Retention: Creating learning environments that engage
Why retention is important
Several national studies (Swail; American Institutes for Research; Lake) purport approximately 60% of all college students attending four-year institutions persist until graduation within 6 years. Thus, there is a 40% attrition rate nationally.
American tax dollars contribute to the grants, scholarships and financial aid used by many students. According to LendEDU a college drop-out has incurred about $14,000 dollars in student aid debt. About half of these loans are in default. There are high stakes involved at the institutional level as well.
According to a study of retention at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2016, the cost to that one university of losing almost 40% of their enrolled students during that 6 years was $86 million. Given the high financial impact to society, institutions, and students, the study of college retention and student persistence has become an important one.
Beyond financial loss
While retention has hefty financial implications, perhaps more important, college degrees prepare students to critically evaluate the needs of their society and to understand how to effect change for the better. Retention also affects the national reputations of colleges where legacies, among other advantages, are at risk in institutions with high attrition rates. Finally, and perhaps most critically, the impact on the individual student of attrition, withdrawal, or dropout goes beyond crushing college loan debt.
The impact on self- esteem and self-efficacy results in far more pervasive and damaging long-term consequences than mere financial limitations. The assault to self-worth may be the greatest danger of college attrition and the most important reason to show concern for increasing student retention. An examination of student retention can help us change the retention narrative, and help our students write brighter and more hopeful futures for themselves and our society.
What we can do
There are factors that lead to attrition beyond the control of institutions and instructors. Student abilities, skills, and preparation come with them to college. As do their personal attributes, values, and knowledge base. While we know students with the character trait of resilience are far more likely to persist against negative factors, colleges cannot control whether a person has this trait or not.
The outside influences, often leading to student dropout, such as families, jobs, or lack of support are factors beyond the scope of college control as well. While programs within colleges may ameliorate the effects of some of these influences, these influences come with the individual and vary widely between students.
The good news is there are a number of factors colleges and instructors can influence. Several of these factors are defined by Alan Seidman (2012). Seidman purports these may be the greatest contributors toward student success. These include; expectations, student support, involvement, and feedback.
Expectations clearly communicated to students from their institutions and teachers is critical for student comfort, increasing engagement. While it is common knowledge that syllabi are contracts of the class expectations between the student and the teacher, institutional expectations are equally important.
Students will most likely interact on an institutional level before having access to individual classrooms. Schools that have clear mission statements, clear and comprehensive student orientations, clear student handbooks, and information to access support services go a long way toward creating an open and transparent environment where students feel respected and valued. This atmosphere of clear expectations should flow into each classroom, reducing confusion and miscommunication, creating an atmosphere of comfort and clear outlines of how to succeed.
Student support should have a three-pronged approach providing services for academic, social and financial support.
Academic support may be provided through tutoring centers, peer, and faculty mentoring programs, computer proficiency workshops, writing centers, computer labs, and service-learning centers. Not only do academic support centers help students in their classes, but they foster social networks between peers, teachers and the student, creating learning communities.
Social support in college has been linked to positive student engagement, potentially increasing retention. Social centers designed to bond like others for common goals or common identities have shown value in creating climates of collaboration in colleges. Social groups might include clubs or centers for foreign students, service groups, ethnic identity, or spiritual unity, among any other traits that bond groups.
Financial support may take the form of required workshops on financial responsibility for any student on financial aid, or grants and student financial rewards, or student work programs. Some colleges have even offered short-term small cash loans to students struggling at the end or beginning of terms. Students who have a clear understanding of what they are getting for the amount invested are armed with information about the investment and may make better choices about wise expenditures of their energy, time, and resources.
Involvement studies (NASPA; Purdue University) indicate students who feel positive emotional connection to their educational environments, through peer or faculty connections, are more likely to persist. College student populations have evolved from primarily residential students to the majority of students commuting.
With busy, active lives beyond the borders of college campuses, involving students in campus life has become a challenge. Dissociated students are far less likely to find the support needed to weather the inevitable stresses of college. Programs such as peer and faculty mentoring also foster an atmosphere of connectedness.
Methods of student involvement in the classroom include group projects designed for students to connect through remote or social media communication. Class time can also be allocated for group work. In short; happy, connected people are more likely to want to remain connected to each other and the environment that fosters those connections.
Feedback is often overlooked as a critical factor in student retention; however, it is the one factor that is absolutely in the control of the institution and instructors. Transparency by all parties is the key ingredient for solid and satisfactory problem solving. Students need to know how they can succeed and what they need to do to get there.
Institutional feedback comes in the form of monitoring student’s academic standing. Students need accurate and timely assessments of their degree progress. They need clear communication of their GPA, college and national standing, as well as communications from financial aid concerning their current debt and estimates of debt upon graduation. Students also need early warning when they are steering off the path to successful completion.
