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Why do first year students fail to progress to their second year? An academic staff perspective.

Véronique Johnston
Department of Mathematics, Napier University

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference
September 11-14 1997: University of York)

Poor student retention is a cause for concern at many universities and an analysis of student records at one new Scottish University has shown that over a quarter of new entrants to undergraduate courses are failing or withdrawing. Collecting additional data on why students fail to progress can be problematic. However, one potential source of information is that held by academic staff such as Course Leaders. The paper will present the findings of an institution-wide survey of staff regarding all 1994/95 students in their first year who did not progress. The survey suggests that non-academic problems are more likely to contribute to a student's failure to progress than academic problems and that the range of non-academic problems is both broad and complex. In addition, staff perceptions of the degree of influence wielded by such problems was not always matched by the recorded incidence in the survey.

  1. Introduction

    Many studies have confirmed that the majority of those who drop-out from or fail higher education (HE) courses do so in their first year (Bourner et al 1991, MacDonald 1992, Woodley et al 1992, Benn 1995) and as a result, the first year has been referred to, without overstatement, as a 'make or break' year.

    "The first year is clearly a critical, if not the critical interface between the student and the institution. The impact of any new experience upon the individual is generally recognised as an essential element in the progress of subsequent events" (Oldham 1988 p )

    As such, the first year of a course represents both a challenge and a point of focus to those interested in raising progression rates. Much of the associated research has understandably focused on the students themselves, as they are key players in the process of attrition. However the educational environment in which students find themselves is also shaped by other stakeholders in HE and the effects of attrition extend beyond the immediate and very real concerns of an individual student.

    It is perhaps surprising then, that despite being partners in and shapers of the higher educational process, the views and attitudes of academic staff are so rarely sought in any systematic way. Yet the perceptions of these important stakeholders must also influence both the environment itself and their interactions with it. This paper attempts in a small way to edge toward redressing this balance and presents the results of an institution-wide survey of academic staff to elicit their perspective on why first year undergraduates fail to progress to their second year.

  2. Related Research on Non-Progression

    The perception of non-progression as a problem represents a sea-change in attitudes (Oldham 1988) and have, in part, been the result of considerable external pressures on the HE system (Daniel 1993). Student populations have increased dramatically in the last ten years in the wake of the push to widen access and as a result the population itself has become markedly more heterogeneous. Allied to this change has been a growing pressure on HE to demonstrate value for money; the increased scrutiny of the effectiveness of its processes through the wide and very public use of performance indicators and the need of institutions to maintain the maximum possible income.

    The consequences and costs can be equally serious for the withdrawn or failed student. A study by Johnes & Taylor (1991) found that non-completers of degree courses earned less than graduates and that there was little evidence of the gap narrowing over time. The non-graduates also experienced longer durations of unemployment. The costs incurred were not only financial. Pervin (1966) found that withdrawn students often felt guilty and ashamed of dropping out and that this could change over time to depression and lack of self-esteem.

    Attrition research has largely focused on three areas: student characteristics upon entry to University (Barnett & Lewis, 1963; Panos & Astin 1968; Astin et al, 1987; Johnes & Taylor, 1989; Johnes, 1990; DES, 1992; Chapman, 1996), institutional characteristics (Bee & Dolton 1985 ) and experiential factors (Kember 1990; Davies, 1997).

    Assessing the relevancy and applicability of related research to the context of a Scottish new university is problematic because of essential differences in educational systems, operational environments and student characteristics. Indeed, Martinez (1995) concludes from his thought-provoking study of student retention in further and adult education, that the causes of non-progression are multi-faceted, complex and highly context-specific. However, much of the published research has been based on traditional universities in England, so it is debatable to what extent their experiences and conclusions will map onto a Scottish new university context. And evident differences do exist: both Johnes & Taylor (1989) and Woodley et al (1992) found, for example, that non-completion rates at Scottish universities were generally higher than at non-Scottish universities and that these differences could largely be explained by contextual factors.

    Despite these reservations, research does exist which has obvious parallels. For example, the Department of Education and Science (DES 1992) analysed attrition rates amongst first year degree students in English polytechnics and colleges and found that non-progression rates:

    The first three of these results were confirmed by Woodley et al's (1992) study of Scottish traditional universities and are echoed in the analyses of Napier University's student records. Woodley et al, however, found that the effect of age on progression was inconclusive, whereas students aged 25 years or more at Napier have been found to be more likely to progress than their younger counterparts.

    Rates of non-progression have been shown to vary considerably between institutions (Johnes & Taylor 1989). However, the individual institutions' attrition rates often stay remarkably constant over time. This has lead to the conclusion that failure to progress may in part be linked to the establishment of institutional norms.

