Context: The NAO report recognises England's good standing on retention in HE institutions internationally, but urged the HE sector to find ways of further improving student retention and completion. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) felt that a significant barrier to further progress was the lack of evidence about what actually works to improve student retention and completion. Although there is extensive research about student retention and success (Jones, 2008; Troxel, 2010; Krause, forthcoming), it is, difficult to translate this knowledge into activities that impact on student persistence and success, and institutional outcomes. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF), an independent charitable organisation responded to these challenges by initiating and supporting the 'What Works? Student Retention & Success' programme. The primary purpose of the programme was to generate evidence-based analysis and evaluation about the most effective practices to ensure high continuation and completion rates through seven projects involving 22 higher education institutions.
Aim: This report aims to provide a synthesis of the key messages, findings, implications and recommendations resulting from the projects funded through the 'What Works? Student Retention & Success' programme from 2008-2011.
Theoretical frame: Not specified in study.
Methodology: Project 1: A comparative evaluation of the roles of student adviser and personal tutor in relation to undergraduate student retention (Anglia Ruskin University) - Data collection method: Online survey; Participants: First and second-year undergraduate students at Anglia Ruskin University (n=722, over 10% response rate); Data analysis: Using SPSS & NVivo; Project 2: Pathways to success through peer mentoring (Aston University, with Bangor University; Liverpool Hope University; London Metropolitan University; Oslo University College; Oxford Brookes University; University of Sheffield; and York University) -Approach: Mixed-methodological approach & multiple case-study design; Data collection methods: Survey, in-depth qualitative interviews & non-participant overt observations of peer mentoring activity during 'welcome' weekend in September. Participants: Questionnaires (302 completion); Follow on survey (374 completion); Qualitative interviews: 97 peer mentors & mentees; Data analysis: Quantitative data - SPSS; Qualitative data - grounded theory approach. Project 3: 'Belonging' and 'intimacy' factors in the retention of students (University of Leicester) - Data collection methods: Questionnaire surveys, individual interviews & analysis of video diaries of first- and second- year students involved in a longitudinal student experience project carried out by GENIE, the university's Centre for Excellence for Teaching and Learning; Participants: current first- and third-year students from medical, Biological Science and English courses, as well as students who have withdrawn from their courses. Project 4: Dispositions to stay: the support & evaluation of retention strategies using the Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI) (Northumbria University, with the University of Bedfordshire & the University of Manchester)- Approach: Analysis of relationship between scores on the ELLI & student retention & success & the student experiences of using ELLI. Project 5: HERE! Higher education retention and engagement - Mixed-methods approach; Data collection methods: Six large-scale transition surveys, 17 interviews & three focus groups; Participants: Over 3000 first-year students & staff at partner institutions. Project 6: Comparing and evaluating the impacts on student retention of different approaches to supporting students through study advice and personal development. Data collection methods: Surveys, focus groups & interviews; Participants: First-year undergraduate students at an academic school (Life Sciences at Oxford Brookes University) & across an entire institution (University of Reading). Project 7: Good practice in student retention: an examination of the effects of student integration on non-completion (University of Sunderland, with Newcastle University & University of Hull). Primarily qualitative methodological approach; Data collection method: Cross-institution survey & analysis of retention performance data; Participants: Mature students, first year students, part-time students & local students.
Findings: Project 1: Key finding - 42% (n=237) participants have considered dropping out on at least once, and 46.6% (n=110) of this group have considered dropping out more than once; 59% (n=153) considered leaving due to internal reasons (personal circumstances/self-doubt on personal ability to succeed in HE); 35% (n-196) considered withdrawing prior to or following assessment, or following a failure. Project 2: Key finding: i)Transition period: Majority of students were concerned about making friends when starting university. Transitional peer mentoring provides a means for students to quickly gain a sense of 'belonging' (p. 77); Longer term pastoral mentoring provides ongoing, long-term support for students who require it. ii)Following transition: Peer mentoring works by assisting students to make the most of the available academic opportunities at university. iii)Academic support - belonging & peer mentoring: Peer mentors can help students on how to 'learn to learn' (p.78) at a higher level. iv)Benefits for mentors: Develop valuable transferable employability skills (self-management, leadership & communication skills). v)Challenges of peer mentoring: From students' perspective: Institutional issues & communication problems vi)Writing peer mentoring: Provide a specialised service to improve students' overall academic portfolio vi)Challenges of writing peer mentoring: Balancing expectations of both parties, that are often different. Project 3: 6 key themes/messages which play a significant role on establishing students' confidence and sense of 'belonging' throughout their course: Personal tutors & other staff relationships; departmental culture & curriculum methods; managing expectations; central services; social spaces; clubs and societies. Project 4: Key finding: Strong learning relationships between students & staff is a key factor in promoting motivation, engagement; a significant statistical relationship was evident between student success (as measured by a grade point average) and two of the ELLI dimensions, critical curiosity and meaning making. Project 5: Key findings: a) Approximately one third of first-year students have experienced doubts sufficiently strong to make them consider withdrawing at some point during the first year; b)Doubters are more likely to leave than non-doubters; c)Doubters reported poorer quality experience than students who have not doubted; d)Students usually report more than one reason for doubting; e)The primary reasons for doubting are associated with students' experience of the programme; f)There were four main reasons cited by doubters for staying: 'support from friends and family', 'adapting to the course/university', 'personal commitment & drive', 'future goals, particularly employment'; g)The primary times for considering leaving are immediately before & after Christmas; h)Students reported different degrees of doubting; i)Some student groups (part-time students, students with disabilities & female students) appear more likely to doubt than others. Project 6: Key finding: providing structured support, fostering engagement, managing expectations, enabling a sense of belonging are all central in helping institutions to retain their students; students are more likely to engage with the study support and personal development available from the institution if they are easily accessible and students feel there is a reason to engage; the building of relationships, particularly between personal tutors and their tutees, helps retain students; staff members who operate as personal tutors want to feel valued in the role and rewarded for it; holistic models of study advice and personal development are effective in making students feel they are supported towards success, whether these models are delivered across the university (Reading) or locally in an academic school (Oxford Brookes). Project 7: Key findings on the effect of student integration on retention: a) integration of the social and academic elements of university life is key to the integration of students into the school and wider university community; b)early imposition of structures upon students by staff appears effective in giving a sense of continuity and purpose; c) teams and groups working collaboratively on academic tasks enhance their social opportunities; d) integrating social and academic elements of university life encourages students to build relations with each other and with staff and to engage with the curriculum.
Core argument: In HE, belonging is critical to student retention and success. However, the implications are often not addressed in institutional priorities, policies, processes & practice. A mainstream approach to improving the retention and success of all students should be implemented.