Retention strategies that work


Student retention is a growing issue that affects us all. But what can we do about it?

Since 2008, the Higher Education Academy has been undertaking research into effective strategies for student retention and success. The first phase of their What Works? project led to the creation of a Compendium of Effective Practice for Retention which examines six aspects of retention:

  1. retention-compendiumPre-entry and induction: The contributions explore the practicalities of ensuring informed students arrive at the institution on day one and the challenge of managing student expectations.
  2. Learning and teaching: Supporting learning and teaching and enabling the development of sound generic study skills are explored through five diverse examples.
  3. Friendship and peer support: In developing friendship and peer support, peer mentoring has become a valuable approach in aiding student transition, benefitting both mentees and mentors.
  4. Participation and belonging: The work describes different ways in which institutions are addressing student engagement to develop a sense of belonging within the university learning environment.
  5. Using data to enhance the student experience: Using empirical research methods, data can be generated to help tutors develop course components and ensure students are adequately supported in their studies and thus on the path to success.
  6. Strategic change: Bringing about strategic change that enhances the student experience is a goal in many institutions. The six interventions discussed in this section demonstrate a broad and creative approach to realising this goal.

The first phase of What Works? revealed that “It is the human side of higher education that comes first – finding friends, feeling confident and, above all, feeling a part of your course of study and the institution – that is the necessary starting point for academic success.” The key findings of What Works? were:what-works-1

  1. “In the UK only 1 in 12 students, or 8%, leave HE during their first year of study. Surveys undertaken by What Works? project teams found that between 33% (1/3) and 42% (2/5) of students think about withdrawing from HE. Thus a significant minority of students consider withdrawal, so improving student belonging should be a priority for all programmes, departments and institutions.
  2. Students surveyed across a number of institutions identified a range of reasons why they have thought about leaving HE, with most students having more than one reason. But the survey data and qualitative research identify academic issues, feelings of isolation and/or not fitting in and concern about achieving future aspirations as the primary reasons why students think about leaving. Students are particularly likely to consider leaving (a) after Christmas and (b) during the first semester.
  3. Relationships between staff and students and peers promote and enable student engagement and success in HE. These should be nurtured pre-entry, in the classroom and in the delivery of professional services.
  4. Some programmes have better rates of retention than would be predicted on the basis of entry grades, and some specific interventions have been shown to improve retention rates by up to ten percentage points.
  5. Particularly effective interventions are situated in the academic sphere. They start pre-entry, and have an overt academic purpose. Such interventions often develop peer networks and friendships, create links with academic members of staff, provide key information, shape realistic expectations, improve academic skills, develop students’ confidence, demonstrate future relevance, and nurture belonging.” (HEA, 2011: 8)

The second phase of the research, entitled What Works 2?, aimed to develop a deeper understanding of effective approaches to retention to help institutions implement effective changes. The recommendations from the second phase of the research were:what-works-2

  1. “Institutions seeking to develop excellence in learning and teaching and improve the student experience and outcomes should adopt an evidenceinformed, whole-institution approach to implement change in the context of complexity. The approach should draw upon research evidence from both What Works? programmes, an extended change programme, a crossinstitutional team involving students taking action, and data, evaluation and feedback.
  2. A mixed methodology evaluation, informed by a logic chain to map the relationship between interventions and intended outcomes, is essential to driving forward evidence-based interventions to improve student retention and success.
  3. Institutional data and qualitative research should be used to understand the local contexts before specific interventions are selected. This includes the disciplines, courses and modules with lower than expected rates of success; the characteristics of students or groups who withdraw or who have other ‘success issues’; and the specific factors contributing to these outcomes.
  4. Develop an ongoing evidence-informed programme of interventions tailored to address student retention, drawing on the What Works 2? features of effective practice. There should be an academic purpose to interventions that is explicitly relevant to students. Additionally, interventions should be delivered through the mainstream curriculum to all students, facilitate collaboration between students and staff, and monitor and follow up (as necessary) individual student engagement, satisfaction and success.
  5. Check that the institutional environment is enabling and implementing institutional-level changes to address any shortcomings with respect to explicit leadership and management support at all levels; the alignment of institutional policies and procedures; structures to recognise, develop and reward staff engagement; and the provision of data to be used to improve student engagement, belonging, retention and success.
  6. A process to implement and manage change should be designed and utilised, including: explicit goals and timelines; a cross-institutional team (including enthusiastic champions and students) with clear roles; and an emphasis on working in an integrated and collaborative manner. Collaborative working with students in the process of change is essential, as is the fostering of wider staff engagement. Managers at all levels need to understand and support the process, and especially the value of working with students as partners. Suitable data needs to be available and staff and students need to be supported to discuss and engage with this data to
    improve student retention and success.
  7. Monitor individual student behaviour, satisfaction and performance, and intervene if necessary. Select indicators of engagement, performance and satisfaction, and decide how this information will be collated, who will intervene, and how students will be engaged and supported.
  8. Adopt a mixed-methods model of formative evaluation that is built into the process of change. Provide discipline staff with methodological and practical support to undertake the evaluation and use the data locally and more widely within the institution.
  9. Ensure that the institutional processes and conditions facilitate sustainable development and impact.
  10. Policy makers and sector-wide bodies have a key role to play in developing and supporting networks for sharing learning about student retention and success; promoting access to standard tools that can help to enhance retention initiatives, frameworks, surveys and impact tools; creating incentives, rewards and recognition to celebrate excellent practice; and championing the value of working with students and student bodies in the planning and delivery of student retention and success.Policy makers and sector-wide bodies can reinforce the key learning from this report and, in particular, encourage:

a) Institutions and disciplines wanting to develop excellence in learning,
teaching and student outcomes to learn from the experiences of the
institutions and disciplines participating in What Works 2?;

b) An evidence-informed approach to planning and implementing change,
including understanding the local contexts and a systematic mixed methods
evaluation that identifies the anticipated relationship between interventions and outcomes, and allows for unintended consequences;

c) Interventions informed by the features of effective practice identified
in this study, and monitoring student engagement to quickly identify
potentially at-risk students;

d) A planned process for managing change, paying particular attention to
wider staff engagement and drawing on students’ expertise;

e) A whole-institution approach that embeds retention and success at the
strategic and operational levels throughout the institution.” (HEA, 2017: 28-29).

Read the full reports here:

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