    Collecting data on the factors influencing students' failure to progress has typically been fraught with difficulties. In many cases, systematic data has not been kept, partly because in the past it has been in HE's interest to underplay attrition. Further, the validity of the institutional data gathered has been questioned for two reasons; firstly that the data held was far from being complete and secondly, as most MIS systems only allowed one reason for the withdrawal, where several factors had combined, this aspect was lost. Woodley and Parlett (1983) also identified methodological problems associated with investigating student withdrawal including low response rates to questionnaires and the rationalisation of the reasons for withdrawing proffered by the students.

    Despite these difficulties, the reasons behind drop-out are being increasingly researched in terms of student experiential factors. Moore (1995) in her analysis of students who had withdrawn at Sheffield Hallam University, found that the decision to withdraw was usually influenced by a number of factors rather than one simple explanation. Almost two thirds of respondents gave more than one reason for leaving their course and these fell primarily into three categories: a dislike of the course or finding the course unsuitable; personal reasons and academic problems.

    However, the exclusive focus on withdrawn students has been criticised because it fails to identify whether there are any similarities in attitude and experience between those who leave and those who stay. In an attempt to overcome this deficit, Davies (1997) surveyed both current and withdrawn students at a FE College and found that neither group could be differentiated in terms of their apparent motivation or in the timing of their applications. As the two groups also demonstrated very similar patterns of agreement on the importance they attached to various aspects of further education, he deduced that they were not intrinsically different in their priorities. However, differences did emerge in their relative satisfaction with the various aspects of the college. Withdrawn students' ratings were lower than for the current group for their satisfaction with the settling-in process, teaching quality and support, and timing of classes. Notably,

    "…the incidence of personal problems, financial hardship, insufficient financial assistance and conflict between job and studies, was not significantly greater among the withdrawn group. A similar minority of all respondents appeared to encounter these problems." (Davies 1997 p )

    Davies concludes that the true reasons for withdrawal are often complex but that "…the scales would appear to tip in favour of withdrawal when the problem coincides with a relative lack of confidence in the quality of support at class room level."

    This research appears to confirm that the institution has an effect upon the experiences of the student. Consequently the perceptions and attitudes of academic staff may shed some light on the dynamics of the interactions between the institution and students.

  3. The Napier University Context

    Napier University established the Student Retention Project in 1995 to investigate the scale of and factors influencing student attrition within the institution and to raise the profile of retention issues generally. The impetus for the project followed an analysis of Napier's student MIS which indicated that around a quarter of first year students enrolled on degree courses in 1993/94 either withdrew or failed. Further analyses of subsequent years confirmed this outcome and also highlighted that the rate at which students passed first time (i.e. without sitting any resit examinations) was falling.

    A separate analysis of student qualification pointage demonstrated that the institution is losing significantly more non-standard and low pointage students (up to 4 points) than might be expected - approximately 42% of the degree intake are in these categories. Curiously, the institution was losing more than expected numbers of its best qualified (11-16 points) students too. This latter phenomenon has also been noted in other studies (Bourner et al 1991; Benn 1995)

    Following the concern generated by these statistics, it was found that there was little in way of centrally-held information on why students were failing to progress. Although the institutional MIS did contain a field to record the reason for withdrawal, its completion was at best patchy. Efforts to contact students who had withdrawn during 1994/95 were made but this had only limited success due to the time lag between the acts of withdrawal and attempted contact of the student.

    Lack of a central MIS which accurately recorded reasons for withdrawal, did not necessarily imply that this information was not held somewhere within the institution. And as such, the records kept by academic staff represented an untapped resource which might be usefully exploited.

  4. Aims of the research

    The study aimed to achieve 3 outcomes:-

    Course Leaders, Departmental Student Counsellors and Year Tutors were approached because they were most likely to have access to relevant information as a natural consequence of their roles. Two types of courses were considered; HNC/HND and undergraduate. While these course types exhibit obvious differences in terms of student intake, procedures and regulations, the survey also attempted to identify areas of commonality with regard to the student experience.

    'Failure to progress' was defined as falling into one of the following three categories:-

    1. Withdrawing from a course before completion of the first year of attendance;
    2. Failing the first year of attendance;
    3. Successfully completing the first year of attendance but not returning in the following year.

  5. Survey Methodology

    In the spring of 1996, the names and course of study of 775 students who were deemed to have failed to progress in academic year 1994/95 were obtained from the institutional MIS and other sources. Data on these students were collected through interviews and questionnaires completed by interviewers in conjunction with 58 Course Leaders, Departmental Student Counsellors and First Year Tutors (hereafter collectively referred to as Course Leaders). The interviews lasted between half an hour and 3 hours, largely depending on the number of students discussed.