Instructor feedback answers the common student questions of: “What is my grade? How do I measure up? Can I pass this course? Our assignment assessments are our feedback to these questions. The practice of assessing content mastery with only one or two major exams or papers gives little indication to students of where they are going off the rail before it was too late. This should not be the case in a learning-focused classroom.
Learning-centered classrooms should offer immediate feedback on formative low stakes assignments. That feedback should be clear and meaningful resulting in the students increased awareness of what they know or don’t know. This translates into better metacognition and students are less likely to overestimate their knowledge acquisition.
The learning-centered classroom
Learning-centered classrooms demand students learn first-hand, moving away from the teacher centered classroom, where learning is strained by passive listening with little interaction. After implementing new learning-centered feedback strategies in my classroom such as quick mini quizzes using clicker type answering providing immediate feedback in a low-stakes situation, I saw striking results in improved preparedness and retention.
Learning-centered classrooms are also collaborative. Building learning communities within the classroom is often the only peer association commuter students will have. Collaborative learning has been shown to produce greater levels of intellectual development. Teachers can foster this through group work in the classroom assignments.
These might be problem-solutions focused or project-based. Service-learning opportunities in the classroom allow students to work together and apply the academic principles they are learning to real world settings. Other classroom activities that have been suggested in the book, “Make it Stick,” as excellent methods for student learning include:
- Spacing Retrieval Practice, based on the testing effect, where taking tests increases the ability to be a better test taker. Activities that lend themselves to this might be short quizzes, one-minute essays, self-analysis activities, or partnered homework assignments.
- Interleaving is cycling back to previous learning and bringing it forward for application. Reviews, reflections, quizzes, short essays, or group presentations might lend themselves to this type of assignment.
- Elaboration gives new learning meaning and commits it to longer-term memory through application. Essays, scenario creation, group projects and presentations are all able to offer opportunities to elaborate on new knowledge. One particularly successful activity has been to have groups teach a portion of the new concepts for the week.
- Generation is the process of finding creative and innovative solutions to problems or assignments. Offering students opportunities to submit drafts with feedback generates deep understanding of the concepts building towards a more successful final product. Working in groups to resolve a difficult problem is also effective in generating deeper understanding through the lens of other perspectives.
- Reflection reviews new learning, making applications to prior learning or novel situations in real world settings. Service-learning group projects with field notes foster reflection on how the classroom principles apply in practical settings. Essays and scenario activities also allow students to make meaning of new information.
- Calibration teaches students how to judge what they know. It increases metacognitive skills and helps student more accurately assess the time and energy expenditures needed to succeed. Testing of any kind as well as self-evaluation aid in calibrating, as do peer evaluations.
Collaborative learning-centered classrooms where homework is due prior to class, where the student was provided immediate feedback on homework before coming to class, where the teacher has access to performance data from the homework, allows the instructor to focus on those concepts deemed most difficult for the entire class.
This classroom is now flipped to address this specific group of students with their unique learning needs. The flipped classroom lends itself to collaborative learning and interactive problem-solution activities that address the most difficult concepts using valuable class time effectively.
As a young teacher, my classroom was all about my teaching; how creative I could be thoroughly covering all the material. I now see my classroom is not about my teaching, it is about my students’ learning.
I am empowered to know that while retention is an enormous problem impacting our society, colleges, and students, there are things we can do at the institutional level and the classroom level to combat student attrition and student dropout rates, leading to more students meeting their goals and achieving successful and productive futures.
About the author
A native Floridian, Terri worked in North Carolina for 15 years, directing non-profit agencies primarily in the fields of health care and services. Terri moved into academia where she has taught in higher education for over 19 years, teaching communication courses first at Guilford Technical and Community College, completing her master’s degree in communication studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Returning to her native state, she taught communication and college success courses with Polk Community College as she completed her Ph.D in Psychology with an emphasis in social psychology.
As a dual credentialed professor with Eastern Florida State College, Terri has been teaching both psychology and communication courses for over 13 years, using Pearson products in classes first with with MyLabs and continuing with Revel as it expanded the list of authors and developed additional integrations such as Shared Media. She has taught extensively, both in face-to-face and online platforms, a wide range of communication and psychology courses, designing a number of master courses for online programs. She has been a free-lance Faculty Advisor with Pearson for approximately 11 years, making the choice in 2019 to leave full time academia for full time employment with Pearson as a Revel Faculty Advisor for liberal arts.
A skilled presenter with excellent oral and written communication skills, Terri’s preferred research methods are qualitative with a special interest in social psychology and well-being across the life span. Most recently, she published an article based on her research of women choosing to make new committed relationships in later life.