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Good practice in retention

Good practice involves developing effective interventions in a number of variables of Vincent Tinto's model of student retention.

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Student retention theory

It may be argued that everything the University does bears some relationship to student retention. However, it is more helpful to have some conceptual model of the factors that influence whether a student persists or discontinues study. Vincent Tinto's (1993) widely cited model provides a framework for assessing good practice.

If there were some simple magic solution that improved student retention, someone would probably have developed it by now. Unfortunately, student retention is affected by a range of interacting variables. Good practice in student retention will involve developing effective interventions in as many of these variables as is feasible.

This page will point to some examples of good practice. This is by no means exhaustive, and further examples of good practice are welcomed.

(Reference: Tinto, V (1993) Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, University of Chicago press, Chicago).

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Variable 1: Individual attributes

Students arrive at the University with a range of individual attributes that can affect persistence. These include the characteristics of Equity Target Groups: Students of Australian Indigenous descent (ATSI); Students from Low Socio-Economic Backgrounds (LSES); Students from Non-English Speaking backgrounds (NESB); Students with Disabilities (SWD); Female students studying in non-traditional fields (WNT); Students from Rural and Isolated Areas (R&I).

This variable also includes a range of individual factors such as religion, personality, mental health issues, family background etc.

Good practice with respect to this variable is fundamentally:

  • The existence of appropriate support services
  • The capacity to link students to them in a timely manner
  • This will include staff identifying students who are at risk, and referring them to the available support services.

The Unilife section of Curtin's website is the access portal for the full range of university support services.

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Variable 2: Student finances

Financial issues are clearly implicated in student attrition. Costs will include fees, incidental course-related costs, and living expenses. Students may have very limited budgets and be vulnerable to experiencing financial crises when exposed to what may seem to be relatively small additional costs. Associated with this variable is the time factor. A large proportion of students are engaged in significant hours of employment, which may impact on time available for class attendance, personal study time, and capacity to engage in extra curricular activities.

Good practice with respect to this variable will include:

  • Ensuring students are aware of the range of financial supports available (Scholarships, CentreLink funding, Emergency loans etc.) - especially those in a state of financial crisis. E.g. See Financial help information at the Student Guild and the information at Curtin Scholarships 
  • Keeping course costs as low as possible
  • Finding ways of employing students on campus
  • Being flexible (within sensible limits) to students' employment commitments.

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Variable 3: Developing relationships with prospective students

A student does not begin their relationship with the University at the point of enrolment. Our relationship exists from well before the prospective student submits an application to enter a course. It is important to foster positive expectations - and more important, to subsequently meet those expectations.

Good practice with respect to this variable will include:

  • The provision of accurate information to prospective students
  • The opportunity for prospective students to engage with the University prior to formal enrolment
  • Active Outreach programs, particularly with secondary students - for example, see Outreach information at the Faculty of Science and Computing
  • Engagement with key individuals who influence prospective students (e.g. parents, International agents).

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Variable 4: Addressing the impact of pre-university education

Students arrive with a broad range of competencies. Some have deficits which jeopardise their chances of future success. We have the challenge of addressing these needs whilst avoiding the stigmatising label of "Remedial Programs". In a University with a high proportion of International students, this variable will include issues related to English language competency.

Good practice with respect to this variable will include:

  • Early identification and appropriate referral of students with specific deficits - For example, see the online referral system
  • Availability of bridging and enabling programs
  • Possible use of Peer Assisted Study Support (PASS) programs (see further information at the PASS site at the University of Wollongong
  • A range of English language support options.

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Variable 5: Goal commitment

Fundamentally, this variable is whether a student can give themselves a satisfying answer about why they are doing their course. Typically, this will involve either a commitment to the career goal and/or there will be something intrinsically motivating about the course itself. Interventions that increase the student's goal commitment will contribute to improved retention.

Good practice with respect to this variable will include:

  • Availability of clear information about careers pathways - some Departmental websites already include such information
  • Inclusion of career-relevant information early in course programs
  • Referral to career counselling services - refer to Curtin Careers Centre for full range of services.

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Variable 6: Institutional commitment

Increasing the degree to which the university is committed to meeting student needs and increasing the student's commitment to Curtin.

Commitment is a two-way relationship. Students who are committed to the University are more likely to persist, but they are less likely to do so if they do not perceive that the University is committed to them. The faculty and general campus climate can make a profound difference to this variable.

Good practice with respect to this variable will include:

  • The quality of grounds and facilities demonstrate a first impression level of commitment to incoming students
  • The existence of clear and consistent administrative processes across whole university
  • A clearly constructed induction and transition process for new students - an excellent Curtin example is the Engineering Foundation Year program
  • Exit interviewing or other data collection for students who withdraw before completion
  • An embedded O Week and Prep Week program - see their range of activities and services 
  • Active marketing of support services at critical times - e.g. see the regular E-Newsletter sent to all new students
  • The effective use of eVALUate and CEQ - and responding to this feedback
  • Student representation in key decision-making processes.

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Variable 7: Quality of teaching and learning

The quality of teaching and learning is an issue that matters a great deal to students - and is manifestly not a single variable. If the quality of teaching and learning is poor, there are potential negative consequences for our retention rate. Good practice in teaching and learning has been the subject of intense research and discussion. Chickering and Gamson's (1991) Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education highlights key considerations.

Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Encourages active learning
  4. Gives prompt feedback
  5. Emphasizes time on task
  6. Communicates high expectations
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Source:

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Variable 8: Peer group interaction

It is absolutely clear that students who form positive and supportive relationships with other students are more likely to persist. This is especially so when the relationships are within the same course of study; and the effect is further enhanced if the University can encourage senior-to-junior student relationships.

Good practice with respect to this variable will include:

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Variable 9: Faculty interaction

Students who form a positive and supportive relationship with staff are also more likely to persist. Clearly, it is of most benefit if these relationships are with staff who are currently teaching the students.

Good practice with respect to this variable will include:

  • Clearly communicated information about staff roles
  • Staff accessibility
  • Scheduled staff/student social activities.

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Variable 10: Developing the graduate's relationship with the university

A University's reputation ultimately lies with its own graduates. Programs which encourage interaction between past and current students, and between past students and University staff build a bond that can have long term benefits for all participants.

Good practice with respect to this variable can include:

  • Development of Alumni activities 
  • Inviting graduates to professional development events
  • Mentor programs between graduates and current students.

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