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Some more ideas around retention

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

Contents (click to jump to a section)

Tinto's concept of integration (social and academic) can be seen as at bottom implicitly but essentially similar to a number of other concepts from other fields. (The whole thrust of the thought here, of this page, is that a) Tinto is one expression of a common general thought; b) identifying and considering other expressions of the thought may suggest something new about designing interventions to improve retention; c) a closer and more critical look at the concept may also identify several independent issues and mechanisms, and so offer a better focus for designing interventions.)

Tinto's integration concept

Tinto's main idea was that dropout was predicted by "integration", academic and social. I discussed this at length on another page. Tinto derived his model from Durkheim's model for predicting suicide.

Bean's student attrition model

Bean,J.P. (1980) "Dropouts and turnover: The Synthesis and Test of a Causal Model of Student Attrition" Research in Higher Education vol.12 no.2 pp.155-187

Bean derived his model from one for employee turnover (with pay analogous to grades/marks gained) in work organisations, and used path analysis statistics.

He used regression and path analysis. He used behavioural data for the final dependent variable in the causal chain (actual dropout). He assumed (but also checked) additive not multiplicative effects between variables i.e. no interactions. He used only first year students, a single ethnicity and a single HEI. He used only students in a single big module. He doesn't say when in the year the data was collected. He, or rather path analysis, seems to require prior assumptions about the direction of causal links. His model explained much more of the variance for women than for men. But, as he says, his model still doesn't explain 90% of the variance for men, and 80% for women.

An anomalous finding was that men (but not women) were more likely to drop out the more satisfied they were. Satisfaction was a 4 item subscale, but also modelled as an intervening variable. However for men, it didn't really work like that.

He has practical recommendations, different for men and women. Most eye-catching: push women into joining campus organisations; don't have too much fixed contact hours (scheduling) for men in first year.

Social capital

The concept of "social capital", due to Hanifan, Jacobs, and Bourdieu (Bourdieu, Pierre (1972) Outline of a Theory of Practice), is now fashionable in Sociology and has been applied to retention. I have not yet seen it associated with an effective intervention that reduced dropout, though clearly many believe it has explanatory power.

Reconsidering "integration" as feedback to students

Another major theoretical area that may have implications for dropout is that of feedback and assessment (from teachers to students). The relevance here is that students may need a clear demonstration that they are learning something, and are competent in the institution's eyes, in order to feel they fit in, and that they are furthering their lives and careers, etc.. In one way this is just one reasonable interpretation of Tinto's concept, but it puts a rather different importance on feedback than the usual one, and implies a rather different set of requirements for designing the provision of feedback to students in each course in the first year.

One of the most important points to grasp here is that students need, and are de facto working with, multiple feedback loops. Most academics implicitly assume that when they write comments on an essay (say) these are to help the student improve their technical essay writing skills: and that that is all that feedback is about. This is seriously off the mark, especially when considering the effect that feedback (and its absence) has on retention. A second, and to most students more important, feedback loop is about the self-regulation of effort, and uses marks (grades) as the main information. This is why so many students ignore formative feedback but attend keenly to marks. Like the rest of us, they have limited time and energy and need to decide what they can work less on, and what they must find more resources for. Still more feedback loops are in fact active. A third one concerns study skills. Students modify their study habits radically over their time in HE, but little is done to give them good feedback to assist this. Generally, only a whole diet of exams gives them some information to support reflection on whether and how to modify their practices for revision and studying.

However a fourth feedback loop is of most interest here, and again most staff, and even more, most policies, are oblivious to it. Especially in first year, students need to decide whether to continue a given subject. When I asked one student whether the departmental feedback practices were satisfactory in her view (I was debating the pro forma we used with a colleague), she said "[no] All I really needed to know was whether I was a psychologist, or whether I should switch to Geography". This is information about aptitude and ability, but more precisely, information to govern the decision over what courses (major) to study. Or, perhaps, the decision as to whether they weren't suited to being a student and should leave. For dropout, this is probably the most important feedback loop; but is almost never addressed by academic practices and policies. Thus a more appropriate approach to "feedback" and assessment by staff might have a marked impact on dropout and retention.

