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Attainment Support in HE

A low to high cost intervention, with very limited evidence that may suggest it has a positive impact.

Academic or learning development support in addition to that provided as part of programme tuition and supervision. This could be provided by academic or other learning staff, such as librarians. It might be available to all students or targeted at specific learner groups. This type of provision can take a variety of forms, and can encompass:

– Subject-specific support or more generic study skills

– Online resources or physical workshops/lessons

– Drop-in provision or scheduled sessions

– One-off or long-term support

– Voluntary or compulsory

Maths support centres have been a particular focus of study in the UK and Ireland over the past 15 years, and a large number of papers cover this type of attainment support.


Glasgow Caledonian University: School of Computing, Engineering & Built Environment Mathematics Summer School (MSS)

The Glasgow Caledonian Mathematics Summer School (MSS) provides a route for students articulating from the college sector and the workplace (part-time students) to the second and third year of degree programmes in the School of Computing, Engineering and Built Environment (SCEBE). The MSS is designed to support those whose SQA HN qualifications lack the advanced mathematics units that are necessary to meet the University’s entry requirements for articulation. These students receive conditional offers which require mandatory attendance and successful completion of the MSS. Additionally, students who meet the University’s entry requirements and hold unconditional offers  have the option to attend the MSS on a voluntary basis as do GCU’s continuing students.

The MSS runs on a full-time basis for two weeks in late August. It is delivered to three groups: Level 2 Engineering and Computer Games, Level 3 Engineering, and Level 3 Computing and Networking.

A typical day involves a mixture of lectures and tutorials delivered on campus between 10am and 4pm with a small number of students engaging with the MSS on a distance learning basis. Participants undertake a two-hour written exam on the final day of the MSS to assess their attainment. Currently, a mark of 40 percent, or more, is required to pass the MSS and articulate to degree programmes in SCEBE.

In the seven year period since 2012/13, over 350 students have successfully completed the MSS and progressed to their chosen degree programmes. Over one in eight of all articulating students attend the MSS and a fifth of attendees are from SIMD 20 postcodes. In addition to the associated administrative costs, the resource required to run the MSS is the equivalent of 26 days of a mathematics lecturer’s time charged at standard lecturer rate.

The MSS is an important and effective articulation mechanism that offers a significant number of students the opportunity and support to gain advanced entry to university. Wider evidence (Matthews, Croft and Lawson, 2012) suggests that students’ progression and retention is improved through engagement with mathematics support. At GCU, the MSS is one form of such support on offer.

For further information on the MSS see:


Matthews, J., Croft, T. and Lawson, D. (2012) Evaluation of Mathematics Support Centres: a Review of the Literature. Birmingham: The National HE STEM Programme.

Target Audiences

The majority of evidence included in this review evaluate programmes available to all students that wish to make use of it. However, a number of studies have identified those students considered at risk of withdrawal (usually based on prior academic attainment or diagnostic testing of entry level performance in a subject) and targeted these specific students to take up the support offered.

Two studies discussed programmes for students with a low socio-economic status, but in both cases, support is also provided to those outside this group. It should not be assumed that low socio-economic status students always need attainment support and others do not.

Evaluation evidence has tested the effectiveness of the intervention on the following target audiences:

– At risk of withdrawal

– Non-traditional students (by qualification type or background)

– Mature students

– Those studying particular subjects where a certain aspect (maths, science) may not be as strong as required on the course.


– Improved year one retention / progression rates

– Improved attainment in specific module / semester / end of year grade

How effective is it?

Most of the evidence reviewed suggests the intervention has a positive impact on outcomes, although some studies suggest no impact.

Most studies reviewed report a positive impact when measuring post-support attainment scores – two found no significant impact. The majority of level 2 studies compare the test scores of those who used the available support with those who did not. Although impacts cannot be attributed to the support provided, most of the studies reviewed found a greater improvement for intervention groups. The evidence also suggests that the support may be more effective for a) the most at-risk students who use it and b) those who use it the most often.

A smaller number of studies reviewed measure the impact of support on retention, and all report higher progression rates for those who access support than those who do not.

Feedback from students who access support is entirely positive with suggested improvements in self-reported confidence, ability and motivation.

Long-term outcomes have not been measured, so it is unclear from the evidence whether attainment support continues to positively impact retention and/or success beyond the period of time immediately following the programme.

What are the costs?

No information is provided on the cost of this intervention in the studies reviewed.

However, information contained in studies suggests that costs can range from low to high.

As the type of attainment support evaluated in these papers varies considerably, the cost of these programmes will be dependent on the content. Lower cost programmes could include online study resources, one-off workshops or integrating additional learning support into existing provision. Higher cost programmes could include extra compulsory modules, extended periods of support, individualised learning programmes and dedicated study centres such as Maths Support Centres.

How good is the current evidence?

The strength of evidence on the impact of this intervention is very limited.

12 individual level 2 studies and three individual level 1 studies. One review article synthesising the research of seven studies (six level 2, one level 1). None of the studies reviewed met the criteria for level 3.


How relevant is the evidence?

The majority of the individual studies (10 of 15) come from the UK and Ireland; 7 of these, including one Scottish paper, are level 2 studies. Three are from Australia and two are from the USA. The review article similarly covers studies in the UK, Ireland and Australia.

Overall, the evidence should be considered relevant to the Scottish context.

