Retention in Higher Education: the case for a focus on self-regulation

Nan Bahr, February 20, 2020

First of all … we agree that attrition in higher education is a bad thing, right? It’s sad for the students who harbour an abiding sense of incompleteness. It’s sad for their families and children who learn that dropping out is ok, and they never get a chance to benefit from improved employment prospects. And it’s sad for us because it undercuts each higher education institution’s ability to even exist sustainably.

What we normally do in higher education is work like steam to collect data, monitor performance, and provide just in time support for students who we characterise as being academically at risk. That is, we work to identify those who are about to cut their ties with their program. We actually know a lot about students who leave us through comprehensive reports from universities all over the world and domestically, and we have root cause papers about the attrition of students at my University. This helps us to pick out who might be at risk, to try and save them. We call them, write to them, interview them, and provide a range of services and information for free. The goal is for them to love us, and stay, and complete. At my University they do love us. In national surveys, internal surveys and forums they tell us they think our supports are fabulous AND YET THEY LEAVE!! Retention rates do not equate with satisfaction scores for support to learning.

There is a real issue here, and it might not be what you think. My view is that we are effectively putting a band aid on a severed arm (metaphorically of course) without thinking to turn off the chainsaw. That is, we are acting too late, and I argue, with the wrong approach to effectively and completely mitigate against the causes underpinning a student’s decision to give up. The students who leave us say:

  • They are overwhelmed;
  • They are failing;
  • They have left their assignments too late; and
  • They have assessment due date clashes.

In response to hearing these types of things from a student, we might send them to counselling to help with their anxiety. We might provide them with supplementary assessment opportunities which then creates a stockpile of assessment in the next teaching session. .. policies, practices, protocols aplenty in a move I call “failing forward.” Our advice for the development of assignment drafts for submission is useless as they have left the help-seeking process too late, and so forth. Can you see where I’m heading with this? Yes, we need to be much more proactive.

The missing element is our attention to student self-regulation. We need to work toward assuring student independence in their learning. Focus on how to organise, time manage, plan, and seek information. They need to be confident that they know what to do, where to start, and to see themselves as being in control.

It doesn’t seem like much … but the impact of a turn in our support systems and our assessment and course designs to focus on the creation of self-determinant, self-regulated, self-managing, self-directed, and self-efficacious learners will have a huge impact on retention and requires a complete rethink of the way we work to support students in higher education.

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