Meeting Student Expectations 5: Transition and Retention

Last week I outlined, over the four previous blogs, how the experience for students in the twenty-first century has changed due to markitization, changes in information technology, changes in the world of work, and a decrease in mental well-being. For all these reasons, therefore, we need to make changes to the way in which we teach, in which students learn, to our curriculum, and to our portfolio of programmes. We also need to make changes in the expectations we have of our students and the expectations they should have of us. Once again, therefore, I will outline four possible responses to these changes over the next four days. It is not that one response relates to each one of the issues raised last week. Each response addresses a number of the issues that have already been raised. It is through a combination of each of these responses, and many more, that I would suggest that we can perhaps find a way forward.

First of all, therefore, we need to put far greater emphasis on the transition from school, or college, to university. We have very little time, especially from results day, or clearing, to the time students come to university. We still have to ask, however, what is it that is needed in order to prepare those students for such a significant change in their lives.

Students are facing new experiences, new ways of learning, new friends, new expectations. I have always said that a single week of induction is never going to provide all that a new student needs for three years of life at university. They do not have a chance to take in, within that week, all the new things that they need to know. In the past I have used the core first year module, that I taught for all the theology and religion programmes at Birmingham, as part of a process of extended induction; introducing students to the information, skills and experiences they need as they need them through the first, and into the second term of their first year.

Many universities are now taking advantage of online technology to provide open access online courses that students can work their way through before they arrive. Others begin to establish online communities, through social media, between new and existing students in order to bring students together and to provide a context for belonging before the students even arrive, extending this in to peer buddy systems that provides support between first and second years through the first year of their studies.

Are we sure, however, that this is going to be enough? All the evidence shows that student retention is rooted in a sense of belonging and that this does not occur by accident. We have to work hard, both within the subject area and across the university, to give students that sense of belonging, a sense that they are valued and have something to offer to the wider institution.

The way we expect students to learn is also significantly different from anything they have experienced before. They need to overcome their fears, to adjust, but also to have an opportunity to try things out, and perhaps even to fail before the activities have a lasting effect on their degree outcomes.

It is also in these first few weeks that many of the values that we want our students to leave with need to be instilled, including a commitment to attendance, the confidence to work with peers, to communicate effectively and to present in front of others, to commit to activities that need to be undertaken, and above all to know that they can achieve their very best, with our support, if they are prepared to put the work in.

Do we, therefore, need to rethink how we manage our first year programmes, to provide more time and concentrated activity, perhaps for the first half of the first term? This does not mean that we abandon disciplinary teaching during this period and concentrate solely on skills, or bonding exercises. Engaging in such activities without reference to the discipline seldom works and often leads to boredom among students. It is possible, however, to think of some kind of group project, for example, that at one and the same time enables students to meet other students and work together (perhaps also with second year students), to get used to a very different way of learning, to learn useful skills and to test out possibilities, and also to give us the chance to assess the students, setting a benchmark for future learning gain, and also providing a personalised framework for skills and other development for each individual student.

Whatever it is that we choose to do, it must always be the needs and experience of the students that come first, putting the more detailed disciplinary learning off to later in the year. If we manage the transition correctly, then we will have less difficulty with retention, and the ability of students to engage and to learn will also be improved, making the whole experience a much more positive one for all involved.


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