    It is acknowledged that as the data collected from this survey is from a decidedly institutional perspective, the factors cited by students for failure to progress may not be completely accurate. Some reasons may be more acceptable to the student than others (for example it may be easier to say that the course is unsuitable than admit that the problem is homesickness); some reasons will be too personal to discuss with Course Leaders. In addition, the final presenting problem may in fact be a culmination of other factors, whose early resolution could have prevented withdrawal or failure. Therefore, to provide some balance, qualitative data was collected from focus groups carried out with first year students and personal interviews with withdrawn students.

  6. The quality of centrally held records

    Of the 775 records collated, 11% had been incorrectly identified as failing to progress (Table 1). The majority (75%) of these students were actually in the second year of an allied course as the result of a common first year. (59% of students thought to have failed to return were current in allied courses). The misassignment of status was a consequence of an MIS structure which was designed primarily to fullfil the HESA data and institutional accounting requirements and thus did not directly trace the academic route taken by such students. These students, however, could be identified as current from the second year student records and so were not actually lost from the system. Of the remaining 690 records, insufficient information was available for 105 records (15%) to be able to determine the reasons for failure to progress. The analyses that follow are based on the 585 records that remained.

    Table 1: Status of first year student records identified as failing to progress

    Status of student records      No.      %    
    Incorrectly listed as                        
    failing to return to their     68       9    
    second year                                  
    Incorrectly listed as                        
    withdrawn or failed            17       2    
    Correctly listed as failing    690     89    
    to progress                                  
    Total                          775     100   

    Although some data was available for the majority of non-progressed students, it is perhaps of some concern that no information was available for as many as 15%. One immediately striking result of the data collection exercise was the evident paucity of information available on those students withdrawing within the first 6 weeks of the academic year. In many cases, little was known of these students because there had been insufficient time to establish the necessary links between Course Leader and student. Consequently, the reasons for non-progression for early leavers may not be sufficiently reflected here. Gaps in the data were also visible in situations were the member of staff in the Course Leader role had changed. The mechanism by which such information was transferred was often poorly defined and so information , once gathered, could become stuck in the system.

    Another outcome to emerge were the differences in the detail of the data recorded for individual students. In practice, the nature and completeness of such information held has often been left to the discretion of the Course Leader and the onerousness of the task can depend largely on the number of students for which they are responsible. In addition, the quality of the information held was influenced by the level of interaction between the student and Course Leader and the impact of this on information quality is unknown. As the quality of information varied both between Course Leaders and between individual students, care must be taken in the interpretation of the data which follows.

  7. Factors Contributing to Failure to Progress

    Of the student records surveyed, 44% had withdrawn before completing the first year, 48% had failed the first year and 8% were classified as having not returned to their originally enrolled course despite having successfully completed the year. The majority of students were enrolled on undergraduate courses (79%), were male (66%) and attended on a full time basis (95%). The student records surveyed were fairly evenly spread across the 4 faculties of Applied Arts, Business, Science and Engineering.

    The factors identified as contributing to failure to progress could be broadly grouped into either academic or non-academic (Table 2). Course Leaders were asked to choose as many factors as they felt were appropriate for each student. Note that the factor 'Other' represents the hard to pin down 'not completely sure' category.

    Table 2: Frequency and Percentage of Contributory Factors Influencing Non- Progression

    Contributory Factors     Frequency       %      
    Academic Problems           214         37%     
    Personal  Difficulties      167         29%     
    Financial Difficulties       68         12%     
    Ill Health                   62         11%     
    Other                        60         10%     
    Changed Course (at           52          9%     
    Employment                   49          8%     
    Changed Institution          48          8%     
    Didn't Like Course           32          6%     
    Lack of Family Support       22          4%     

    The maximum number of factors cited for a single student was 4 but the majority of students (74%) had only one factor attributed. 150 records indicated at least two factors contributing to a student's failure to progress and men were slightly more likely than women to have 2 or more reasons attributed to them. The preponderance of students with only one factor attributed may be linked to the MIS requirement of the selection of a single primary factor.

    144 (25%) of the 585 records examined cited academic factors only as contributing to a student's failure to progress, 371 (63%) cited non-academic factors only and 70 (12%) cited a mixture of the two. As almost two thirds of the students had non-academic factors only cited, their significance cannot be underestimated; highlighting the necessity for such factors to be explicitly addressed and managed. The range of non-academic factors, however, mitigate against simple or quick fix solutions.

