GLOBAL: Improving student retention

As a key performance indicator in university quality assurance processes, the retention of students in their studies is an issue of concern worldwide. Implicit in the process of quality assurance is quality improvement. In an article titled "Improving student retention in higher education", published in the latest edition of Australian Universities' Review, authors Glenda Crosling, Margaret Heagney and Liz Thomas examine student retention from a teaching and learning perspective, in terms of approaches that have an impact on students' decisions to continue with or withdraw from their studies. Ways are discussed in which student engagement can be facilitated through teaching and learning programmes.

The authors point out, in conclusion, that the collection of statistical data on student retention is alone limited in its impact on educational quality improvement, which is implicit in quality assurance objectives. One way to improve quality in regard to student retention is to identify influences and causes of student retention and attrition. Engaging students in their studies has been identified as important in retaining students and stemming attrition. Institutions have shared responsibility to facilitate student engagement.

Various teaching and learning approaches to encourage students to engage with their studies and their institutions are surveyed in the article, and they include:

* Early engagement through pre- and post-entry induction activities.
* Greater understanding of the diversity of students, including where they have come from, what they are interested in and their aspirations. This in turn can inform the organisation of programme and curricular contents.
* Authentic and relevant curricula, building on students' previous experiences, interests and future aspirations, and using inclusive language and relevant examples.
* Student-centred active learning designed to involve students in the learning process.
* Integration of study skills to support the success of all students, and assisting students to access other support services as necessary.
* Formative feedback which is relevant and integrated into the learning experience in a timely and constructive way.

There are many reasons why students leave higher education early, some of which may not be wholly negative, but there are usually financial implications for withdrawing students and their may be other personal consequences, the authors point out.

Similarly, there are pecuniary and reputational implications for institutions. Some reasons why students leave are beyond the control of institutions, but the organisation and delivery of the curriculum is an area over which universities and colleges have significant autonomy. Addressing student retention via learning, teaching and curricular developments has the advantage of meeting the needs of all students - not just those either identified as at risk, or who proactively seek additional support.

In the context of equality and diversity legislation, the requirement for institutions in the UK is to proactively make anticipatory changes, which promote the success of all students. In Australia, the mandate is for specialised provision but not necessarily anticipatory and higher education institutions provide tailored support for under-represented/disadvantaged groups of students. Both of these approaches help to shift the institutional response away from a deficit approach by implementing practices which assist all students to improve and prosper - irrespective of their starting position.

* Glenda Crosling is Director of Education Quality and Innovation at Monash University, Malaysia. Margaret Heagney is Coordinator of the Student Equity Unit at Monash University, Victoria, Australia. Liz Thomas is Director of the Widening Participation Research Centre at Edge Hill University in the UK.

* "Improving student retention in higher education" appears in the latest edition of Australian Universities' Review, Volume 51, Number 2, 2009. To read the full article click here.