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Retention in the first year

Although first-year retention is not the direct focus of any of the Enhancement Themes, it is inevitably touched on in a number of places. Where it is, the argument is made for a raised awareness of student support and retention as an institutional, academic issue and that constant auditing and evaluation of the offer is carried out in order to ensure that what is called the 'expectations gap' between what students expect and what they actually experience is closed. Find our more about the differences between student expectations and their experiences including quotes from Scottish students.

This 'gap' is further explored in the booklet on Introducing Scholarship Skills, part of The First Year Experience Theme. Its authors quote research showing that, in effect, the change in focus, assessment type and study requirements found at university as opposed to school is a change in culture; but one that is not necessarily recognised by tutors or even students, except perhaps in hindsight.

The booklet offers two case studies, one from the University of Bristol and the other from Napier University, which highlight 'information-sifting' techniques used to provide lecturers and first-year students with a better idea of where they are both starting from in terms of preparedness for study at university.

The critical importance of personal tutor support in the early days, which is the most likely drop-out time, is emphasised; but student / tutor communication throughout the year is also considered vital.

One USA study described using telephone calls as an example of care to promote student success and retention (Volp et al, 1998). The authors discussed a collaborative intervention conducted by academics and student affairs staff in which telephone calls were made to at-risk first-year students in the sixth week of the semester. The study group earned higher average marks and had higher retention rates.

Source: Responding to student needs

Another idea is to feed back attendance and engagement as evidence of developing dynamic risk factors. At The University of the West of Scotland's School of Computing, attendance at classes is monitored and all students receive personalised, colour-coded letters on a regular basis. Green letters are sent to students with satisfactory attendance; orange letters to those who have missed a couple of classes, encouraging them to attend more regularly and offering the opportunity to make an appointment to discuss any issues that may be hampering better attendance; and red letters are sent to students with unsatisfactory attendance, asking them to make an appointment to discuss how they can rectify their situation.

A similar traffic light series of letters is posted out when semester one assessment results become available. Green congratulatory letters go to students who have passed all assessments; orange letters are sent to those with one or two re-assessments, along with a 'don't panic!' message, and encouragement to make an appointment and discuss their situation; and red letters are sent to students with three or more resits asking them to make an appointment to discuss ways forward. A similar procedure is followed at the end of semester two. In addition, all students with resits are individually telephoned over the summer period to encourage them in their preparation for re-assessment.

A number of authors have suggested theoretical frameworks to explain why some students drop out while others stay. For example, there is the notion of intrinsic and dynamic risk factors, the former being those that the student arrives with and the latter being those that develop as he or she moves into university life.  An example of such factors is students' lack of confidence in their ability to produce and present written work of a suitable academic standard.

"A factor in drop-out is students' lack of confidence in their ability to produce and present written work of a suitable academic standard"

Source: Introducing scholarship skill - academic  writing

Then there is the Student / Institution negotiation model (Ozga and Sukhnandan, 1998), which suggests that drop-out results from a failure of both parties: students who fail to fit academically or socially and a poor choice of institutions resulting from 'misinformation'.

Similarly, Cook suggests it is the challenge of moving from one lifestyle and learning style to a more independent one that some find more challenging than others and offers four principle-influencing factors associated with transition: academic and social integration; lack of preparation; lack of realistic prior expectations of higher education and personal characteristics. (RSN, 12, 13) The work of McInnis and James (1995, 2000) identified four factors that influence integration: academic adjustment; geographic adjustment; administrative adjustment and personal adjustment (RSN, 13).

The booklet Transforming assessment and feedback, one of the practice-focused development projects of the First Year Enhancement Theme, suggested there were nine pre-conditions for success in the first year. These were:

  1. Helping students to come to terms with what is expected in academic study
  2. Setting high expectations
  3. Offering regular opportunities for formative feedback
  4. Limiting the negative effects of summative assessment
  5. Showing sensitivity to the diversity of students' commitments
  6. Fostering self-responsibility for and self-regulation of learning
  7. Enhancing motivation and a belief in an ability to succeed
  8. Making personal contact with teachers
  9. Forming friendship groups

The booklet also includes discussions about the role of assessment and feedback as positive influences.

The Personalisation strand of the First Year Enhancement Theme offered a number of institutional responses to these issues.

