Bridging the gaps

What can educators and their institutions do to close the worrying gap in attainment between different groups of students in STEM?

September 5th 2022 

In 2017-2018, 80.9% of white students were given a first or 2:1, compared to 67% in racially minoritised students. This proportional difference between one group receiving a ‘good degree’ (i.e. a first or 2:1) compared with another is known as the awarding gap, previously referred to as the attainment gap.

In UK Higher Education (HE), this is mainly discussed in relation to the ethnicity awarding gap, but research over the past seven years has identified statistically significant awarding gaps not only in racially minoritised groups but in other groups, such as mature students, and the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately damaged the education of disadvantaged students.

Despite work to address these issues, at the current rate of change it will be 2070-71 before the white-BAME awarding gap will close, and 2085-86 before the white-black awarding gap will close, according to Gary Loke, director of knowledge, innovation and delivery at Advance HE. These startling figures demonstrate the extent of the awarding gap and emphasise the urgent work required to reduce it.

The causes of awarding gaps are non-linear and complex. However, comparison with school performance suggest that ethnicity awarding gaps are a product of the university environment rather than the entire education pathway. This is supported by data from the Office for Students showing that when other factors such as students’ age, sex, course and qualifications on entry are taken into account, a difference in degree outcome still persists between ethnic groups. As the differences in outcomes cannot be explained by common factors, it suggests that the underlying cause may be factors associated with institutional structures and curriculum.

Students affected by awarding gaps are at a disadvantage as soon as they enter HE[1,2]. While it is accepted that students come from diverse backgrounds, the importance of their societal, economic, and cultural capital is often underestimated[3]. To compound this, once enrolled, many students feel they do not belong[4] and do not see themselves reflected in the faculty or curriculum. These factors contribute to retention issues[5], disengagement with studies, and ultimately in an awarding gap[1]. A “stereotype threat” exists, where negative perceptions about students from particular communities cause them to fail.

AwardingGap1Awarding gaps arise due to a range of factors, including certain students feeling unrepresented or 'not belonging' when arriving at university. 

In a bid to address and reduce the awarding gap, Universities UK and the National Union of Students recommends five steps: strong university leadership, conversations about race and racism, supporting racially diverse and inclusive environments, obtaining and analysing data and finally understanding what works. It is imperative that institutions interrogate their own data, since different universities attract different student demographics. To derive meaningful data to inform impactful changes, in-depth analyses should be conducted[6] to identify which practices need altering and which are working for a given student cohort.

As educators, we can take steps towards reducing the awarding gap within our classes and cohorts. One immediate action which will have an impact is committing to building an inclusive learning environment as student-centred approaches that foster a sense of belonging for learners are at the core of eliminating awarding gaps. Resources such as the Inclusive Curriculum Framework and self-evaluation tools can provide prompts for reflection and examples of good practice. The saying that ‘knowledge is power’ is true within the context of the awarding gap; by evaluating how awarding gaps exist in one’s local context, by collating and analysing both quantitative and qualitative data, groups of students who are impacted will be identified and explanations might be found as to why these awarding gaps exist.

RSB workshop

At the recent workshop ‘The Awarding Gap in Biosciences - How can we close it?’, organised by the Bioscience Awarding Gap (BAG) Network and the ECLBio group, a range of HE colleagues showcased the inclusive practices within their own disciplines seeking to bridge awarding gaps. Others shared their own lived experience navigating HE as racially minoritised students, such as Daybe Beccano-Kelly (Cardiff University), who spoke of the importance of visibility, a sense of belonging, and being given opportunities to travel abroad to well-established labs.

“Whilst I have had numerous mentors in the form of supervisors and senior members of staff who have supported and nurtured my progression through the field, a lack of senior black group leaders has been noticeable,” Beccano-Kelly said in a keynote address. “It is important to note that while I did receive important support which has shaped my progress and development, seeing individuals who represent my ethnicity in these roles would have had a directly positive impact on me… providing empirical evidence that a direct path to the career I desired was possible.”

Awarding gaps are reflections of assessment results, which themselves can be influenced by assessment design, and many institutions have now committed to more inclusive assessment. Clear assessment instructions and transparent marking criteria make assessments accessible to students of different cultural backgrounds. This was well-illustrated by an introductory biology course aimed at undergraduate students enrolled in the University of Washington’s Educational Opportunity Program, where awarding gaps were reduced with an assessment strategy involving regular in-class questions and weekly, peer-graded practice exams[7].

