Retention is a tricky issue in higher education. On the one hand, we want to do everything we can to help our students succeed. On the other hand, realistically, we won’t ever retain 100% of our students, and a lot of the time, we have no control over the circumstances that cause students to leave. However, we can do our best to promote success in our classes by paying attention to a few key areas:
Many retention issues are caused by students not earning a desired grade. While this is sometimes due to a lack of effort on the students’ part, it can also be due to gaps in knowledge about course content, ineffective study techniques, and many other issues. For students who legitimately want to perform better, we can help in a few specific ways:
- Provide Feedback Early and Often: Many professors wait several weeks into the semester before giving their first assignments. The problem with this is that patterns develop quickly, and they are much harder to break once established. Giving homework or small quiz grades early will let students identify areas of weakness and work to improve them before they become detrimental to their performance.
- Assign More Work for Less Points: This may seem counterintuitive for improving retention, but having more frequent, smaller-point assignments can be a lifesaver for students who are struggling. If no single assignment can make or break their entire semester, there’s less impact if they don’t perform particularly well on one thing. In this model, an illness, life event, or just a bad day won’t ruin their prospects for the entire semester, and they’ll be more likely to continue to work toward completion of the course.
- Give a Variety of Formative and Summative Assessments: By the time they reach college, students are very familiar with summative assessments. They have grown accustomed to a pattern of learning in which the teacher teaches, and then they are tested on what was taught. Summative assessments give us valuable feedback and are important for many reasons – but to boost retention, try including formative assignments as well. Formative assignments are meant to aid learning, rather than being a measure of it. Because they are typically low-stakes, students can more easily identify where they are struggling and work with their instructors to improve before taking the test.
Stay Plugged into Campus Resources
When students come to visit you, it’s important to know where to send them if they need help. Keep a list of resources available, including how to contact tutors, counseling services, academic advisors, financial aid, and so on. That way, you won’t have to scramble when you’ve got a student looking to you for answers.
Another common retention issue has to do with a lack of connection with others. Students who don’t feel connected to a class often lack the investment to continue working hard once the semester gets difficult (see this Inside Higher Ed article for an excellent write-up of the research on improving retention). In your class, try fostering student connections by assigning fun group work, promoting study sessions, and using think-pair-share strategies to get them talking to one another.
Foster Instructor and Student Connections
Along the same lines as developing connections with each other, students also crave connections with their instructors. Depending on the number of students you teach, it may be extremely difficult to have meaningful relationships with each one. However, instructors can help to foster those relationships by being willing to share a little bit of their personal selves inside the classroom. Telling the students about your “story,” for example, will help them see you as a real person-- especially if they find out you have things in common. Reiterate frequently your availability outside the classroom, such as office hours, online meeting availability, email correspondence, etc. Any connection can be made to make you more approachable, and in turn make students more comfortable seeking you out when they need to talk about class, career goals, and so on.
Investigate When Needed
Of course, sometimes our best efforts aren’t enough to help students stay in our classes. If you or your institution has a way to collect data on students who fail or withdraw, see if you can find patterns that you might be able to address. If you know the students, don’t be afraid to follow up with them and ask what happened. Maybe they will give you good information that you can use to make the path easier for the next group of students.