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CLeaR Fellows 2015 – Angela Tsai

A multi-pronged approach to enhancing student engagement and achievement

Angela TsaiAngela is a Professional Teaching Fellow in the School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. A PGCert in Academic Practice graduate, Angela looks forward to advancing the action research work she started during her ACADPRAC 701 studies, which takes an integrative approach toward enhancing student engagement and attainment, by examining the alignment between curriculum design, learning and teaching activities, and assessment practices. She is particularly interested in the ‘average’ and ‘at-risk’ students, as well as those who struggle with the first-year transition / returning to study experience.

Summary of CLeaR Fellowship activities

As the coordinator of a second semester, large (approximately 1,200 students) fundamental human biology course (MEDSCI 142 – Biology for Biomedical Science: Organ Systems), I observe that for many students the transition to first-year tertiary study is a challenge academically, socially and culturally. Our students present different abilities, skills, and levels of readiness (e.g. academic and social skills). They bring different attitudes, values and knowledge about learning (e.g. goals, commitments, motivations and expectations). The attributes of our learners are increasingly diverse (e.g. age, gender, socioeconomic background, ethnicity, and special learning needs), and learners have different levels of engagement with external commitments (e.g. family, work, community and co-curricular interests) (Tinto & Pusser, 2006). As students learn to adjust to new learning and living environments, they are expected to simultaneously navigate complex institutional administrative processes and pursue their academic endeavour.

And so, to address the Fellowship theme, I undertook four interconnected projects on academic support, feedback processes, clarifying academic expectations, and increasing student involvement. To do so, I collaborated with academic and professional staff across the University to help students overcome barriers to learning and further foster institutional conditions for student success (Tinto & Pusser, 2006; Tinto, 2010).


A. Personalising and contextualising academic support

Support is most effective when it is connected to the environment and context in which students are asked to learn (Tinto & Pusser, 2006). Although the University’s student support infrastructure offers workshops on study skills, writing skills and exam techniques, these sessions are frequently very generic in design in order to cater for a broad spectrum of attendees who are studying a diverse range of disciplines. As such, the connection between the workshops and a student’s courses tends to favour a focus on episodic assessment tasks (e.g. written assignments and test/exams). I saw a potential for academic support to more explicitly connect with the learning and teaching activities and resources embedded in courses. This would create additional and semester-long opportunities for students to practise perfecting their academic skills in the context of the student’s enrolled courses.

There are tools to assess learning strategies and study skills which are also becoming increasingly popular and accessible to instructors and students. Tools such as the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (Weinstein, Acee & Palmer, 2016) or the College Level Study Skills Inventory (Congos, 2015) are helpful in the initial diagnosis of broad-stroke skill deficits (e.g. concentration, time management, etc.). However, such tools stop short of showing students how they may overcome their learning challenges – at least not through making connections to a learning context that is transparently relevant to the student.

Thus, in the first project, I explored how MEDSCI 142 students may learn to approach engaging with the embedded teaching and learning activities and associated resources in a way that fosters their development of self-regulation and self-monitoring skills and to improve their learning. To investigate this, I undertook face-to-face discussions with students (referred to as ‘Personalised Academic Interventions’), which were offered to all the students of MEDSCI 142 at the start of the semester. Students entering this second-semester course with a Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3 or lower (C+ or below) from their Semester One studies were sent personalised email invitations.

Each discussion lasted about 30 minutes and began with asking the student to reflect and nominate the learning challenges they wished to target. For example, “I run out of time to study before tests (I cram)”, or “I think I understand/know things, but can’t get them out in the test”. The conversation showed the student how the teaching and learning activities and course resources could be used strategically to help them overcome the challenges they specified. To continue with more examples, the student could use the post-class exercises to develop a habit of regular revision; or they could contribute their proposed solutions – or other thoughts and questions arising from doing the exercises – anonymously on the class discussion forum as a non-threatening way of practising to articulate, express and ascertain the accuracy of their understanding. The course coordinator took an electronic copy of the written notes that were co-developed with the student during the session as a baseline for future discussions and/or to track learner progress while the student keeps the original (hard copy) as a reminder and reference.

In essence, the conversation aims to increase learner awareness of the implicit educational purposes behind the designs of seemingly ‘routine’ teaching and learning activities and course resources. The learner is shown the intended impact on learning that follows purposeful engagement and is empowered to take control and ownership of how they choose to engage.