    7.1 Academic Problems

    Course Leaders cited academic problems for 37% of the students and many commented that instances of such problems were growing due to a sustained drop in student pointage over the years. These fears may be well founded as Napier is losing significantly more non-standard and low pointage students than might be expected. But, for courses under pressure to recruit, this presents a real dilemma as wider access inevitably results in a greater proportion of students in those categories. However, it is worth pointing out that around 2/3 of low pointage students do progress.

    Although other research has shown that men are more likely to fail to progress at Napier than women, there is no indication from this analysis that academic problems were any more common in men. Consequently, the key to determining why this imbalance exists may lie with non-academic factors.

    Failed students, unsurprisingly, were the most likely to have academic difficulties cited (53%). However, this is perhaps a smaller proportion of academic problems contributing to the outcome of failed students than might be expected. It is possible that academic problems are being masked by other factors, particularly as students may be embarrassed to admit that such a problem existed.

    7.2 Non-Academic Problems

    (1) Personal Difficulties

    It was cited in 167 cases (29%) that the student failed to progress due, at least in part, to 'personal reasons'. (A third of men had personal difficulties cited compared to less then a quarter of women). Such reasons are varied and although the departure of some students can be attributed to a combination of problems, nine broad categories emerged in the analysis (Table 3). In addition, 57 (34%) student records in this category noted unspecified problems. The analysis which follows in this section is restricted to these 167 cases.

    Table 3: Frequency and Percentage of Personal Factors Influencing Non-Progression

                            Frequency       %     
    General Unhappiness         23         14%    
    Domestic Problems           16         10%    
    Psychological/Emotiona      14         8%     
    Inability to 'Fit In'       14         8%     
    Work Related                12         7%     
    Parental Pressure           12         7%     
    Problems stemming           10         6%     
    from academic                                 
    Illness/Bereavement         8          5%     
    of Family Member(s)                           
    Immaturity                  4          3%     
    Unspecified                 57         34%    
    Total                      167        100%    

    Some students who cited personal reasons had mentioned that they were generally (but unspecifically) unhappy. Domestic problems also featured including a responsibility to contribute to the household financially and marital problems, particularly the stress experienced due to divorce proceedings. Some students had psychological or emotional problems cited and many of these were brought about by traumatic situations or experiences that had taken place outwith the university.

    Other students had difficulties associated with 'fitting in'. HE can be overwhelming for some students, particularly those who are perhaps more introverted and take longer to establish relationships with others. The social aspect of university life can not be underplayed and it is, perhaps to be expected that it will not be successful in every case.

    Other personal difficulties noted included unavoidable work commitments, parental pressure, problems stemming from the stress associated with academic unsuitability, illness or the bereavement of a close relative and immaturity. The low incidence of the latter was, perhaps surprising, as in conversation with Course Leaders, this factor featured strongly.

    (2) Financial Difficulties

    Anecdotally, financial difficulties were often cited as a reason for high student drop out rates. Of the student records analysed, 12% had cited finance as a factor in non-progression, which while substantial, is not as high as anecdotal evidence suggested. This may indicate that financial problems are not as widespread as had been thought or that financial problems on their own are not necessarily sufficient cause for failure to progress. However, some Course Leaders commented that financial problems often lead to stress which in turn leads to illness - thus the exiting problem masked the true cause. It is also possible that financial difficulties are not always mentioned by the student and so this factor may be under-recorded. Unexpectedly, men were twice as likely to have financial difficulties cited as women, although there is no evidence to suggest that women have larger incomes than men.

    (3) Ill Health

    Illness at critical times during the academic year can have disastrous consequences for students. Critical times include not only examination weeks but also peak coursework weeks. During the latter, the student can feel overwhelmed by the volume of work which must be caught up. However, it was notable that although the incidence of illness was almost equal to those with financial problems, the perception amongst Course Leaders of its impact as contributory factor was considerably lower.

    (4) Change of Course within Napier

    This category is based only on those students that radically changed course (i.e. through a non-recognised route and not as the result of a common first year with other linked courses). Many students find that their expectations of the course on which they enrol are rather different to the reality. Often this results from lack of practical experience in the subject of study which no amount of pre-course information can overcome. Course Leaders frequently mentioned that a period during which a student could 'try out' a course without being locked into it might raise institutional retention rates, although this would need to be combined with easy transfer between courses. Some Course Leaders commented that Open Days could be misleading because they tend to focus on the more exciting elements within a department but fail to mention that the first years of HE are very much a grounding.

