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TMA Extensions: myth busting, triage, and the effective use of the EAID at TMA01

Any sports fan knows that the athlete who falls down, writhing in agony, is likely to be just fine. The concern is for the one who falls down, and stays down, who is likely to be seriously injured. The triage rule, somewhat counter - intuitively instructs prioritising these quiet casualties. Like the still athlete, it is the quiet casualty who is likely to need urgent care. This is the opposite of the ‘squeaky wheel’ rule where those noisily demanding assistance, will get it first. 

This analogy applies to student retention and progression, when focusing on the effective use of extensions at TMA01. As tutors it is natural to attend to students who are requesting help so we may not notice that it is the quiet ones who are really struggling; who are in peril of not submitting TMAs and who may not progress. We tend to assume that if a student is quiet, they are fine. This is the first of many myths underpinning our perceptions of extensions and our students’ progress. 

Exploring the data on TMA 01 submission rates on W111 over five presentations reveals that students who are silent are not necessarily doing fine. The percentage of students who fail to submit TMA01 has steadily increased from 13% (21J) to 24.5% (24B).

This links to two further myths to explore: that students who do not submit TMA01 are not engaging, and that granting an extension is the solution to ensuring that students who have engaged submit their TMAs. The truth is, of course, far more complex. 

Data from the Virtual Learning Environment (Early Alert Indicator Dashboard tool) reveals that 21- 29% of students with extensions for TMA01 still do not submit.  Surprisingly, these students show a similar pattern of module engagement to those who do submit, albeit at a lower intensity.  Extensions clearly do not solve every problem of student engagement and progression.

Unsurprisingly, as the module progresses, we see engagement tapering off for these who do not submit, despite an extension. By the end of the module, these students have nearly ‘flatlined’ in their engagement levels.   These are the silent casualties; they need triaging.

What comes into sharp relief, is the question of why these students are not submitting even with extensions: are extensions truly effective in supporting retention and progress? 

Extensions can be a blunt tool in themselves.  One of the key points we have identified is the importance of tutors exploring with the student what support they need. This is based on the assumption that non-submission masks an underlying problem that may require more than an extension to resolve. Even better, would be to detect, diagnose and treat these students before TMA deadlines by regularly using the VLE/EAID. 

The key point for intervention would appear to be prior to TMA01, because as indicated, up to one third of students with extensions at this point still do not submit. This subgroup are less likely to submit subsequent TMAs; we have lost them. Of those who submit TMA01 with extensions, approximately half request further extensions to submit TMA02 and TMA03. Although their submission rates are low, these students are more likely to submit those TMAs than the students in this group who do not request further extensions to subsequent TMAs. 

Clearly, extensions can be helpful; we know that students who have extensions are overall more likely to complete the module.  However, in some cases, extensions are less helpful to struggling students, especially early on, and it may be akin to offering a ‘sticking plaster’ where the student actually needs intensive care.

Where VLE identifies students who are engaging but not at effective levels, the data suggests they need to be triaged prior to the TMA 01 deadline. These students could be rescued.

On W111 students are routinely offered an individual chat with their tutors around week 5 (3 weeks before TMA01 deadline).  Student uptake of these meetings is low.  We propose, as an early intervention, that tutors should use the VLE data to identify students who are engaging, but at lower-than-average levels, (rather than waiting until a student requests an extension or misses the deadline) and reach out to these students to explore whether there are any barriers to progress. We know from anecdotal tutor evidence that the issue can often be as simple as the student not knowing where to find the VLE, how to study effectively, or even feeling overwhelmed and scared by the idea of facing an assessment.

Sadly, in many cases barriers are more serious, such as waiting times for disability assessments. However, if the tutor can explore with the student not only extensions, but whether other referrals such as English for Academic Purposes or an Individual Support Session would be more appropriate, then there is a better chance of addressing any barriers to progress, before the student falls at the first hurdle.

We propose a further tutor intervention at Level 1, focusing on students who are still engaging but have not submitted TMA01 (rather than waiting for the automated MILLS intervention). At this point tutors can explore reasons for non –submission and whether a retroactive extension would be effective as part of a wider tailored, support package.

For these silent casualties, extensions are most effective as part of a wider progress support package. The effectiveness of triage is to identify the underlying issues and put appropriate support in place. The triaging has two benefits; first, more students with extensions will submit with fewer retroactive extensions being required. Secondly, if the student has an extension but does not submit, then other support can be explored.

Using our triage model the number of extensions may increase, as tutors engage with these ‘silent casualties’. If successful, submission rates and retention will correspondingly improve.  On W111 we will be trialling this process from 24J onwards, reporting our findings in due course.

Image Source Triage / Useful Notes - TV Tropes

Fred Motson

Dr. Wannette Van Eg Dom - Tuinstra

I teach Criminal Law (W111) and EU Law (W330) and have also worked at the OU Policy Research Clinic.

I am an engaged academic. Prior to teaching in higher education, I undertook human rights research and advocacy projects for a range of NGOs. I am also an Employment Mediator.

I had been working in distance learning higher education for some time when I applied to teach at the Open University, because I wanted to ‘up my game’- more students, even more diverse student body (including teaching Students in Secure Environments- so rewarding but challenging my teaching practice in new ways), teach Face to Face, bigger law school (biggest in Europe!), new modules…

Fred Motson

Bryony Gilbert  

Bryony has been an AL at the Law School since 2006, becoming a Student Experience Manager in 2021, focusing her effort on supporting our Level 1 students.