Reconsidering "integration" as self-actualisation

The idea here (prompted by Nicola Simmons) is that the social view of integrating a student into an HEI could also be considered as an individual process of personal development: Maslow's self-actualisation, Kelly's construct development. This would make particular sense in connection with the way it is thought that students have to become acculturated, get used to the role of student, the mores of their particular institution; and that those from families where no-one has ever been to university have bigger problems at this because they are less pre-adapted (their expectations are less in line with institutional life). This is also like Lave & Wenger's concepts of situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation: but applied less to actual learning, more to being a student as a role.

Such self-actualisation can also be seen as self-development that should be considered part of PDP.

Reconsidering "integration" as employee "attrition"

There may be a surprisingly close similarity between student dropout and employee attrition or high turnover. (This was a new thought to me, but in fact Bean (1980) discusses a version of it.) Lorna McEachan points out that this parallel applies not just to sociological explanatory models, but to current schemes used by employers to reduce staff turnover. Many large organisations have independently evolved schemes to combat early departure of new staff that have proved very effective. Behind the somewhat different terminology, they seem essentially similar to some suggestions made for combatting student dropout. Even though students are not employees, perhaps we should recognise important similarities in the underlying human needs, and consider adopting many of the same tactics.

In many companies too, most "dropouts" occur within the first few months. These schemes can be thought of as an induction programme. The general aims are the same: to make employees/students feel valued, and to give them feedback. The chief means for this are: have their manager talk to them regularly; give them feedback on how they are doing, fill them in on how they fit into the wider picture at the organisation; spread this over not 1-2 days but 90 days (because no-one takes it all in in one lump before they know what any of it means in practice).

But are students like employees? In many ways not, but the implicit human needs of a person joining a new organisation, whether a university or a hotel, that underlie a considerable number of them leaving again in the first few months, seem to have a lot in common. So the counter-measures worth taking are likely to be surprisingly similar.

Links about employer approaches

  • induction programmes
  • report on turnover / retention
  • employee turnover
  • 90 day "new hire" process See "The Marriott model"

    Reconsidering "integration" as "community"

    Another possible similarity is with Jean Lave's concept of "learning community". Integration = community at least at the level of general metaphor. But a new thought here is that the vague metaphor of community could and should be unpacked into different contributions, and that that too has implications for addressing retention. One aspect is peer interaction, another is whether interaction is social in content, or intellectual. However an idea that is new to me derives from reconsidering the notion of learning communities as perhaps including having a teacher keep track of each learner's participation as a whole ("monitoring"). This could in fact be the most important aspect or interpretation for retention: re-interpreting the common student complaint "no-one knows my name" into not intellectual companionship, but simple recognition. This then sounds similar in thrust to the account of corporate induction procedures to combat attrition.

    One way to conceptualise this is distinguish, in our model of the learning and teaching process, between the main level of learning content, and an overlying level of management (see here): deciding on and organising the actions and activities that enable the learning to happen. Student "self-regulation" is a label flagging up that at this management level too, interaction not one-way transmission is actually the real state of affairs. However learners may need support, scaffolding, especially at first (i.e. especially in their first year in HE). One type is the Gibbs principle of capturing sufficient time and effort by having many small exercises with deadlines. But we could reinterpret teacher monitoring as scaffolding for self-management: spotting when a particular learner stops keeping up with the official actions, and intervening with personal interaction with that learner.

    Group activities

    Many of us feel intuitively that groups go better if the members are already friends, and many academics act on that, and sincerely believe that this is in line with Tinto's ideas on integration. However I haven't seen any evidence for this. On the contrary, in fact. If you put students into a small group with a common job, then they will probably become friends (not the other way round), as is well established in the social psychology literature on groups. See Trotter's work for how this can be significant in implementing retention actions well or badly. So all the time and money spent on parties for students may be wasted.