    (5) Employment

    A relatively small group of students (49 - 8%) had left to take-up full-time employment. Joining the police force or armed services was a common occurrence. One Course Leader reported that his heart sank when he discovered that a parent was in the Police Force as this frequently resulted in the student withdrawing to join the Police themselves.

    (6) Change of Institution

    Students generally change institution for two reasons. Firstly to continue a similar course at a more convenient institution (this was particularly true of Northern Irish students who returned home during the cease-fire) and secondly to change to a more suitable course not offered at Napier. Women (13%) were twice as likely to change institution as men (6%).

    Half of the 46 students who did not re-enrol for the second year either changed course within Napier to a non-related course or had moved to another institution

    (7) Didn't Like the Course

    This category is related to those of changing course and changing institution and was not offered as a distinct category in the survey. As a result, 5% may well be a serious under-representation of the true figure. This complaint can result from a poor understanding of the purpose of HE, of the nature of their chosen course and of the demands of HE. Anecdotal evidence points to students arriving through clearing as a particular problem, although UCAS' own research refutes this. Citing a dislike for the course can also be a cover for other problems - easy to give as an excuse and difficult to dispute.

  8. The Course Leader Perspective on Strategies to Reduce Non-Progression

    8.1 Student-Based Strategies

    The responses to this section were necessarily restricted by the level of knowledge a Course Leader had regarding each student. No strategies were offered for 25% of the students. (Table 4) This was for two reasons; uncertainty on behalf of the Course Leader and also because some reasons for failure to progress are understandably not considered to be either within the control of the student or within the interest of the student to change. For example, no student strategy was offered for 50% of those students that had illness as a contributory factor and 29% of those that left to take up full-time employment.

    Conversely, students were felt to have more control over other contributory factors and so had comparatively small proportions where no strategy was offered (financial problems - 7%, academic problems- 10%, changing course within Napier - 15%). However, existence of a strategy does not imply that it is either straightforward to carry out or even possible. Many Course Leaders pointed out that while better financial provision before starting a HE course is certainly desirable, its execution was unlikely. Similarly, while it would be advantageous if Napier students had better qualifications, pressure to maintain recruitment through wider access is irresistible.

    Table 4: Count of Student Strategies suggested by Course Leaders

    No. of strategies      Total        %     
    suggested for an                          
    individual student                        
    0                       144        25     
    1                       163        28     
    2                       101        17     
    3                       92         16     
    4                       47          8     
    5                       30          5     
    6 or more                7          1     

    The five most frequent strategies cited (a more appropriate course choice, choosing to work harder, attending more regularly, greater motivation and being proactive in seeking help) largely reflect the frustration felt by Course Leaders that students do not do enough to help themselves sufficiently in many cases (Table 5). It is difficult to pinpoint why student motivation appears to be so low. It is, however, a problem that is echoed at other institutions.

    "…a number of tutors report that there is an increasing incidence of demotivated students choosing to ignore the non-examined parts of modules, and to fail parts of the course that are not included in the final degree assessment. …The evidence suggests that we need to look again at our management of students who are not progressing satisfactorily." (Kneale, 1995)

    Not surprisingly, Course Leaders most frequently cited student strategies for those students that that had failed rather than withdrew or did not return to second year (Table 6). Course Leaders were more likely to suggest attending more and working harder as suitable strategies for men than for women (in both cases these were suggested for over a quarter of the males compared to a fifth or less for females). Unexpectedly, the proportion of students cited as needing to be more proactive in seeking help did not vary between the sexes, although anecdotally it was frequently mentioned that women were more likely to approach staff for help.

    Table 5: Frequency of Suggested Student-Based Strategies Identified by Course Leaders

    Strategies                                   No.      %    
    Made a more appropriate course choice        174     30    
    Worked harder                                145     25    
    Attended more regularly                      135     23    
    Greater personal motivation to complete      116     20    
    the course                                                 
    More proactive in seeking help               112     18    
    Approached the department for help           71      12    
    sooner/at all                                              
    Approached the Student Association for       55       9    
    help sooner/at all                                         
    Better financial provision before            49       8    
    Sounder academic foundation                  44       8    
    Clearer idea of the purpose of HE            33       6    
    Approached a counsellor for help/at all      31       5    
    Reduced their number of employment hours     30       5    
    Made an application to the access fund       20       4    
    Lived closer to campus                       11       2    
    Access to student accommodation               8       1    

    Table 6. Part table of proportion of student-based strategies by student status

    Strategies                                Withdrew  Failed   Did not  
                                                           %     Return   
                                                  %                 %     
    Worked harder                                16       36        7     
    Attended more regularly                      18       31        9     
    Greater motivation to complete the           14       27       11     
    More proactive in seeking help               11       28        4     
    Approached the department for help           10       16        2     
    sooner/at all                                                         
    Approached the Student Association for        5       13       11     
    help sooner/at all                                                    
    Sounder academic foundation                   5       10        2     

