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Student retention

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Models and theories of retention

There is no shortage of approaches to retention, which has been the subject of a considerable amount of academic writing, research and theory building. Having an idea of these will provide a framework for academics seeking to build their own research strategy. Below is a brief summary of some of the main approaches, although note that it is not exhaustive. (For a list of theories see http://www.cscsr.org/retention_issues_theories.htm.)


One of the main theorists on retention is the American educational researcher, Vincent Tinto. Tinto developed his "interactionalist theory", according to which a student was most likely to stay the course when there was a match between their own academic goals and motivation, and the academic and social characteristics of an organization. Thus, for example, if a student wanted to become a teacher, and could see how a particular course with its blend of education and their chosen subject would help them achieve that objective, then that would have a strong motivating effect; their chances of completing would increase even more if they felt valued and supported.

A key element of the model is integration: a student who enjoys the subject, receives good marks, and feels that their study is contributing to their goals as described above, is academically integrated. Social integration is also important, in the form of friendships and enjoyment of the university experience.

Tinto (2000) cites five conditions that best promote retention:

  1. Having high expectations of students.
  2. Clearly explaining institutional requirements and providing good advice about academic choices. Many students are not clear about their plans, and need help in building a road map.
  3. Providing academic, social and personal support, particularly in and before the first year.
  4. Showing students that they are valued. Frequent contact with the staff is important, especially in the first year.
  5. Active involvement in learning – "students who learn are students who stay". Social learning, where students learn in groups, is particularly valuable, and can help foster friendship, which is another factor that encourages student persistence.

Tinto stressed that to take retention seriously is to take education itself seriously. Elsewhere (1997) he stresses the importance of the classroom as "the crossroads where the social and the academic meet. If academic and social involvement or integration is to occur, it must occur in the classroom". Collaborative learning is a particularly good way of achieving social integration.

Institutional habitus

Thomas (2002) draws on Tinto’s theory to develop her own concept of "institutional habitus", which she relates to research she has done at the (UK) University of Keele. Keele has an above average intake of students from state schools and a dropout rate of below the national average.

Institutional habitus may be seen as cultural norms and practices as embodied in an institution. Formal dinners and the wearing of academic dress for example makes a statement about tradition. Thomas argues that if an institution does not favour one particular set of characteristics but values diversity, then it is more likely that different sets of students from different backgrounds will feel at home.

Thomas grafts the concept of institutional habitus onto a description of the academic and social experience which the University of Keele attempts to create, showing how the favourable impression created assists retention.

  • The academic experience: attitudes of staff, teaching and learning and assessment. Teaching and learning is given a high priority, different learning styles are supported and diversity of backgrounds is appreciated. Tutors are friendly, helpful and accessible. Assessment gives students the opportunity to succeed, and staff are available to help.
  • The social experience: friendship, mutual support and social networks. Thomas noted that one factor in her students’ persistence was the fact they felt more at home with their university and non-university friends. Universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) can facilitate friendships by providing appropriate living arrangements (student accommodation, shared houses with other students, etc.), by appropriate social facilities (not only ones serving alcohol), and finally by the teaching process, which should also foster team building and group learning. Thomas reports on how the atmosphere at Keele does not favour any particular class or group but is genuinely inclusive – students can be themselves, and do not have to conform to a particular expectation.

The student life cycle

The above models stress the importance of the student’s integration within the academic community. Other approaches look at stages in the student life cycle where the student is particular vulnerable: pre-entry and admission, and the student’s first year.

  • Pre-entry and admissions – Prior to entry, ensure that all stakeholders (students, teachers, career advisers and family members) are fully aware of all options. Research has shown that many early leavers do so because of an unsuitable course. The admissions process can prove very stressful for students without a family background in higher education, so it is very important to explain all the options carefully (HEFCE, 2001; University of Ulster, 2008).
  • First term/semester – Research has shown that students in their first year are particularly vulnerable to drop out. It is hence important that induction should not be limited to the first week. Students may experience difficulty making the transition between the more formal teaching at secondary school/K12 to the requirement for independent learning. This needs to inform the design of teaching and learning.

More information can be found on the website of the STAR project (Student Transition and Retention), which has also developed an induction toolkit, as well as the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition website.

Early intervention

For Alan Seidman, enhancing services is not sufficient. He sums up his approach by a formula:

retention = early identification + early intensive and continuous intervention

Intervention must be early and preferably at admission – half way through the first term, as often happens, is too late. It must also be continuous until the person has remediated the problem.

The student can be assessed online, and it is the responsibility of the college to determine the prerequisites of the course, and the faculty to support the acquisition of the necessary skills.