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This is the (slightly embellished) abstract for a poster presented at the PRHE (Pedagogical Research in Higher Education) conference, 2-3 May 2006 in Liverpool. The poster format is here as PDF.
The most widely cited author on the topic of HE student retention and dropout is Tinto (1975), who introduced the concept of "integration". (See McCubbin's (2003) review for further references and a critique.) Whether we use the terms integration, belonging, adaptation, adjustment (to college), or having a comfortable identity, the notion resonates with most of us. However when it comes to designing interventions to improve retention, or understanding the effect of different university activities on that, then we need to become more specific. Studies by the author suggest that, at least in the particular context and institution the studies were done in, academic integration is more important (in the sense of more decisive for retention) than social integration (Duncan, 2006).
A completely different line of pedagogical thinking concerns the effectiveness of feedback and assessment on learning. Sadler (1989) has argued that for assessment to be effective in improving learning, the learner must not only get feedback on how their work differed from the criteria, but must also understand what the criteria are, what they mean operationally, and how the difference could be reduced by the student. However when students are intellectually able, they frequently obtain adequate marks even without such understanding so staff do not usually see them as at risk, yet if interviewed express their bewilderment about this. This paper suggests that this may be a major cause of poor "academic integration" leading to feelings of distancing and alienation from the subject of study, linked to low feelings of self-efficacy: that is, they do not feel that the work they put in relates to the mark they get, which reduces their motivation to work, and enjoyment in doing so. Evaluation studies of Peer Assisted Learning groups by the author to some extent supports this interpretation.
This implies, then, that redesigning assessment and its context may not only lead to improved learning outcomes as measured by marks, but to improved retention operating through improved academic integration. In fact for able students, this may be more important. Lockhart (2004) found a relationship between academic confidence and retention, consistent with this.
Lockhart,P. (2004) "An investigation into the causes of student dropout behaviour" (Dept. of Psychology, University of Glasgow).
McCubbin,I. (2003) An Examination of Criticisms made of Tinto's 1975 Student Integration Model of Attrition (Dept. of Psychology, University of Glasgow) PDF file.
Sadler, D.R. (1989) "Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems" Instructional Science vol.18 pp.119-144
Tinto,V. (1975) "Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research" Review of Educational Research vol.45, pp.89-125.
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