    Similarly, the work on conceptual development through peer interaction by Howe and others might be taken to imply that tutorial groups should be reshuffled regularly (not allow friendship groupings) in order to increase the chances of different views being put into contact.

    Finally, many courses nowadays make students do groupwork, and believe they are enhancing their employability. But this may not be the case. Most work groups in the workplace do NOT put several people with identical knowledge together, but on the contrary form groups precisely to bring together different sets of knowledge. This kind of group then has a natural reason for needing each other. In my view there are two different kinds of group. Most group work in all settings other than academic ones is about division of labour ("collaboration" in some literature) to achieve a jointly produced outcome. The point of division of labour is NOT having to do, or to know how to do, each other's work. Essentially all the group-work literature in business, management, and most psychology concerns only this type of group. However learning groups should have a different aim: to end up with everyone being able to know and do the same things independently ("cooperation" in some literature). Many learning groups are unproductive perhaps because they naturally and unconsciously adopt tactics suitable for non-learning groups. However you cannot learn for someone else; and you may not really be able to read for someone else. You can however do other things for them: test them, offer them alternative explanations, exercise their knowledge (which reading does not do), and so on. Thirdly, I, and I suspect others, have misunderstood Tinto's distinction between social and academic integration. In fact, as has often been reported, students seldom have problems making friends or having a good social life, at least in some universities: this seems to be something that varies a lot between institutions.

    What is less routinely the case, however, is students having people and occasions on which they discuss academic issues. Thus social activities, ice breakers, freshers' parties etc. are "social" in the everyday sense, but are not addressing the key issue: working together on academic (not social) tasks. The first correction to common understandings of Tinto's distinction between academic and social integration is not to think this is about social relationships with friends vs. academic relationships with staff, but instead for broadly academic goals, does a student have good connections to both peers and staff. Another subtle but important correction to interpreting Tinto is to consider social-academic as referring to the solo-group axis, and considering that every learning activity may be done in either way, and that the most productive is probably a judicious mix in which the two modes are brought into a productive relationship. For instance it is not really enough just to spend some time in each mode: what is best is to prepare by solo work for what to do in a group, and then follow up the group work by solo work e.g. to verify and rehearse that you can now do the task alone.

    The moral, the practical conclusions, of this are:

    1. Assume the social can, will, and should follow the academic in student peer interaction and NOT the other way round.
    2. Sharply distinguish groups whose purpose is to produce a single joint product (division of labour, no need to share knowledge, just to contribute a part of the product) from intellectual groups whose purpose is to advance the conceptual understanding of each and every participant. The latter are a university's core concern, and are sadly neglected. The former are much more common in the workplace but are bad vehicles for learning.

    Reconsidering "integration" as "recruitment and training"

    Look at the whole series of processes in getting potential applicants to consider HE at all, through acceptance, induction, and their first year. Consider this as one whole process in which weaknesses at any stage are likely to increase dropout, but conversely strengths may ease other steps as well as improve retention.

    Recruitment, induction, training in a job; and in HE, the comparable sequence of attracting students, induction, and settling them in could usefully be re-considered, not just as consistent with the job-HE comparison, but as multiple stages in a single process. This is explored here. It implies:

    1. multiple uses of the same material;
    2. design and management of these processes as one whole;
    3. retention probably depends on the overall joint effect.

    Backgrounding "integration"?

    In summary: it may well be that retention is best understood by downgrading Tinto's concept of "integration" to the status of a background metaphor, and instead focussing on more precise alternative understandings. Practical interventions to reduce dropout may best be addressed in these ways too, since many traditional actions seem consistent with Tinto but are ineffective.

    Conversely, many of the best retention actions can be understood under other headings than retention. Thus the best way forward may be:

    Such alternative angles include:

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