Do lecturers influence student attrition?
Over the next two months, more than 270,000 domestic students will accept an offer and commence an undergraduate degree at an Australian university.
If current trends are anything to go by, a staggering 26% – more than 91,000 students – will exit university before completing their degree.
At such a scale, student attrition represents a significant financial loss, both for those students who do not complete their studies, and by extension, to tax payers due to the public subsidies attached to universities.
But why do students leave their university studies prematurely? This question is the subject of significant, global debate. While there is some evidence indicating that attrition is more pronounced for some demographic cohorts, a scan of the available research highlights that this is not always (or universally) the case.
Confounding the issue of what causes attrition, there is an almost unwavering belief by many stakeholders involved in the management and delivery of university education that students primarily exit early because of their own, individual, inadequacies or the personal challenges they face in adjusting to university.
Whether this is true or not, is, and likely always will be, debatable. But, framing the problem primarily as one of personal deficit of students, can shift responsibility and overlook important alternative responses.
As part of our research into university retention, we have encountered some lecturers/tutors interacting in such a way as to positively shape the outcome of their students.
Such accounts suggest that the discretionary support and attention directed to students from their lecturers engages them and can make the difference between ultimate success, irrespective of personal and demographic challenges.
Of course, this kind of amplified student-centred pedagogical approach is the formal stated approach adopted by most Australian universities.
Yet at the same time, many universities have opted for a reduction in student-lecturer contact through shorter semesters and fewer teaching hours, and popular one-way online content delivery systems.
This has meant that developing genuine and meaningful educational relationships between lecturers and students is becoming increasingly challenging.
It could be that in trying to make university education more efficient, we may be straining a key component required for continued, overall success – the student-lecturer relationship.
We studied the effect of the student-lecturer learning relationship on a range of student outcomes including study engagement, course satisfaction, grade point average (GPA) and intention to leave university prematurely.
Our intention was to help universities understand the ongoing need to prioritize environments that enable students and lecturers to have meaningful learning exchanges, as a mechanism to improve overall university and individual outcomes, namely – by reducing student attrition.
With access to a large, regional Australian university with an attrition rate greater than the national average, our survey targeted undergraduate first and second year domestic students.
The survey, sent to 2000 students, returned 363 completed responses. The survey data was matched with grade point average information for each student, and correlational analysis was undertaken.
Our analysis indicated that when students expressed having a positive student-lecturer learning relationship, they also had significantly higher levels of engagement and course satisfaction, and a lower intention to leave university.
In all, these variables accounted for about a quarter of the variance of student’s intention to leave university, meaning that a positive student-lecturer relationship is very important when it comes to students’ decisions on whether to stay or leave university.
The research also controlled for a range of student demographic and study mode variables, including:
· Whether the student participated in a distance, face-to-face or blended learning delivery
· Their economic status
· Their degree of educational preparedness (prior learning)
· How many hours a week they worked outside of their university studies, and
· their gender.
Perhaps the most interesting finding of the analysis was that the first three of these (study mode, economic status and educational preparedness) did not have a significant effect on student’s intention to leave university, when the impact of the student-lecturer learning relationship was accounted for.
These results suggest that many of the individual, demographic or study-mode challenges facing students, can be overcome when lecturer support is present.
Consistent with other research, our analysis indicated people who undertake less work outside of university were also less likely to express a desire to leave university prematurely.
In our analysis women were less likely to express a desire to leave university prematurely, a finding perhaps attributed to the regional case study site (the university where the data was collected from, and correspondingly the sample, had many more females than males (approximately 2:1 ratio)).
While the analysis showed no link between positive student-lecturer learning relationships and a student’s GPA, student’s level of engagement had a small but significant positive influence on their overall achievement.
As mentioned above, the variables tested in this analysis accounted for roughly a quarter of students’ intention to leave university. This means that the remaining three quarters of reasons why students express a desire to leave university were not accounted for in this model, validating much of the previous research that has struggled to generate a consistent list of overarching factors that explain student attrition.
Yet, although this study was based on data from one regional Australian university, it does highlight that lecturers can have the power to positively (or otherwise) influence student’s decisions about remaining at university.
This finding is particularly important because, although many Australian universities are investing significant resources into student retention programs centred around extracurricular activities, what happens within lecture halls and in online learning engagement forums often remains on the periphery of attrition response initiatives.
The findings from this research encourage universities to prioritise the development of positive learning relationships between lecturers and students as a coherent, evidence-based measure to reduce student attrition and improve learning outcomes more generally.
For access to the full article – ‘Why lecturers still matter: the impact of lecturer-student exchange on student engagement and intention to leave university prematurely,’ published in Higher Education, visit: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-017-0190-5.