Louise Cramer (UCL), speaking at the workshop, further demonstrated that invigilated exams in a Cell Biology programme contributed more to narrowing the BAME/White awarding gap than coursework [8]. Another key bioscience assessment is the final-year research project, and Dave Lewis and Charlotte Haigh (University of Leeds) described how the diversity of capstone project formats can help students from different demographics showcase their particular knowledge and skills in their own way.

Involving students

‘Co-creation’ addresses the need for the development of good practice that involves both educators and students[9] within which authentic learning can flourish and which can help narrow or remove awarding gaps. At the forefront of co-creation communities are diverse student bodies bringing their prior experiences, knowledge, skills and backgrounds to prominence.

Nick Freestone (Kingston) detailed a study where first-year students researched and wrote biographies of scientists from their own communities, which were then presented as infographic case studies in final year undergraduate projects and Master’s projects. This allowed for the development of links within the course while providing students with role models who looked like themselves and enabling the students to explicitly “see themselves” in the curricula. Tara Keck and Charmian Dawson (UCL) showed that student co-creation, where students produced student-facing material reflecting their own HE experiences, positively supported BAME student transition by contributing to the newly enrolled students’ sense of belonging. Arguments could be made for fuller student engagement in assessment design too.

The positive role of mentorship in supporting academic career progression is also widely accepted, with mentoring identified as a mechanism to assist early career academic development[10] and address diversity gaps[11]. The impact of mentorship on addressing awarding gaps within the student body is an area of HEI focus, with visible role models and support networks known to improve student retention and success[12]. Using final-year peer mentors in STEM has been shown to address awarding gaps in first year students and led to a peer network between mentees as well as between mentors and mentees[13].

AwardingGap mainCould involving more students in assesment design help close awarding gaps? 

Joining up efforts

Last but not least, networks like the the BAG Network promote the discussion and adoption of practices shown to reduce awarding gaps in the Biosciences through an online library of resources and through regular events. Joining and engaging these networks can help provide new ideas and support networks for you and your colleagues.

Now more than ever, HE needs to address awarding gaps within their programmes. This can be achieved through the review and transformation of teaching and learning, including curriculum design, content, pedagogies, and assessments; ensuring inclusive and accessible learning for all students to actively engage with. Being proactive is the only way for us to move from inequality within education to equity and justice.

This article was co-wrriten by Adesewa Adebisi, Amara Anyogu, Nick Freestone, Gillian Knight, Aranee Manoharan, James McEvoy, Prachi Stafford on behalf of The Bioscience Awarding Gap (BAG) Network Steering Group

All talks delivered at the workshop can be accessed via Advance HE if your institution is a member of HUBS.

1. Stevenson, J. et al. Understanding and overcoming the challenges of targeting students from under-represented and disadvantaged ethnic backgrounds. Report to the Office for Students (2019). 
2. Thomas, L., & Quinn, J. First generation entry into higher education. McGraw-Hill Education, UK, (2006). 
3. Mishra, S. Social networks, social capital, social support and academic success in higher education: A systematic review with a special focus on ‘underrepresented’ students. Educational Research Review 29, 100307 (2020).
4. Gao, F., & Liu, H. C. Y.  Guests in someone else’s house? Sense of belonging among ethnic minority students in a Hong Kong university. British Educational Research Journal, 47(4), 1004-1020.
5. Yorke, M., & Thomas, L. (2003). Improving the retention of students from lower socio-economic groups. Journal of higher education policy and management, 25(1), 63-74 (2021). 
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7. Haak, D. C. et al. Increased Course Structure Improves Performance in Introductory Biology. Science 332, 1213-1216 (2011).
8. Cramer, L. Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Alternative strategies for closing the award gap between white and minority ethnic students. Elife 10, e58971 (2021).
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10. Iversen, A.C., Eady, N.A. & Wessely, S.C. The role of mentoring in academic career progression: a cross-sectional survey of the Academy of Medical Sciences mentoring scheme. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 107(8), pp.308-317 (2014). 
11. Rockinson-Szapkiw, A., Wendt, J.L. and Stephen, J.S. The efficacy of a blended peer mentoring experience for racial and ethnic minority women in STEM pilot study: Academic, professional, and psychosocial outcomes for mentors and mentees. Journal for STEM Education Research 4(2), p173-193 (2021).
12. Underwood, G. and Conrad, F., 2021. Diversity in Design: Addressing the black awarding gap. In DS 110: Proceedings of the 23rd International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education (E&PDE 2021), VIA Design, VIA University in Herning, Denmark. 9th-10th September 2021.
13. Knight, G., Powell, N. & Woods, G., Combining diagnostic testing and student mentorship to increase engagement and progression of first-year computer science students. European Journal of Engineering Education, p1-13 (2022).