    8.2 Institution-Based Strategies

    The gathering of information on institution-based strategies that might have improved the outcomes of the students was more problematical and, as such, may add little to the debate. Such strategies were suggested in only 155 of the 585 students (26%) in the survey. In many cases, this was because the strategies suggested in the questionnaire were already in place or because it was felt that everything that could have practically been done to help, was done. Further, although it was certainly not the intention of the survey, focusing on institution-based strategies was sometimes interpreted as implied criticism. However, the majority of Course Leaders were happy to contribute in general terms.

    Because of the relatively small numbers of students for whom a department-based strategy was suggested, the analysis that follows is based on those 155 students. It would have been interesting, however, to have matched the Course Leader responses to this part of the questionnaire with those of the actual students. It may be that significant differences in perspective would emerge as it is possible the impact of experiential factors was underestimated. Discussions with students regarding institutional factors which they felt influenced progression, highlighted certain themes, including:-

    • difficulties in finding a relevant member of staff at the time help was required.
    • an unwillingness to come forward with concerns or complaints in case such an action would rebound on them.
    • insufficient knowledge of institutional procedures and policies particularly in relation to academic matters.
    • misrepresentation regarding minimum entry qualifications requirements, where for example, a requirement for standard grade level of knowledge may be stated but in practice a greater level of competency was required.

    The most frequently offered institution-based strategies (37%) related to the period before the student took up a place; namely interviewing to assess suitability or more pre-course information to enable the applicant to make a more informed course choice (Table 7). However, many Course Leaders pointed out that interviewing can be impractical because of the sheer number of applicants (smaller courses were far more likely to conduct interviews) and because of lack of time for those students entering through clearing. Some courses routinely interview mature and foreign national students as these groups are perceived as being at risk. However, analysis of the 1st Year degree MIS data has shown that mature students are no more likely to withdraw than other age groups and are more likely to progress. This may indicate that mature students are not, in fact, an 'at risk' category or, should the interviewing of mature students be comprehensive across the institution, that it is a successful method of weeding out unsuitable candidates.

    The second most frequent strategy suggested was to increase the amount of time available to devote to pastoral care. Napier has a reputation for good student care and this aspect was frequently mentioned by students who took part in discussion groups and interviews during earlier research. Course Leaders often cited pastoral care as one of the more enjoyable parts of their work. However, they also commented that student care and management were becoming more difficult to undertake effectively as they were under increasing pressure from administrative overload and a perceived lack of institutional support for this role. In addition, not all academic staff feel that they are personally responsible for keeping students on board and changing such attitudes can be difficult. Some Course Leaders commented that improving student retention should be viewed as everybody's responsibility.

    Table 7: Frequency of Institution-Based Strategies Suggested by Course Leaders

    Departmental Strategy                           No. of     % of 155   
                                                   Students    Students   
                                                              assigned a  
    Pre-joining strategies: interviewing or more      61          37      
    comprehensive pre-course information                                  
    More time allotted in staff timetables for        47          28      
    dealing with student's problems                                       
    More academic support;  learning skills           31          19      
    development, remedial classes, resit study                            
    packs or more access to lecturers before                              
    Monitoring of attendance                          26          16      
    Provision of a personal tutor                     26          16      
    Formalised follow-up on students who did not      22          13      
    return and structured support for repeaters                           
    Fewer assessments and assessment clashes          19          12      
    More training of staff in counselling skills      18          11      
    Earlier feedback of progress in coursework        17          10      
    or exams                                                              
    Reiteration of the implications of course         8           5       
    regulations before resits                                             
    Ability to quickly reassess coursework            5           3       

    Curiously, some recurrent themes that emerged in the discussions with Course Leaders did not feature strongly in terms of frequency: fewer assessments and assessment clashes, speedy reassessment of coursework and earlier feedback of progress.

    8.3 Additional Themes Arising from Discussions with Course Leaders

    (1) Poor attendance

    Poor attendance was lamented by Course Leaders because of its depressing consequences: an apparent correlation between lack of attendance and failure to progress; poor morale amongst the other students in the group and amongst the lecturers.

    One factor which emerged, however, is the difference in approach evident between courses, in how the issue of attendance is addressed. Some courses have a rigid minimum attendance rule which is accompanied by sanctions for failure to comply, whereas on other courses, attendance is not monitored in any organised way at all. In many cases, some monitoring is done but there is often no system in place to process the information collected and it is left to individual lecturers to draw attention to any potential problems. Many Course Leaders commented that they would welcome an institutional policy or guidelines on attendance.