Peel talks about developing a set of expectations that each institution should be encouraged to develop. These are:

  1. appropriate strategies for identifying and predicting key transition problems among its incoming student population, and students most likely to be 'at risk'
  2. mechanisms to ensure the routine collection, analysis and dissemination of quantitative and qualitative information concerning incoming students' attitudes, skills, approaches to learning, adjustment difficulties and expectations of tertiary education
  3. appropriate mechanisms for addressing problems related to specific teaching and learning environments, where units with undergraduate teaching responsibilities are required to identify and develop both existing and feasible teaching, administrative and student support initiatives for improving students' successful transition to university learning
  4. appropriate mechanisms for addressing institution-wide transition issues, so that relevant administrative services - with responsibilities for the provision of realistic and accurate information to prospective students, orientation, student services, academic and teaching development, and other related activities - are required to identify and develop specific strategies for improving and monitoring the planning and delivery of services
  5. feedback and monitoring mechanisms incorporating students, teaching staff, teaching area support staff and administrative service staff, to allow for ongoing re-evaluation of transition problems and of the initiatives and strategies described above
  6. appropriate mechanisms for collecting and assessing relevant documentary evidence in key areas (including student learning outcomes and satisfaction; course transfer, amendment and withdrawal; changes in assessment practices; academic staff development; and rates of retention, progress and completion) by which institutions can report on the implementation of their own objectives, assess the effectiveness of their strategies for identifying, addressing and monitoring transition issues, and make further strategic responses.

Source: Responding to student needs 

The University of Abertay, Dundee has changed its practices for providing support to students with resit examinations. Formerly, such students received entirely generic reassessment information, but now personalised information is provided, which is specifically related to the types of reassessment they are being asked to complete. The university student records system is used to identify students with reassessments and the mode of assessment being retaken. Students receive personalised letters with key paragraphs inserted according to their records.

This system is being further developed so that students progressing to the next year of their course, who have failed one or more units of assessment, will be alerted to the support available. Thus, it is no longer only failing students who are targeted but also those who may be at risk of failure in the new stage of their course. Setting up and running the system involves considerable expense and so the university has engaged in a cost / benefit exercise.

One of the attractions of the tutor group as a means of engaging students with the institution is that it is small, and offers them the opportunity to feel part of something, rather than just 'being at university'; a place that can appear both daunting and impenetrable. Such a feeling of belonging can also develop by being a member of a friendship group or a learning community, or any of the implicit or explicit peer support networks outlined in Peer support in the first year.

Indeed, in the Peer Support in the first year booklet the authors argue that the first year begins as a process of engagement and then moves, if successful, into empowerment, where students can feel confident as effective and effectual actors within the institution. Find out more including a detailed explanation and discussion on engagement and empowerment.  

The notion of engagement and empowerment as an alternative to 'retention' opens up a new perspective on the work of Tinto, who has consistently argued for universities to become true learning communities. The irony of a first year, which should be the very time for small classes to encourage engagement and thence empowerment, but in which the reverse is often, and increasingly the norm, is not lost.

Creating space within the curriculum for peer support acts as a counter to massification, but physical space also needs to be preserved, or created, and not just social space either; though that is important, but also places where students can sit and discuss and work in teams. 'Virtual space' is crucial too, because, with an increasing number of students 'off campus' for long periods, a sense of belonging can be fostered online as much as in person. For a more detailed discussion on these topics and recommendations for action, see space for engagement and academic and social integration.

The acid test of true engagement and of the university acting as a genuine learning community is the extent to which the student voice is heard, and acted upon. Normal measures of student satisfaction are often designed for audit purposes or league tables and so emphasise measurable outcomes. Reflective writing, perhaps through the medium of PD Portfolios, can provide a more qualitative response to the first-year experience and, if a satisfactory method can be found to ensure anonymity at the same time as making such reflections public, would surely offer institutions a better measure of how successful, or otherwise, their policies and practices are. This notion of the student's voice for empowerment is explored in some depth, along with policy recommendations in the Peer support in the first year booklet.

A further investigation of the notions of engagement and empowerment can be found in the booklet on Transforming assessment and feedback. It proposes a framework, which consists of an engagement-empowerment dimension, showing the student moving from the former to the latter over time, and an academic-social dimension, which recognises the inter-dependency of the two experiences and the way enhancing one almost invariably improves the other. Using the twelve principles of assessment and feedback the booklet describes how these principles can help shift the student experience in the desired directions: towards empowerment on one axis and integration on the other.

'What keeps you going?' was a question posed to a number of students as part of the First Year Enhancement Theme. Explore their responses as well as their views on what made them 'engage' or 'feel empowered'.

In the USA, many institutions are trying to ensure that many or all students have two of more 'high impact activities' during their undergraduate degree. These are activities which research indicates have strong impacts on retention and intellectual development. (Kuh, 2008). Many of these initiatives are what we in the UK would identify as supporting effective research-teaching linkages. These include first-year courses that focus on exploring discipline-based academic practice and are taught by a full-time academic in small classes; courses with a strong academic, but community-engagement focus; and undergraduate research programmes where students learn with strong staff guidance in ways that are close to the staff's experience of research.

This research is pointing to departments and institutions 'making it possible for every
student to participate in at least two high impact activities during his or her undergraduate program, one in the first year and one later in relation to the major field' (Kuh, 2008).

Modified source: Research-Teaching Linkages overview