Ben recounts his experience on placement at the University of Sheffield's Widening Participation Research and Evaluation Unit (WPREU).

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About the placement

This has involved me working with new colleagues to collate a suitable dataset covering 2016 to 2018 and then exploring this to produce an updated report. The team is a small group of seven who all work closely both in space with all members being in the same office, but also in communication with thoughts and queries constantly being shared. Through this group I have been helped to settle into this working environment through not only work-related support but also occasional team activities such as going for lunch.

A key appeal of this placement was the usefulness it will have in the development of my skills analysing data due to using real-life datasets that I can directly relate to unlike in any research project conducted for university courses. The feeling that I may have an impact on implementing positive changes was another reason and something else I will look at, whether an encouraging effect was had the last time this report was produced. The exploration of this new data has required, and therefore given me the opportunity to, improve my skills using SPSS which before now I had only used sparsely and for very basic analysis. So far I have managed to combine this with my higher level of understanding of R studio to produce both tables and graphs visualising the trends or patterns shown by the data.

Placement research

After completing my replication of the previous project I expect to look for findings of my own through further analysis and also to work with other members of the department to construct regression models in an attempt to explain the differences in attainment scores between particular demographics especially focusing on the problem of the BME attainment gap.

As my time on the placement goes on, I become more pleased with my choice due to feeling more relaxed, confident and engaged in the project. This time has allowed me to successfully complete my replication of the process followed three years ago and therefore make comparisons and view any changes that have taken place. The main conclusion that can be drawn when observing the data as a whole is the persistence of the BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) attainment gap which, despite fluctuating in size over the recent years was recorded as white students on average achieving 10.2% more 1sts or 2:1s in 2018.

I have learned how to construct a report which will be used in the real world, unlike anything I have done before"


WPREU intern

Due to the problem being as noticeable as previously the same steps were taken to rule out other variables from being the causal factor that provided this variation in grades. The areas tested were prior attainment, socioeconomic background and then a between faculty comparison. After plotting these results, it was apparent that these could not be identified as the root effectors in the attainment gap due to the continuing lower percentages for BME students throughout, not the crossover that would have been needed.

In an attempt to progress this research, I decided to test a different measure of socioeconomic status’ effect on the grades of varying ethnicities. For this I used the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) which rank 33,000 areas in England from most to least deprived. Despite once again finding that the gap remained, an interesting discovery was made that the mean IMD score and % of 1st or 2:1 grades follow a similar pattern when subset by ethnicity.

The progression of this research will be to move onto regressions which will hopefully give a more detailed view of the degree of impact that certain variables have on grades rather than just inspecting graphs and percentages.

Placement outcomes

This placement has been useful for what it has taught me in a variety of ways. At the core of the project I have learned how to construct a report which will be used in the real world, unlike anything I have done before, but I have learnt about the huge efforts that go on behind the scenes at the University of Sheffield.

Working with WPREU has shown that significant actions are attempting to not only help students from a range of backgrounds attend the University but also once they arrive take steps to improve their experience. My practical skills have been developed through this process as well with both SPSS and R Studio being needed for the analysis and visualisations respectively. The practice and problem solving have furthered my ability on these programmes which will undoubtedly be of great use for University work.

Further research needs to be planned which will test a wider range of variables to find the root of the problem"


WPREU intern

The main purpose of my study was to investigate whether the same conclusion would be drawn as in the report that had been conducted three years previous and after finalising my research it was clear that there were no changes of note, the BME attainment gap was still an issue. After conducting the same procedure of controlling for alternative variables the gap remained, providing the same message that it could not be explained by prior attainment or socioeconomic factors.

Comparisons between the five faculties also did not show any signs of the gap not being a problem, despite there being varying levels of its extremity. Further research needs to be planned which will test a wider range of variables to find the route of the problem however these may be more difficult to collect mass data as they have ambiguous interpretations such as personal target grades, hours spent on revision or ambition based on personal job prospects.

New data was processed that showed the gap remained in courses where the top grade was a pass with honours. The final days of the placement are being spent preparing a presentation of my findings which will then be shown to staff members from various departments around the University and hopefully result in some actions being taken to address the issue. 

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