    Linked to the general agreement that attendance rates were declining was the feeling that students often missed lectures in order to meet job commitments. However, the immediate sanctions for non-attendance at a job are far worse than non-attendance at a lecture. If attendance is to be a priority it may be that the balance of sanctions will have to be altered. Alternatively, a greater use of flexible learning strategies may have to be put in place to provide other learning opportunities. Interestingly, several Course Leaders reported that removing persistent offenders from the course had had a salutary effect on the remaining students.

    (2) The need for study skills enhancement.

    Overall, it was felt that students often did not have the necessary study skills to effectively cope with HE, and that the situation was becoming worse. Common complaints included; poor communication skills, non-existent exam technique, little understanding of the personal study requirement etc. Unfortunately, it appeared that many students do not recognise that they have a problem in this regard. There was, however, some disagreement as to the best solution to this problem, although most agreed that the problem should be tackled explicitly and in way which would appear relevant to the student.

    (3) The need for mathematics skills enhancement

    One particular area of poor skills discussed was that of inadequate mathematics skills - a situation which tends to affect a large proportion of first year students (over 2/3 of the degree level intake take at least one core mathematics module). While poor mathematics skills may not in themselves be enough to cause student failure to progress, there does appear to be a 'knock on' effect; 84% of first year degree students in 94/95 who failed the year, failed at least one mathematics module.

    In some cases, inadequate mathematics skills have led to entrance requirements being raised, which has the side-effect of reducing recruitment. Maths support classes are available across the institution - however, there is a reluctance amongst students to attend. Many students interviewed commented that they felt embarrassed about admitting, to both to themselves and others, that they had a problem. Other students said that they had not realised until too late that they had a problem.

    (4) The need for more pro-active student support

    It was often pointed out that students require personal attention from knowledgeable, approachable and supportive staff. Academics, however, often have heavy workloads, with many demanding and conflicting duties and roles. Consequently, student support has often, of necessity, been reactive - with the emphasis on the student to come forward to seek help. However, if retention is to improve, it is likely that the emphasis will need to shift toward more proactive and student-centred strategies across the whole institution.

    The need to maintain momentum in student support was also discussed. Course Leaders often commented that after all the strategies and interventions that were put in place for the first half of the academic year, these could sometimes be overly relaxed in the second half. As a result, students could drop out without anyone realising it.

    Many Course Leaders commented that they felt it was becoming increasingly difficult to provide adequate pastoral care and that they were insufficiently supported in this role. In addition, the independent measurement of the effectiveness of pastoral care poses fundamental problems - as it is difficult to correlate particular retention outcomes to the existence, or lack of, specific interventions.

    However, new models for the focused provision of pastoral care have emerged. Some departments have partially separated the pastoral element of student care from the academic, through the creation of departmental Student Counsellors; with the aim of providing the necessary support more effectively and efficiently. Such a post does have the advantage of relieving other members of staff from many pastoral care duties, thus increasing the time available to devote to academic support. Student Counsellors can also be trained to a high level in counselling and support skills, and can provide the impetus for more pro-active student management strategies.

    8.4 Summary of survey results

    The survey attempted to establish the nature and quality of information held on the reasons for non-progression, to gain the academic perspective on the reasons for non-progression and to assess whether there were strategies that could have been employed which might have influenced the outcome.

    It is clear from the process of collating information that, in practice, there is no established minimum set of data on the reasons why students fail to progress which are routinely required to be recorded. within the institution. Accordingly, the quality of information held varied considerably between Course Leaders. In addition, there is no effective policy which governs the length of time such information is held and how it could be transferred between relevant members of staff.

    Course Leaders identified non-academic problems as being a greater barrier to progression than academic problems and, also, that the range of non-academic problems are both broad and complex; thus mitigating against simple or quick solutions. The perceived degree of influence wielded by non-academic factors was not always supported by the recorded incidence of those factors.

    There was a perception amongst the Course Leaders surveyed that students appeared to be unmotivated in their studies and that this was demonstrated in the first instance through poor attendance levels. In addition, it was felt that students were not sufficiently pro-active in seeking help to overcome either academic or non-academic problems and that these features, together with low entrance qualifications and unrealistic expectations of university life, were largely responsible for the failure to progress. Consequently, as these are external factors, Course Leaders were unconvinced that student retention was an issue over which they had any additional control to that they currently exercised. However, perhaps contrary to that expressed view, they did articulate a wish to adopt more proactive models of student support and for the status of and support for the pastoral care role to be raised within the institution.