Things to consider

Attainment support programmes vary significantly in the type of support that can be included under this intervention heading. There has been a focus on the effectiveness of Maths Support Centres in the UK, Ireland and Australia; evidence for this specific type of academic support is consistently positive. Other types of attainment support, such as literacy skills or more generic study skills (referencing, finding information, time management, for example), have less evidence specific to this type of support.

Attainment support can also be offered as a package of student support that may include a variety of different programmes. Therefore it is difficult to isolate the impact of this particular provision.

Evidence on the effectiveness of Maths Support Centres in particular suggests that the voluntary nature of such provision leads to the assumption that those accessing the support are also those students who are most motivated to improve their maths ability. Those who do not access the support, and who are deemed ‘at risk’ of academic failure or drop-out, do not provide a robust comparison group.

Several studies discuss the diagnostic measures used to identify those students considered ‘at risk’ of withdrawal or academic failure and therefore likely to benefit the most from attainment support programmes. These discussions will be of use to universities targeting attainment support, and could be further strengthened by continuing reflection and evaluation of the reliability of these tools.

Further Research Recommended

Level 3 studies in the UK context. Because of the nature of student support services being available to all, there is no evidence that directly attributes improvements in grades or retention rates to the attainment support accessed. Level 3 studies would isolate this support and compare outcomes to a well matched control group, which would considerably strengthen the promising but limited evidence base in this area.

There has been minimal research conducted on the potential impact of attainment support on particular target groups. Where these programmes are targeted at specific ‘at-risk’ groups, robust evaluations should be carried out to examine their effectiveness for these groups in particular.

Research should also measure the long term impact of support programmes on attainment and retention. There is no evidence to help to understand whether retention rates or improvements in attainment continue beyond the year (usually year one) in which support is offered and accessed.

Further Information

For a synthesis and review of evidence on mathmatics support centres see this literature review by Matthews et al. (2013).


Level 2

Bailey, P., Derbyshire, J., Harding, A., Middleton, A., Rayson, K. and Syson, L. (2007) ‘Assessing the impact of a study skills programme on the academic development of nursing diploma students at Northumbria University, UK’. Health Information and Libraries Journal Vol. 24 (1) pp. 77 – 85.

Berry, E., Mac An Bhaird, C. and O’Shea, A. (2015). ‘Investigating relationships between the usage of Mathematics Learning Support and performance of at-risk students’. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications: An International Journal of the IMA Vol. 34 (4), pp.194–204.

Braunstein, A.W., Lesser, M. H. and Pescatrice, D. R. (2008). ‘The Impact of a Program for the Disadvantaged on Student Retention’. College Student Journal Vol. 42(1), pp. 36-40.

Breen, C., Prendergast, M. and Carr, M. (2015). ‘Investigating the engagement of mature students with mathematics learning support’. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications: An International Journal of the IMA, Vol. 34 (1), pp.16–25.

Hale, A. and Reading, J. (2016) ‘When the personal enables the independent: taking the library to the students’. Australian Academic & Research Libraries Vol. 47 (1), pp. 3-17.

Gallimore, M. and Stewart, J. (2012). ‘Bridging the gap: a novel approach to mathematics support’. Presentation at CETL-MSOR Conference, 12-13 July 2012, University of Sheffield.

Jacob, M. and Ní Fhloinn, E. (2018). ‘A quantitative, longitudinal analysis of the impact of mathematics support in an Irish university’. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications: An International Journal of the IMA Vol 00, pp. 1–14.

Nelson, K. J., Quinn, C., Marrington, A. and Clarke, J. A. (2012). ‘Good practice for enhancing the engagement and success of commencing students’. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning Vol. 63(1), pp.83-96.

Patel, C. and Little, J. (2006). ‘Measuring maths study support’. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications.

Schaffer, S., Doggrell, S. A. and Polkinghorne, A. (2013). Continuing success of a strategy to support accelerated nursing students at two diverse campuses.

van Veggel, N. and Amory, J. (2014). ‘The impact of maths support tutorials on mathematics confidence and academic performance in a cohort of HE Animal Science students’. PeerJ2:e463;

Wernersbach, B. M., Crowley, S.L., Bates, S. C. and Rosenthal, C. (2014). ‘Study skills course impact on academic self-efficacy’. Journal of Developmental Education, Vol.37 (3), pp.14-33.


Level 1

Linehan, K. (2006) ‘Bread and butter: A lunchtime workshop to develop mature students’ fundamental learning skills’ cited in Cook, A., Macintosh, K. A. and Rushton, B. S. (ed)  The STAR (Student Transition and Retention) Project, Supporting Students: Tutorial Support. Northern Ireland: University of Ulster

Ní Fhloinn, E., Fitzmaurice, O., Mac an Bhaird, C. and O’Sullivan, C. (2014). ‘Student perception of the impact of mathematics support in higher education’. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology Vol. 45 (7), pp. 953-967.

Robertson, A. (2010). ‘Using the university’s VLE to provide information support for midwifery students at the University of Bedfordshire’. New Review of Academic Librarianship Vol.16 (1), pp.87-101.

Matthews, J., Croft, T., Lawson, D. and Waller, D. (2013). ‘Evaluation of mathematics support centres: a literature review’. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications: An International Journal of the IMA, Vol. 32 (4), pp. 173–190.