How to Effectively Retain Students and Boost Their Motivation

Higher education (HE) providers need to have a well-developed student retention strategy in place, one that engages with students who are having second thoughts about HE and provides solutions to their issues. Retention strategies combine things like welcoming, community-based environments with effective support systems that deal with key areas such as improving student wellbeing. So what can HE institutions do to better retain their students?

Providing Support Systems

There are many reasons why a student may leave HE before their course finishes. This could range from changes to their personal life, poor university preparation or a culmination of many different reasons. 

HE institutions should make conscious efforts to research and understand the complex issues that can lead to a student dropping out and create bespoke solutions for each. In this, you can see that improving retention goes hand-in-hand with fostering close relationships between students and academic or management staff.

HE needs to provide very clear options for support, whether they’re financial, physical or mental. For example, Oxford University has a developed Wellbeing and Support Service. Within this, it offers multiple areas of advice and support that could come from their Equality and Diversity Unit, Student Advice Service, Disability Advisory Service or many others.

What Oxford University has done is provide bespoke services for specific issues which may affect students. When it's clear where students with problems or questions can go, student retention rates will increase as the support is there and easily accessible, increasing chances of a resolution.

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Increasing Student Motivation

Evidently, high levels of student motivation will help to increase and maintain retention rates amongst students. Without motivation, the quality of work suffers, affecting the whole of the HE experience. However, there are a number of ways of increasing motivation levels:

  1. Involve students: Allow students to take more active roles in lectures and seminars. Let them take the time to explore their ideas, provide feedback for other students and create a more democratic learning environment. 
  2. Develop an innovative curriculum: Students respond well to creative, varied environments. This means providing a curriculum that has a wide variety of sources and voices to focus on. It's especially good for providing a more inclusive curriculum, meaning that disenfranchised students or those from a minority background can relate to the course matter more effectively.
  3. Set clear and attainable goals: If students aren’t leaving education sessions feeling satisfied, they may end up finding them pointless. To remedy this, each lecture or seminar should demonstrate an accessible number of goals for that specific session, so students can attend with the confidence they’ll cover these points. 
  4. Make education fluid and socially dynamic: Group work is a great way of democratising the learning experience. It allows students to bounce ideas off one another, as well as create specific social contracts that aid learning. To enhance engagement in a lecture or seminar, the format of these can change regularly, so students are hearing many different voices and being brought into new challenging environments.

Handling Student Data

It may not be inherently obvious, but how you handle student data is another critical area when it comes to retention strategies. Now, data will be held in different formats, with different systems and platforms for accessing it, depending on the department. What this can create is competing data systems, lack of accessibility and a non-transparent working system.

In any situation, historical student data is a good way of providing the basis for a solution. If it’s held in hard-to-find or hard-to-access systems, then the solution process is slowed down. In critical situations, this is a real barrier to student retention. Where possible, student data should be held on one single platform, where access for the right employees is simple yet secure. 

What this means is that administrators and academic staff can easily access and analyse data in the event of any high-risk students. 

Warning Signs for Student Disengagement

There are a number of warning signs when it comes to student disengagement with their studies:

  • Erratic attendance.
  • Regularly late assignments.
  • Regularly poor assignments.
  • No use of campus services such as libraries.

These signs are fairly easy to spot, with simple actions of increased support, counselling or advice being good next steps.

Not all signs will be detectable and some students may display no signals at all. To promote an inclusive environment where communication is paramount, you can provide students with the options of providing feedback to the HE institutions. This feedback can be based around their personal experiences of university. It should be fully secure and only acted upon if the student wishes it so.

The option to provide feedback not only gives students more of a voice, it also provides you with actionable suggestions you can use to improve the overall student experience.

Retention Strategies for Each Subject

A fantastic way of going about student retention strategies is to create ones that are specific to each subject. A great example of this is the one employed by the University of Manchester. The report, entitled ‘Student Support and Retention: Models of Explanation and Good Practice’ focuses on adaptive approaches to students on a course-specific trajectory.

One key idea UoM enacts is their acknowledgement of 100% retention rates being unhelpful. It’s not about full retention, but more recognising that for some students, higher education is not the right path. They wrote: 

“There is a growing need for a shift towards maximising optimum retention and recognising that for some students the choice to leave university is a positive one that should be supported by their departments and by the University as a whole.”

The report states that students should be offered support throughout the whole of their university career and that support is integrated throughout all education providers. “Through the development of strong links with schools, colleges and FE providers, we can hopefully start to bridge that gap and provide clear, consistent and practical support to students at risk of withdrawal.”

Going a step further, the University of Manchester has developed good practices for student support and retention on a subject-specific approach. For example, their physics department has specific events and opportunities to enhance the experience of their students. 

“The Manchester Physics Experience consists of two days of activities and a tour of the Jodrell Bank facility. The departmental Master classes comprise a full day of lectures and demonstrations on a particular topic and the final strand of activity is a series of workshops including a visit to the Physics laboratories and a question and answer session.”

By offering course-specific opportunities and support, they’re effectively enhancing student experience in a bespoke manner, creating a better learning environment and reducing drop-outs.

If you want to learn more on how to retain students, enhance student experience within HE institutions and increase retention rates, we've got just the thing...

Improving Student Experience in Higher Education

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