    Other strategies identified by Course Leaders included a need for improved pre-course information; more opportunities for students to experience the reality of HE and the enhancement of study skills.

  9. Possible Strategies to improve retention rates

    This study has highlighted issues which Course Leaders perceive are related to non-progression in first year undergraduates. In the light of the results of the survey, what can be sensibly done to address poor retention? Cosmetic or minimal changes are unlikely to reduce non-progression in any meaningful way and it is likely that more comprehensive change is required. It is acknowledged that the totality of those changes will reflect a greater depth of knowledge of the causes of non-progression than this study has elucidated. However, some clear areas for reform have been identified. To this end, six possible strategies are discussed below.

    9.1 Improvements to data quality and the accessibility of information

    If strategies to improve progression rates are to succeed, it is vital they are based on accurate and comprehensive information. The collection of data could be improved by ensuring that non-progressed students are routinely offered an exit interview at which, along with other outcomes, a minimum data set could be constructed. To ensure that this information is in place to provide maximum benefit to the institution, a mechanism for collating it centrally for further analysis at an institutional level is also required and this might be achieved through an extension of the current field held within the MIS. Further mechanisms are required to ensure that this information can be accessed, analysed and disseminated at departmental level so that the constant monitoring of such data becomes an integral part of the current feedback process.

    As influential factors may vary over time, the systematic and periodic analysis and dissemination of data is required to detect trends. In this way, a detailed knowledge of the underlying causes of wastage can be gathered and acted upon.

    9.2 The promotion of student retention as a first order institution-wide priority

    There is no doubt that better and more comprehensive information is a vital first step in addressing retention, but equally important is the institutional will to do something about it. This can only be achieved if retaining students is seen as a top priority and the responsibility for addressing non-progression is widened to include all members of staff, both academic and non-academic. Such a cultural change requires a clearly defined policy, supported unequivocally by senior management, together with a fundamental reassessment of the academic role with regard to retention.

    9.3 A minimum attendance policy for all first year undergraduates

    The first year of a course sets the tone for the following years and good habits acquired at this stage have a better chance of continuing into later years. A minimum attendance policy with associated sanctions for non-compliance would improve the likelihood of three outcomes. Firstly, linked to the taking of registers and a mechanism by which the registers can be regularly scrutinised, it would allow the swift identification of students who are not attending and who may be on the verge of withdrawing. Without the existence of accurate records, students can simply disappear. Secondly, it imposes a degree of external motivation on students, particularly in the face of other distractions, and emphasises the importance that the institution attaches to regular attendance. Thirdly it minimises the complications and difficulties that students encounter as a consequence of missing lectures and helps to quickly identify those who may require additional academic or pastoral support.

    9.4 More visible institutional support for the pastoral care role and a move to more proactive models of care.

    Greater student numbers can place an intolerable strain on current pastoral care models operated by courses. However, it is clear from discussions from student groups, that personal attention from academic staff is seen as key to good pastoral and academic support provision. Providing such support to students is necessarily a balance between the resources available and demand, and as a result, it is important that any model of care is both effective and efficient. Effectiveness is driven in part by the importance the institution places on providing that care and the method by which it is delivered. Maintaining student confidence in the quality of care, also requires that the provision is consistent across the institution and that the interface between institution and student is as good a match as can reasonably be constructed. To this end, the model of the departmental student counsellor may represent a real way forward and provide the focus for more consistent and professional care provision.

    9.5 Increased academic support through study skills provision and subject specific help classes.

    The widening of access to HE has by definition broadened the range of capabilities and skills presented by first year undergraduates. Consequently a greater number of students may benefit from additional support classes to allow them to gain maximum benefit from their time in HE. If such individuals are to be identified, competency in core skills must be demonstrated rather than assumed and a strategy would require a move to more active management of the learning process through the use of diagnostic testing and tailored support.

    9.6 Increased focus on students who choose the 'wrong' course.

    There can be many reasons that students find themselves on the 'wrong' course including lack of real understanding of what the course will be like or the nature of the subject to be studied and parental pressure to study a course which is perceived to increase job prospects (particularly true of engineering and computing courses). Enabling and guiding students to make more informed choices, through improved pre-course information may help to reduce non-progression, particularly in the early weeks. This issue may also be partly addressed through greater openness regarding the experience being offered to students. As a complement, greater opportunities should exist to transfer between courses, perhaps through the extension of the common first year. However, institutional policies will need to support such increased flexibility by not penalising courses who succeeded in keeping a student within the institution albeit on a different course.

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This document was added to the Education-line database 28 January 1998