Improving Student Retention and Progression: Ideas For FE and HE Lecturers

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At the start of the academic year, there is always a focus on admissions—but holding on to and progressing existing students is just as important. What does research say about best practices to improve student retention and outcomes? 

Catching problems early.

The first year is the most likely time for students to leave—almost 10 percent nationwide. While this isn't always a negative (sometimes students are simply not ready or must prioritise other things), for many it’s early experiences of failure or misunderstandings that start the process of dropping out. 

And it is a process, one that staff can successfully intervene in at any point until the final decision to leave. That’s why keeping an eye on marks and attendance patterns is crucial if we want to reduce drop-out rates.

When students fail or make poor marks, do more than just deliver the bad news with a letter grade. Make personal contact and find out what factors may have contributed. The same goes for poor attendance—find out why, and you can help the student get back on track before it’s too late.

For the unmotivated student who has partaken of too much freshman partying, finding out that someone on staff really cares how well they do can actually make a difference. For the motivated student who has practical problems, we can often present solutions, such as helping the student get into a study group with high flyers, obtaining extra tutoring support, or getting assessed for the impact of disability-related issued on their work.

Hanging by a thread.

Research shows that students who don’t feel connected to a student cohort don't feel connected to their college or university, either. They don't get a motivational push from fellow students when their work is criticised, and may assume everyone else is doing much better than they are. They become less and less likely to put attendance and assignments above other activities.

Where you can, try to connect students to a cohort group or campus project that will give them a sense of belonging. For students who aren't group-oriented, just a connection to one other student or a member of staff can be enough to keep them attached. All it takes is one slender thread to start building a web of connections. 

Turning around a “bad” decision.

Some students start a course for all the wrong reasons. They have followed advice from parents, friends or even a misguided careers advisor, and ended up in a programme that’s unsuitable. Rather than simply watching them flounder and fail, take time to find out where their real talents and interests lie, and work with your administration and fellow programme leaders to redirect them to the right place. Make sure there is a clear path for students who need, for whatever reason, to change their mind.

Help students stay the course.

The other “danger zones” for dropping out are key progression points. If student performance or attendance drops suddenly, make sure it’s followed up fast—and not with an anonymous bulk email. Just one phone call, hallway conversation or personal email can bring back a student who is struggling due to outside issues, or having a crisis of confidence. 

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