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Student retention

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Approaches to retention

There are a great range of approaches to retention, most of which are geared towards fully integrating the student into the university environment. Some examples are given below.


To be successful, the induction process should not be limited to the first week, but should last from pre-entry to the end of the first semester. A number of UK HEIs are doing this, with a programme that includes skills development modules, personal tutors and an explanation of the assessment process.

  • At the University of Manchester's Department of History and Economic History, students are given a detailed induction during which they are given a personal tutor, who takes them to the library and the computer facilities. Attendance is monitored in detail as absence at this stage is an indication of future problems.
  • The School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Ulster takes particular care to support students through periods of transition. This can be done in different ways throughout the student’s career: prior to entry it's information about courses, approaching graduation it's advice on careers. Students on some degrees are also taken on an ice-breaker field trip, which does partly count towards assessment, but is also intended as a way of staff and students getting to know one another.

Monitoring attendance

If a student starts skipping class early on, or not turning up for induction sessions, that should flash a red light for a potential problem later. For this reason, many organizations have systems in place for monitoring attendance. For example, the University of Sunderland sends students who miss sessions early on a postcard saying "we missed you".

Personal tutors, mentors and pastoral support

Many institutions have a system of personal tutors with some pastoral responsibility including making the student aware of the various support services available, such as the University of Manchester Department of History and Economic History which provides its personal tutors with details of additional support for personal, financial, employment and childcare.

Although it’s a mistake to identify retention with support services, having these in place helps and can be less costly and resource intensive than changing teaching and learning.

The University of Greenwich has undertaken research into support arrangements in selected areas with a view to identifying good practice. It argues that such support is not necessarily the most effective way of assisting student retention, but it is reasonably easy to put into practice (Jones, 2002: p. 25). The university looked at such issues as the admissions and induction process, the student support-related responsibilities of both academic and administrative staff, the system of personal tutors and the process of informing these of attendance patterns, etc.

One item on the University of Western Sydney’s 11-point checklist for retention is "sharp, efficient, responsive and accurate student administration systems" to prevent time-consuming complaints.

A number of HEIs have put into place a mentoring system. An example of which is the University of Edinburgh’s M-Power mentoring programme which supports students in their first year at university. Third-year students volunteer to provide support for first years. See Another example is that of Liverpool Hope which also introduced a mentoring scheme for its education studies students, putting more advanced students on the same course with first-year students.

Identification of students at risk – early warning systems

Some HEIs make a special point of identifying at-risk students so that they can give them additional support:

  • New York University Dental School has an intervention programme for students who perform poorly in their mid-term assessments, based on mid-term grades as well as some class observations.High risk students then have a series of meetings with retention and learning specialists as well as an upperclassman peer mentor, and in extreme cases with the assistant dean of student affairs. This has been extremely effective and now attrition is down to 1-2 per cent (Rosenthal, 2008).
  • At Napier University, biology students have to complete a diagnostic test, the object of which is to identify at-risk students. The test includes questions on housing and motivation for doing a degree, for more information, see:

Contact between staff and students

Students flourish in an atmosphere where they feel that they matter to staff, and feel discouraged when they have no contact outside the lecture theatre.

Jefferson Community College, Kentucky, for example, came up with a number of ideas for improving faculty-student interaction, such as:

  • at the end of each class period, ask one student to stay behind and talk to you;
  • ask students to drop by your office to pick up assignments rather than giving them out anonymously;
  • call students on the telephone if they are absent;
  • circulate round the class as you talk or ask questions;
  • provide positive reinforcement wherever possible;
  • listen intently to students’ views and opinions;
  • socialize with your students at their clubs and bars.

While Griffith University advocates getting to know the students especially their needs, motivations and aspirations.


One of the reasons why students leave is because they become disheartened when they get low marks. Students should receive adequate preparation, expectations should be set out clearly, and feedback should be prompt and clear. Thomas (2002: p. 439) advises including "a range of assessment practices that give all students, irrespective of their preferred method of assessment, the opportunities to succeed, and which do not assume the same amount of time and other resources".

The University of Manchester Department of History and Economic History tackled the problem of bunching assignments around Christmas by better spacing, and made sure that students were better prepared and received better feedback.

One of the University of Western Sydney’s 11 checkpoints for retention is that assessment tasks must be "precisely specified, real-world, problem-based, integrated and well-timed with a clear, up-front indication of how they will be graded".

Jefferson Community College in Kentucky advocates that tutors stress a positive "you can handle it" attitude, and emphasize willingness to give help, as well as meeting with students who do less well, and, if research papers are required, making sure students know how to use the library, and conducting a weekly evaluation of what the class has achieved.

There should be more formative assessment, because this gives students a feel for how they are doing without formal grading; some suggest that the only assessment in the first term should be formative (Yorke, 2002).

A department of computing found that students had problems with understanding the language of object orientation, so provided multiple choice questions with feedback as a means of formative evaluation.

Teaching and learning styles

A good retention strategy will be strongly linked with that for teaching and learning: it will encourage active, independent learning; it will be practical, vocationally linked and provide real world examples; it will ensure that the student is in an intellectually stimulating environment.

At Griffith University, attempts are made to generate a stimulating intellectual environment, with discussion, debate, exploration and discovery that extends beyond the classroom. Time is allocated to developing the necessary academic literacy skills within a disciplinary context, and ways of thinking and problem solving are modelled so that students acquire the necessary academic skill set.

Jefferson Community College in Kentucky advocates the following:

  • using a variety of teaching styles (lectures, discussion, small groups, films);
  • making sure that students understand course objectives and how they are relevant to them;
  • using concrete examples when explaining rules, principles, definitions, etc.;
  • distributing an outline of your lecture notes before the class starts, which will help students organize the material you are presenting.

It is also very important to be aware of the gap between the skills the student arrives with and the skills they need for the course. This may mean testing.

At Queen Mary College, University of London, there was some concern over the level of mathematical ability for numerate disciplines. Every year, students are tested and are allocated to a class according to their results and their academic discipline (HEFCE, 2001).

Nurturing friendship among students

HEIs can create an environment that fosters friendship in various ways.

  • Students can be organized into learning groups, both within classes and via the curriculum.
  • Some HEIs establish learning communities, which are interdisciplinary clusters of courses linked by a particular theme, and which overlap in teaching and assessment. Students have to sign up for all courses, so they get to know one another very well. For an example, see
  • House systems are another way in which HEIs can divide up into smaller, human-friendly components. Consisting both of faculty and students, at university level these are usually synonymous with residence, as in the college system (Oxford, Cambridge, Yale) or houses (Harvard), and having people living together is a great way of creating community. However, a house system can also be used in a non-residential sense as a body of people who are not linked by building or faculty. See for more information.