Thoughts on student retention through teaching in Higher Education

There is an assumption that retention in higher education is always one of the goals of teaching activities. The predominantly economically-driven push for retention (e.g. Simpson, 2005) may mean that students are audited and monitored in a fashion which removes their autonomy and freedom of choice. An example may be the relentless monitoring of attendance through digital surveillance by some institutions. Further, retention needs to achieve benefits for the students, rather than for institutional metrics. Some students may not be best-served by continuing their current studies. In line with Smith and Beggs (2003), I therefore aim for ‘optimum’ rather than ‘maximum’ retention through my teaching practice.

However, assuming cases where retention ought to be maximised for student benefit, an important illustration here could be institutional mental health gaps for non-continuation rates which are higher than the sector average. As a psychologist, I have a duty to encourage my students to practice self-care and self-compassion. As we learn about the latest research around strategies for employee wellbeing, we also use this to reflect on our own working styles and how to improve our mental health at work and university. It is useful that I am personal tutor for the students I teach, which means that I have greater time and resource to get to know my students, their learning styles and challenges, and offer them more tailored pastoral care. I often refer students to the wider university support network, including student support and health and wellbeing services, as well as counselling and 24-hour mental health support helplines if appropriate. Further, we know that student burnout can be mediated by a sense of belonging to a learning community (McCarthy et al., 1990). As such, establishing a course subject society responsible for planning social events across all years of study to help students to socially integrate and forge a sense of community identity and belonging (e.g. Thomas, 2002).

Improved retention rates may also be facilitated by widening participation strategies (Yorke & Thomas, 2003). I aim for my classroom practice to be inclusive, for instance by encouraging a range of views and perspectives through the content I present (e.g. research from minorities/diverse groups) and class discussion. This can also lead to critical engagement with the subject. It can also encourage me to rethink my teaching approaches and to deepen my subject knowledge and stay abreast of latest developments in thinking. Therefore, in line with Harman (2017) widening participation can be viewed as ‘space for opening up to experience, transformation and change for both academics and students’.

I also ask myself the question as to what skills do students need to be successful on the modules I lead. Helping them to develop those skills may go a long way towards achieving level playing field across the student group. In reference to first years in particular, this also helps to develop skills for what Briggs and Clarke (2012) termed ‘university readiness’, improving retention rates and student outcomes. Therefore content designed to improve academic literacy holds utility here. Further, some of my students have educational support plans in place to help meet their individual needs, for instance when diagnosed with a learning difference. I spend 1:1 time with these students to co-produce strategies for the classroom and in personal tutoring sessions to enhance their learning capability and experience. As an example, I recently took the educational support plans into consideration when discussing the design of a summative MCQ with my student to get their feedback on the suitability of the format, presentation and examination time. Blythman and Orr (2002) argue that most students need learning support ‘for successful achievement and progression within the education system and beyond’.

Practically, I may adapt learning materials to my students’ needs, for instance by using high-contrast text/background colours, certain fonts, providing transcripts with audio-recording and the like. Flexibility is important as each student cohort brings with it different needs. The use of technologies can also encourage inclusivity, for instance by appealing to a range of learning styles and learners, as in the case of a range of audio-visual and written online course materials within a virtual learning environment such as Moodle. Further, Panopto lecture recording allows for students to catch up with course teaching should they miss a session due to personal circumstances, though its effectiveness has been questioned (Danielson et al., 2014). How technologies are used to encourage student retention is of course an even more salient consideration given the COVID-19 context.

Finally, evaluation is important to inform my approach to improving student retention and fostering inclusivity. I take on board student feedback gathered formally through student surveys, and informally by asking students for their thoughts on sessions and session design directly. For instance, students have asked for seminars to relate directly to lecture content as an opportunity for consolidation, and as a result my seminars now tend to use a range of task-based activities to encourage students to apply the knowledge they have gained in the lectures. In acting on student feedback, students feel listened to and it is hoped that this builds trust and greater engagement with their course and higher education institution.

Blythman, M. and Orr, S. (2002). A joined up policy approach to student support. In: Failing Students in Higher Education. Open University Press, Buckingham.

Briggs, A., J. Clark, J. & Hall, I. (2012) Building bridges: understanding student transition to university, Quality in Higher Education, 18:1, 3–21.

Danielson et al. (2014). Is the effectiveness of lecture capture related to teaching approach or content type? Computers & Education, 72, 121–131.

Harman, K. (2017). Democracy, emancipation and widening participation in the UK: Changing the ‘distribution of the sensible’, Studies in the Education of Adults, 49:1, 92–108.

McCarthy, M. E., Pretty, G. M., & Catano, V. (1990). Psychological sense of community and student burnout. Journal of College Student Development, 31(3), 211–216.

Simpson, O. (2005). The costs and benefits of student retention for students, institutions and governments. Studies in Learning, Evaluation Innovation and Development, 2(3) pp. 34–43.

Smith, E. &, Beggs, B. (2003). A new paradigm for maximising student retention in higher education. IET Conference Proceedings, p. 12–12.

Thomas, L. (2014). Student engagement to improve belonging, retention and success. In Murray, N, & Klinger, C. (2014). Aspirations, Access and Attainment: International Perspectives on Widening Participation and an Agenda for Change. London: Routledge.

Yorke, M. & Thomas, L. (2003) Improving the Retention of Students from Lower Socio-economic Groups, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 25:1, 63–74.

Qualitative health research & evaluation practitioner. Psychologist & Coach. Trainee Psychotherapist. Director www.respeo.com.