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This is a very relevant question in the light of the government’s recent announcement of its intention to tie a proportion of tertiary funding to student completion and retention rates. (This decision is presumably driven, among other things, by relatively low rates of retention and passing papers/courses, which lead to questions about whether we’re getting value for money from our tertiary system.) Speaking personally, I find this a rather blunt instrument for rewarding performance as at least some of the factors affecting this are beyond the institutions’ control (e.g. Zepke et al. 2005). There’s quite a lot of literature around dealing with the whole issue of student retention, but I thought I’d be self-indulgent for once & discuss a study done here, examining the factors affecting completion & retention of students in science & engineering (Otrel-Cass et al., 2009).

This study used a combination of a questionnaire & focus-group interviews with returning 2nd-year students to examine various factors that could influence students’ decisions to stick with their studies. (One immediately obvious flaw is that we’d got no real way to find out why those who didn’t return, chose not to.) The questions we used in the survey were designed to elicit students’ opinions on their ability to cope with the varying demands they faced during their studies. We were interested in time management, learning strategies, how confident they felt at managing their learning in lectures & labs, communication issues surrounding their studies, information available about their programs of study (provided by staff in particular & the institution as a whole) and about assessment.

Rather alarmingly, only around half of the students we surveyed felt particularly confident about managing the workloads associated with tertiary study, while 70% felt that this was a significant issue in deciding to come back to uni. (And remember, these were second-year students, so they’d already managed to cope with the jump from school to university.). So – those of my readers who are intending to enter uni at some point – be aware that you’ll need to develop some strategies to handle the various demands on your time. I feel it’s also important for us to keep an eye on how our students are doing, & offer support when it’s needed, & in fact we’ve developed a system in my Faculty to do just this for first-year students. We need scientists & technologists & engineers, so it makes a lot of sense to support our budding technicians & researchers & teachers through the rocky patches as best we can.

If you’re studying science you’ll be in the lab, writing essays & reports, & using the library. Yet less than 20% of our respondents felt very confident in their ability to do these things well. (This bothered me more than a bit – we should be teaching them how to do these things in first-year! That’s actually one reason we include an essay in the assessment for first-year biology – to help students to learn the conventions of academic writing. And also to help prepare them for the essay-type answers in their end-of-year exams.) 

I mentioned labs – the students we surveyed placed a lot of importance on their lab work, in terms of learning various techniques but also because of the opportunities lab classes offer to interact with teaching staff. You get the chance to ask questions that you might not have wanted to ask during a lecture, and this helps to develop a more personal relationship with your lecturers. In fact, we found that [students] placed high value on the presence of academic staff in practical sessions,(Otrel-Cass et al., 2009), for thiis very reason.

Our respondents (in both the survey & the focus groups) recognised the value of lectures. They were particularly positive when they felt that lecturers valued what they were doing. They also felt strongly that it was easier to engage with a subject when the lecturers were themselves interested and enthusiastic – and when the teaching staff told personal stories in class. While these gave information about future careers, they also increased the students’ motivation. This was obvious in the students’ comments: One of the best [experiences] that I loved was how they give examples. You know, really amazing little things of weird little animals you never even knew about and you can actually go home and tell people, ‘Oh, I learned this today’ and that’s really cool. I always tell at home what I learned and why things happen too. 

Overall, it seemed clear to us that we (uni academics, & institutions) need to give our first-year students the message that we value them & take their educational needs seriously. This has a big impact on their attitudes to continuing with their studies. Letting students see staff as ‘people’ through personalised lectures, having academics (rather than senior students) in lab classes, being available to talk with students, keeping an eye on how students are handling things like workload – all these make students feel part of the uni community. This finding fits in with research findings elsehwere that stress the significance of staff: student relationships. The trick for us, of course, is to balance all this with the other demands on our time in a funding environment that places a high importance on research & attracting external funding. Achieving success is a juggling act for staff as well as for their students :-) But an act that’s rewarding, if we do it well.

K.Otrel-Cass, B.Cowie & A.Campbell (2009) What determines perseverance in studying science? Journal of Institutional Research 14(2): 30-44.

N.Zepke, L.Leach, T.Prebble, A.Campbell, D.Coltman, B.Dewart & M.Gibson (2005) Improving tertiary student outcomes in the first year of study. NZ Council for Education Research report.