In 2015, 118 students took up the offer of a Personalised Academic Intervention (approximately 10% of enrolled students). On one occasion I facilitated 50 Māori and Pacific Island Admissions Scheme (MAPAS) students in a group tutorial setting. There was initially some concern that students who did not need help (‘the worried well’) might self-select to participate; this perception proved unfounded, as the average GPA on entry to the course of participants was lower than non-participants (3.28 versus 5.18), signalling that participants were on average weaker students than non-participants.

While it is expected that this intervention will enhance the student’s learning experience and have a positive impact on student achievement, it is difficult to assess its effects on learning outcomes. Confounders and limitations are inherent in uncontrolled studies such as this one (self-selection, non-independence, etc.). The long-term impact of the intervention on the learner and their learning outcomes may also only become visible much later on in their future study journey, since changing study approaches and habits/routines are a significant challenge and take time. Nevertheless, Figure 1 (which shows the final marks of GPA-matched participating and non-participating student counterparts) indicates that more refined analysis (for example, through partitioning the data based on GPA bands to account for participants being weaker students by nature) may help to surface less obvious trends and inform the design of future iterations of this intervention.

Figure 1: Students’ GPA on entry to the course and their final mark at the end of the course. Participants: n=118 (10.2% of cohort); average S1GPA = 3.28; average final mark = 50.52%. Non-participants n=1042; average S1GPA = 5.18; average final mark = 64.13%

A plot with final mark on the y axis and grade point average on the x axis. Two coloured lines indicate participants and non-participants. Both lines trend upwards at an almost identical rate and cross over each other three times. The GPA starts at 0 where the final mark is 25 for participants and around 29 for non-participants. The GPA plot ends at around 9 where the participants' final score is around 91 and the non-participants final score is around 92.

Despite the absence of clear quantitative evidence of a positive impact on the final mark, the immediate rewards include enhanced teacher-student relationships, promotion of distributed learning (versus mass cramming) practice and elevated metacognitive awareness: influences that have a positive effect on student learning outcomes (Hattie, 2009). Students report enhanced awareness of when they are defaulting to cognitively passive learning behaviours, and developing the ability to practise cognitively active learning behaviours (Stanger-Hall, 2012). Students also expressed they feel more ‘positive’, ‘confident’ and ‘free to enjoy’ [the learning].

A single 30-minute meeting is unlikely to have a lasting effect; on-going reinforcement will likely be required throughout a student’s university journey. I have made connections with Student Learning Advisors with the intention of establishing a partnership and a potential source of on-going reinforcement. Advisors may find elements of this tool useful in their current practice; also, through the Advisors’ interactions with other Course Coordinators, this approach may be modified to aid students in other courses and learning contexts.


B. Promoting effective feedback practices

In addition to the known educational benefits, receiving timely and regular feedback is a key factor in students’ perception and experience of a course as being ‘well-organised’. The project focused on broadening the dissemination of existing feedback practices that are considered routine in some parts of the University. For example:

  • a) Promoting the use of MCQ Results to provide timely, personalised feedback on offline multiple-choice question (MCQ) tests to students.
    MCQ Results allows staff to enter tailored descriptions or learning points for each question (thus preserving the question bank), and then to email the results to students so that they know which areas of the test they were weak in. The feedback also indicates the percentage of the class who correctly answered each question, which enables students to more accurately diagnose and reflect on their test performance (e.g. if other students also found a question difficult, or if the student read the question too quickly).
  • b) Promoting the use of OMR Remark. OMR stands for ‘Optical Mark Recognition’, and is a system where scanning of marked up test/exam scripts or markers’ rubrics can be used to reduce the time and errors involved in collating marks and to efficiently facilitate the return of marked scripts to individual students as feedback. To find out more about this tool, please see my entry on the Business School’s Learning Exchange blog (Tsai, 2015).

In the June 2015 meeting, the Teaching and Learning Quality Committee identified a general need for students to recognise and use the feedback they are provided. In addition to using assessment-related feedback to guide their study, MEDSCI 142 students also reported using instructor-endorsed comments and interactions (e.g. on discussion forums) to track their progress and understanding of the subject. Explanations provided by other students were a powerful and useful peer-teaching and peer-learning resource, empowering students to become co-constructors of their understanding. I continue to explore various ways both formal and informal feedback can be provided to (and used by) students to foster higher-level thinking skills and facilitate learning.


