion) proposed actions that link curriculum with attainment.

Further resources and support

The Curriculum Development Officer (Inclusion) can support with:

    • Planning and running a workshop with your department to explore attainment differentials and the role of curriculum.
    • Working out what can be achieved in different phases of curriculum development.
    • Making and displaying commitments to show join up between key areas for change.
    • Signposting to internal and external resources in this area, including practical strategies for learning and teaching.
    • Discussing how to incorporate the lived experience of your students, being mindful of the burden that can be placed on our underrepresented groups.
    • Identifying opportunities to join up approaches to attainment differentials with schools engagement, outreach, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, and transition initiatives.

Please contact us if you have expertise in this area or if you have research or practical solutions you would like to share.

Dr Eleanor Parker

Eleanor is part of the Curriculum Development team addressing a wide range of teaching and learning issues across the institution, focusing on inclusion.

Contact Eleanor

Practical resources to explore attainment differentials:
  • Curriculum delivery and design are identified in research by UUK, ‘Closing the Gap’, as two key contributing factors to the ethnicity attainment gap (based on institutional responses). Read case-studies of interventions to address inequalities in BAME vs. White student attainment from UK institutions.
  • The Office for Students funded research on Active Collaborative Learning for Student Success to scale up active, collaborative learning across three institutions in an effort to improve student success and address unexplained attainment gaps (the specific impact on attainment differentials is on pp.21-33).

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