The Jigsaw of Student Success

The term 'student success' is widely used across HE with institutions interpreting it in their own way to fit their culture, systems or data (e.g. TEF, DHLE/LEO, NSS). There are a number of sector models of student success, each dissects the university and learning environment to understand essential components needed for student success. These models/frameworks serve as a useful starting point from which to evaluate institutional practice, ultimately they are idealistic but facilitate important discussions among teaching and learning practitioners and programme teams and senior leaders to debate where to deploy resources.

The JIGSAW model is perhaps no different to others but it draws on the insight gained from working with over 25 institutions across a two year period talking to key stakeholders at senior level, programme and professional service level and crucially from students who are living and breathing their studies and experience at their universities. Each of the elements emerged as essential ingredients that are core to supporting students throughout their studies.

Case Study - University of Huddersfield

One award winning example is the University of Huddersfield, Flying Start Project, led by Professor Christine Jarvis, PVC for Teaching and Learning, the project used data to identify courses with higher than average withdrawal rates. Project manger Cheryl Reynolds saw an opportunity to start fresh and change the narrative around student transitions into HE and the deficit thinking often associated with students being ill-prepared for study at university. The idea was to reframe that '...the University IS its students and everyone here belongs' (Reynolds 2018). The aim through the project was to establish positive and supportive relationships that will help students during times of challenge, they will know who and where to ask for help.

The evaluation of the project was built around Yorke's (2016) importance of 'belongingness' and showed that males on the programme scored higher than those who were not part of the FS project, thereby underlying the importance of the project. The evaluation of the project highlighted the importance of integrating social experiences into the academic environment, using simple but effective activities such as quizzes, debates campus orienteering, student generated blogs/vlogs as well as trips, fake news activities were considered by students to be 'both socially and intellectually engaging'. The outputs from the project have their roots in various pieces literature such as Tinto (1975, 1993) and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation What Works 1 and 2. The literature emphasises the need to enable students to meet others, make friendships and develop a connection to their studies through a sense of belonging but this can only happen if individuals feel included. Student populations are extremely diverse and complex, they bring together individuals from different backgrounds and so universities need to examine how they make their environments inclusive.

The key to 'Flying Start' starts with support from the leadership, enabling resources and setting the expectations and challenging the status quo. This is the central element of the JIGSAW model, the second 'What Works' student retention and success programme emphasised that support from senior leadership was essential to lead change identifying 4 key success criteria:

  1. Leadership at all levels, through building culture, institutional values, supporting change that improves student outcomes for everyone.

  2. Alignment of institutional policies and practices, ensuring policies are fit for purpose, shaping teaching and learning strategy

  3. Staff engagement, through investment in staff development, opportunities for research, changes in the routes for recognitions and promotion.

  4. Data, access to the right information in an accessible format and that staff can act on the data.

The next blogs from Retinent Ltd will explore in detail each piece of the JIGSAW model in more detail, looking at what students value most about their experience at university and looking at examples of good practice in the sector.


  • Reynolds, C. (2018) Beginning with hope: a flying start to university, Advance HE blog post, 18 Sept 2018.

  • Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Higher Education Funding Council, Higher Education Academy, Action on Access.

  • Thomas et al (2017) Supporting student success:strategies for institutional change What Works? Student Retention & Success programme

  • Tinto,V. (1975) "Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research" Review of Educational Research vol.45, pp.89-125.

  • Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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