Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 20

Memorandum from the Student Retention Project, Napier University, Edinburgh (HE126)

1.  BACKGROUND

  1.1  Napier University has funded research into undergraduate student retention for over six years and has gathered a wealth of evidence on the factors influencing drop out and progression. This report summarises some of the main findings of the Student Retention Project and more detailed information can be obtained upon request.

  1.2  The areas related to student retention reported on in this paper are the factors influencing first year undergraduate retention, the changing characteristics of first year undergraduates linked to changes in funding arrangements and the factors influencing failure at the first diet.

2.  FACTORS INFLUENCING FIRST YEAR UNDERGRADUATE RETENTION

  2.1  This work is based on 1,456 first year student records and 756 linked questionnaire returns completed in 1996-97. The questionnaires were completed early in semester one in order to investigate whether it would be possible to identify "at risk" students early in their career so that they could be targeted for support. Our research indicates that "at risk" students can be identified early and a diagnostic test has been developed as a result.

  2.2  Influential Factors. Over 40 characteristics were investigated using a multivariate analysis (logistic regression). In total, 20 student characteristics were found to be jointly influential over the likelihood of retention in the first year, confirming withdrawal and failure to be complex processes. The factors which were found to wield the strongest influence, were:

  2.3  Age. Students aged 24 years or more are twice as likely to progress as younger students. Maturity appears to be an advantage.

  2.4  Qualifications. The likelihood of success increases with the number of Highers (or the equivalent number of "A" Levels). Earlier research, based on student record data only, had identified entrants with three Highers as being more at risk of non-progression than any other group, including those with fewer qualifications. The addition of the characteristics taken from the questionnaire, changes this pattern so that as the number of traditional qualifications increase so does the likelihood of academic success—as might intuitively be expected. This change in fortune appears to support earlier suppositions that the lower performance of the "Three Highers" entrants is linked to other factors such as low levels of commitment or programme match.

  2.5  Hours of Paid Employment. The most successful students were those working up to 10 hours per week and those who were looking for work at the time of the survey. The least successful were those working 16 hours or more a week. Approximately 11 per cent of the first year students were working 16 plus hours which is many more than should be attempted on a full-time programme.

  2.6  Hours of Academic Study. Students studying for 36 hours or more per week (including contact hours) were almost five times more likely to progress as those studying for 25 hours or less. Quantity, as well as quality, of study appears to be important.

  2.7  The Pressure of Family Expectations. Students who cited family expectations as a reason for entering HE were almost three times less likely to progress than those that did not. In this context, this relates to students feeling that they were following parental wishes in some way rather than their own. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some subject areas are more prone to this effect than others, particularly computing.

  2.8  A Successful Match to the Programme of Study. Whether the student came to study a particular programme and whether the student had considered changing programme were both highly influential. Students who came to Napier to study a particular programme were over twice as likely to progress as those that did not, and students who had not considered changing programme were over three times more likely to progress as students who had. It is interesting that the combined analysis indicates that both initial and continued match to the programme of study are important factors in progression and that the effects of one do not cancel out the effect of the other. This confirms other published work in this area.

  2.8  In addition to the factors identified above, worrying about money, living at home and entering university through the clearing process, all reduced the likelihood that students progressed. Whereas, having full-time work experience, previous attendance at another HE or FE institution, and the university being convenient to home all increased the likelihood of progression. While these factors were statistically significant, they were not as influential as the factors listed in 2.2 to 2.8 (See Table 1.1).

Table 1.1

FACTORS INFLUENCING PROGRESSION INTO THE SECOND YEAR OF AN UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAMME (COMBINED ANALYSIS)

Student Characteristic Sub-category
Odds of Progression
Age18 years or less
1.1
  19-23 years
1.0
  24 years plus
2.4
No of traditional qualifications None
1.0
(1 `A' Level = 5/3 Higher) 1-2 Highers
1.4
  3 Highers
2.0
  4-5 Highers
2.4
  6 or more Highers
4.1
Type of accommodationPrivate accommodation
with other students only

1.0
  Napier owned accommodation
1.7
  Living at home
1.1
  Other
1.4
Hours Working in a Job None and not looking for a job
1.8
(per week-term time)None and looking for a job
3.0
  Up to 10 hours
3.0
  Between 11 and 15 hours
2.0
  16 hours or more
1.0
Worrying about money?Yes
1.0
  No
1.8
Entered through clearing?Yes
1.0
  No
1.4
Hours of academic study 25 hours or less
1.0
(per week)26-35 hours
1.3
  36 hours or more
4.7
Considered changing theirNo
3.4
programme?Yes but didn't change
1.0
  Yes and did change
3.7
Commuting times (each way) Less than 15 minutes
1.0
  15 minutes to 1 hour
1.4
  More than an hour
1.3
Full-time work experience?Yes
1.4
  No
1.0
Napier was the firstYes
1.0
choice of institutionNo
1.7
Had attended anotherYes
1.8
HE or FE institution?No
1.0
Anyone in the family with Yes
1.0
a degree?No
1.5
Reasons for entering HE Family expectations
—Yes

