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Better academic support for students may help lower university attrition rates

Students say they find university teaching staff unhelpful and unavailable. from www.shutterstock.com

Better academic support for students may help lower university attrition rates

Students say they find university teaching staff unhelpful and unavailable. from www.shutterstock.com

Stronger academic support for students may help lower attrition rates, new research finds.

The study shows that many students feel they are not getting the support they need, despite research showing that the relationships students have with their lecturers can have a big influence over retention rates.

Access to academics outside of class hours, as well as more opportunities for feedback, are key elements of support that may help students.

Among students surveyed in Australia, 5% said they did not find teaching staff at their university helpful, available and approachable. Of these students, more than half expected to drop out of university. While 5% seems a low figure, this is equivalent to more than 35,000 students or a medium-sized Australian university.

Among the 23% of students who indicated they received some academic support, nearly one-quarter said they intended to leave.

This is compared with just one in ten students who found their teachers helpful and approachable who had considered leaving university early.

A lack of support tends to remain a strong factor, regardless of a student’s background.

Why are students not getting the support they need?

Bringing students and academics together is a difficult task.

Just 8% of academics surveyed in a previous study in Australia indicated that the majority of their students discussed class material with them.

It is difficult to build these interactions due to a number of factors.

From the student perspective, balancing time with study, work and caring responsibilities is difficult, and as a result these students spend less time on campus and have fewer opportunities to interact with their lecturers.

A 2009 survey showed that the average time spent on campus by students each week of a semester was 13 hours. Of this time, the majority (ten hours) was spent in the classroom. This means very little time is spent outside of class on campus.

The situation is more dire for the growing group of online students, and this is often reflected in their lower levels of completion.

From the academics’ perspective, however, workload pressures around face-to-face teaching, pressure to publish research, applying for grants and serving on committees severely reduce the flexibility and availability for out-of-class time with students.

For the large proportion of teaching staff in universities who are working on casual contracts, meeting with students is often something that needs to happen outside of paid hours.

What affects attrition rates

Surveys suggest that health, financial difficulties, workload and study/life balance are the most common reasons students give for considering dropping out of university, although these issues differ for different groups of students.

Around three in every four students who enrol onto a university course graduate within around nine years.

Research shows that student characteristics, such as age and background, also have a substantial impact on the completion rates of students.

The following factors have been shown to impact on completion rates: enrolling onto a university course above the age of 25 years (49% completion rate); identifying as Indigenous (47% completion rate); being from a low socioeconomic status (SES) background or regional area (both 69% completion).

Type of enrolment also impacts on whether a student is likely to complete a course of not. Part-time, online and off-campus students are less likely to complete than their full-time and on-campus peers.

And students with multiple at-risk characteristics are even more unlikely to complete university.

But improving retention inevitably involves a range of interventions and support mechanisms – there is no silver bullet solution.

What works?

Analysis of the Student Experience Survey shows students who find teaching staff helpful and available, students who work with other students as part of their study, and students who interact with other students outside of study all have a substantially lower likelihood of considering dropping out of university.

While these findings offer an insight into an area where universities may be able to make a demonstrable difference to retention of students, the conundrum for universities remains – how can they support the development of strong relationships between students and lecturers?

How to better support students

Recognising the important role of academics in this process and helping equip them with tools and skills to engage students is central.

A study published a few years back suggested that among PhD student who were aspiring to be academics, very few had access to training that increased their pedagogical skills.

But this is beginning to change.

Investment in qualifications for university teaching and support for academics is increasing.

The adoption by a number of Australian universities of the UK Higher Education Academy’s Fellowships – a program that fosters and recognises excellence in academic teaching practice, and aims to raise the prestige of teaching among academics – is also an example of this change (albeit one that we need to go to the UK for).

Understanding that all universities grapple with this issue and sharing experiences, ideas and programs is also a useful start.

Networks such as the Doctoral Teaching group are examples of this sharing beginning to happen. Fostering further collaboration in this area is something that could make a difference in raising retention.

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