C. Making academic expectations clearer

The third project is still in progress. It arose from conversations with a subset of Bachelor of Science students (namely Pharmacology and Physiology majors), whose degrees are co-taught by the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. While discussing the issue of academic preparedness and how we might go about making academic expectations clearer for incoming students, these students helped us to identify an oversight in the organisation that ultimately resulted in the inter-faculty students missing out on the academic information sessions. This realisation echoed an area surfaced in the 2015 Colmar Brunton survey of students’ transition to university life: students also felt they would benefit from more exposure to early academic advice and guidance to managing their academic workloads (University of Auckland, 2015).

Academic colleagues and professional staff from the Student Engagement teams at Campus Life and the Faculty of Science Student Centre, together with year 2 and 3 inter-faculty students, are working to ensure the 2016 Orientation includes the inter-faculty students. We also plan to offer clearer guidance regarding academic expectations and preparation using courses in these inter-faculty programmes as context.


D. Involving students

Involvement is a condition for student success; when the student has a strong connection with their learning environment, they are more likely to persist and excel in their pursuit (Tinto and Pusser, 2006). Involving Year 2 and 3 students as ‘academic advisors’ in the 2016 Orientation event is a simple way of fostering connectedness with the institution. Students will be asked to share their insights with incoming first-year students, as well as to answer impromptu questions from the floor. The dialogue will be filmed and made accessible to students through the university’s Online Orientation module.

Working with colleagues from Campus Life and the First Year Experience and Innovative Learning Teams from the Business School, we have also created short 3-minute videos of current students from across the University, sharing their insights/advice on a range of topics:

  • Time-management: practical tips/apps/strategies used
  • Making the most of their time (clubs, societies, volunteering, careers events)
  • Being honest with yourself about preferences for courses/choices
  • Using Piazza and office hours for clarification
  • Balancing studies with pastimes/downtime
  • Seeking help from relevant places
  • How to handle threshold concepts
  • Reading strategies
  • Lecture tips
  • Doing a little every day/forward-planning
  • Dealing with drafts/feedback
  • Integrating with new peers
  • Not choosing the ‘wrong’ specialisation too early
  • Financial management
  • Balancing work and studies
  • Focusing on self-development

These videos will add to the existing pool for the Online Orientation and will also be made available to Faculty Student Centres for wider use.


Concluding remarks

The first year is where students begin to acquire the academic skills, literacies and develop positive patterns and habits of study that are necessary for them to be successful and independent learners in subsequent years of undergraduate studies and future professional practice (Kift, 2015). In addition to the joy of being able to invest in my students, it was particularly rewarding to work with academic and professional staff from other parts of the University toward achieving the common goal of enhancing student engagement and achievement.

I would like to thank Professor Helen Sword, Associate Professors Mark Barrow and Roger Booth for their nomination and encouragement throughout my CLeaR Fellowship. It would not have been possible to pursue the projects outlined in this report without their support.



Congos, D. H. (n.d.). Study Skills Inventory. Retrieved 22 December 2015 from
Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. NY: Routledge.
Kift, S. (2015). A decade of Transition Pedagogy: A quantum leap in conceptualising the first year experience. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 2, pp. 51-86.
Stanger-Hall, K. F. (2012). Multiple-choice exams: an obstacle for higher-level thinking in introductory science classes. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 11, 294-306. doi: 10.1187/cbe.11-11-0100
Tinto, V. and Pusser, B. (2006). Moving from theory to action: Building a model of institutional action for student success. Washington, D.C: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, Department of Education.
Tinto, V. (2010). From theory to action: Exploring the institutional conditions for student retention. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, (pp. 51-89). Netherlands: Springer.
Tsai, A. (2015, Nov. 15). Two reasons to consider automated marking [Blog post]. Retrieved from
University of Auckland Campus Life. (2015). Transition into university life. Auckland, New Zealand: Colmar Brunton. [Internal report; link not available]
Weinstein, C. E., Acee, T. and Palmer, D. (2016). Learning and study strategies inventory. (3rd ed.). Retrieved 22 December 2015 from