Personalisation is key to minimising student dropout

"I arrived with very low expectations, but with time I was repeatedly surprised by positive experiences. I came with the simple wish to get my degree and go, but now – as I approach the end of my undergraduate degree – I plan on completing a masters thesis and continuing towards the PhD."

"Frustrated by several issues in our programme, I asked for a meeting with our department chair. He gave me an hour and a half from his schedule and replied to my complaints – and later I observed changes he made in the programme. I felt I was treated seriously and that he really listened to me; it was a great feeling."

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

How many positive experiences do students have in their department? Are institutions aware of the many negative experiences that first generation students come up against – and do they attempt to turn those negative experiences into positive ones? What are the drivers for such transformative experiences and can we use them to increase equity and expand students' life chances?

In a large study of key educational experiences, Professor Gad Yair from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that many students report on negative one-time experiences that set them on deteriorating trajectories. Those experiences were often similar – encountering indifference, humiliation and lack of personalisation.

Such experiences were the cause of a shutdown of student motivation, the development of a cynical approach towards the academic institution and even of dropping out.

Positive experiences

Yair then studied positive experiences while identifying the transformative power of ‘one-shot’ experiences, such as short and intensive encounters with professors, which create extreme levels of motivation that drive students to surpass mediocre aspirations.

Students report, for example, on a single conversation with an advisor or department chair as having been a transformative moment; others point to an authentic utterance that their professor made in class and then followed up with supportive assessment strategies; and still others report on specific activities – performances, encounters with students they otherwise rarely met or intensive courses which went beyond what occurred in the regular classroom environment.

The wide span of positive experiences in higher education allows us to identify a common core of strategies. In one of his publications – Can we Administer the Scholarship of Teaching? – Yair identified personalisation, modelling of expertise and authenticity as core components of key positive experiences in higher education.

Student survey

Given the importance of those experiences for increasing student motivation – especially for at-risk students – the Hebrew University of Jerusalem began employing Yair's methodology in its annual student survey. At the end of each academic year, the Hebrew University's students reply to an online survey.

In accordance with the notion of 'one-shot' experiences, the survey included questions regarding students’ 'worst experience' and 'best experience'. Once the data is in – about 7,000 open-ended replies – a team of students reads and codes the responses.

Based on a careful analysis strategy, the team prepares an annual institutional report. This report highlights that students' motivations are determined by either negative or positive experiences; it provides administrators and deans with the tools to work with faculty on specific issues; and specific units can ask for in-depth analyses of their unit's students' responses.

The data shows, for instance, that the best experiences include the following: academic experiences in class (49%); a positive social experience, usually with peers (20%); personal attention from faculty (15%); the overall quality of life on campus (6%); and personal attention from administrators (1%).

For negative experiences the distribution is similar with some significant additions: negative academic experiences in class (54%); negative relations with faculty (20%); negative relations with administrative staff (9%); quality of life on campus (8%); and the university's mishandling of crisis situations (5%).

Over the past three years the institution has learnt that the major issue that affects students' experiences is personalisation and humane encounters. About 50% of the comments regarding best and worst experiences address the topic of ‘academic experience’, a wide category that includes various aspects of a student’s academic life. Under positive experiences, for example, there are multiple citations regarding acquiring new knowledge and reaching academic goals.

The negative side mostly includes experiences such as a sense of failure and difficult or unfair examinations. As previously mentioned, personal encounters with academic staff are crucial in shaping students' experiences; more than 15% of the students mentioned such an encounter as the best thing that happened to them during their studies, while as many as 20% referred to such encounters as their worst during their studies.

Improving positive experiences

Academic aspects are potentially the best experience a student might have, but they are just as likely to be the salient cause of motivational shutdown. On the positive side, good encounters in class and with faculty led to a strong sense of belonging, and resulted in students having positive emotional feelings about themselves and their institution.

Notions like “I felt that there is someone who takes care of me”, “I had a place” and “my voice was heard” are common in the description of such encounters.

Given the number of students and national funding criteria, Israeli institutions are pushed to use large classrooms that curtail personalisation and humane relations.

Due to the precarious resources of at-risk students, they are likely to be the first to be hurt by negative experiences; the rarity of positive ones might eliminate opportunities for a turnaround. As a result, the Hebrew University's unit is now in a position to target solutions at specific courses, years or entire programmes in order to minimise the occurrence of negative experiences and make more abundant positive ones.

Professor Gad Yair is the Louis and Ann Wolens Chair in Educational Research and director of the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Nofar Gueta is a research assistant at the Research Institute for Innovation in Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.