Understanding Why Students Drop Out

How can we maximise retention and minimise drop outs? While there are factors that affect students which are out of your control as teaching staff, there are ways you can mitigate these factors.

“Research says that students need to feel engaged with the course and know that they have the support of the academics”, says Dr Benjamin Wilkes from Campus Wellbeing, “one reason that students drop out is because they don’t feel connected within the university”.

The main reason students consider dropping out are:

  1. They feel they have enrolled in the wrong course.
  2. A fear of Failure – After negative feedback on the first assessment task, many students feel this will dictate the entire path of their course.
  3. External pressures – financial problems, emotional issues.
  4. Not feeling a sense of belonging, or feeling comfortable within the university environment.
  5. Disheartened by the start of the unit – the first assessment may not have been their preferred method of assessment.

For some students, the transition from high school to university may be uncomplicated, but for others, understanding the University teaching model requires experience. During first session, students should be encouraged to attend lectures and tutorials and become aware of the campus and the facilities available, fostering a sense of belonging. Video lectures may be useful for those trying to balance study with work, but can lead to procrastination. While group work remains a contentious issue, Dr Wilkes says it can be a great way to facilitate communication and connection between students and teaching staff.

Setting students up to succeed at the beginning of the session is crucial to student retention, and this begins with awareness of what is expected. “Academics can set up expectations, let the students know what assessments they may struggle with more than others, but introduce them to the resources available, such as Peer Assisted Learning and StudyWise”, said Dr Wilkes.

As outlined in the new assessment policy, all students must be given feedback before census, providing an opportunity to engage with teaching staff but also to understand how they are progressing. “Feedback can be really helpful, especially if you can show the students mark against the cohort, but letting those with lower marks know that students from the previous semester with the same marks in the beginning still passed the course”, says Dr Wilkes.

*See below for more information on Feedback.

Students who struggle most with university commitments, and are therefore at a higher risk of dropping out, are people over 25, Indigenous students and those from low socio-economic groups. Males are also more likely than females to drop out. Last year 4000 students used the Campus Wellbeing service, with 2400 of that using the counselling services. Responsibility lies with academics and teaching staff to make their students aware of the resources and support available on campus. These include:

  • The library and all its resources.
  • StudyWise
  • CareerWise
  • Learning Skills
  • MAC101
  • Faculty academic advisors
  • Student email (Dr Wilkes has met students in week four who have yet to access their email accounts)
  • And yes, there is always U-Bar.
  • If you are concerned about the wellbeing of a student you can email campuswellbeing@mq.edu.au who will follow up with the student.

Guidelines on Feedback

When giving feedback to students, note that there are two types of feedback: Summative and Formative. Summative feedback tells what mark or grade was achieved; formative feedback tells what the student did well or did not do well and how they can improve in future.

Adhering to these simple principles will maximise the effectiveness of written feedback.

  1. Personalised – Students are more likely to take notice of feedback when they know it is specific to their needs and not generic. Using the student’s name builds that trust.
  2. Constructive – Pointing out failures can only be useful in a formative context if accompanied by suggestions for future improvement.
  3. Aligned – Feedback, like the assessments they are based on, should be aligned with specific learning outcomes to focus the students’ attention on what matters most.
  4. Future-focused – As formative feedback is aimed at improving student performance, it should target areas useful for future studies or even the workplace.

Written by Lauren Bacigalupo

Lauren Bacigalupo

Lauren is an Events and Project Officer in the Learning Innovation Hub. She is passionate about many things, including clothes, documentaries, sewing and her dog Maggie. When she grows up she would like to be the next Louis Theroux.

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