1.0
  —No
2.8
  No wish to enter employment
—Yes

1.0
  —No
1.9
Reasons for choosing Napier To do a particular course
—Yes

2.2
  —No
1.0
  Convenient to home
—Yes

1.7
  —No
1.0
  Recommendation from
friend or family

—Yes



1.4
  —No
1.0
  Recommendation from a
Careers Advisor

—Yes



2.0
  —No
1.0
  Good impression given by staff
—Yes

1.6
  —No
1.0

3.  CHANGES IN THE CHARACTERISTICS OF FIRST YEAR STUDENTS

  3.1  The information presented below is based on student records and survey data collected in two separate academic years—before and after the introduction of student tuition fees. A comparison of the characteristics of students in 1996-97 and 1999-2000 indicates that changes in student backgrounds may have occurred as a result of changes in student funding arrangements.

  3.2  In 1996-97, 756 (out of 1,456) first year undergraduates (52 per cent) responded to a survey investigating student backgrounds. In 1999-2000, background information on 823 (out of 1,615—51 per cent) first year undergraduates was obtained via a mixture of surveys and returns from a diagnostic test to identify students at risk of non-progression.

  3.3  Age Profile. Napier's student intake is getting older. The proportion of 18 year olds entering Napier fell from 38 per cent of the total to 31 per cent. Conversely the proportion of students entering Napier aged 19 years or more rose from 42 per cent to 51 per cent. Tuition fees may be deterring younger students from attending HE.

Table 3.1

COMPARISONS OF AGES OF FIRST YEAR STUDENTS IN 1996-97 and 1999-2000

Age*
1996—97
1996—97 %
1999—2000
1999—2000 %
Less than 19
290
20
289
18
18 years
552
38
502
31
19-23 years
470
32
573
36
24 years +
144
10
249
15
Total
1,456
100
1,615
100

*The age of students is calculated as their age on 23rd September the year of entry

  3.4  Country of Origin. Napier has recruited fewer students from England, Wales or Northern Ireland. (1999-2000-12 per cent, 1996-97-18 per cent). Tuition fees may be deterring potential students from attending distant universities.

Chart 3.1

COMPARISON OF HOME LOCATION IN 1996-97 AND 1999-2000

  Local Scot = home postcode lies within 10km of Napier's main campuses. A peripheral Scot = home postcode greater than 10km distance but less than 40km. Distant Scot = home postcode 40km or more from Napier. Outlying UK = England, Wales or Northern Ireland.


  3.5  Hours of Employment. Many more first year full-time students have a job and a quarter are now working for more than 15 hours a week. Althrough students in 1999-2000 are not any more likely to be worrying about money, they are much more likely to be in some form of employment (68 per cent) and were twice as likely to be working long hours. This has serious implications for first year progression as those working over 15 hours per week are more than three times less likely to progress than those that work up to 10 hours per week.

Table 3.2

DO YOU WORRY THAT LACK OF MONEY WILL FORCE YOU TO ABANDON YOUR PROGRAMME?

Response
1996—97
1996—97 %
1999—2000
1999—2000 %
Yes
251
33
244
31
No
505
67
536
69
Total
756
100
780
100


Chart 3.2

HOW MANY HOURS OF PART-TIME DO YOU DO EACH WEEK?


  3.6  Convenience of the university to home. The number of students who chose Napier because it is convenient to home has risen signficantly. Financial concerns appear to have influenced decisions about choice of institution as almost 1/3 of students in 1999-2000 chose Napier because it was convenient to home compared to 25 per cent in 1996-97.

Chart 3.3

DID YOU CHOOSE THIS UNIVERSITY BECAUSE IT WAS CONVENIENT TO HOME?


4.  FACTORS INFLUENCING STUDENT FAILURE AT THE FIRST DIET

  4.1  Undergraduates who had failed one of 55 modules at the first diet in 1998-99 were asked to complete a paper-based questionnaire on what they felt had contributed to their module failure. The 55 modules were selected because of their comparatively large intakes (over 40) and their comparatively low first diet pass rates (largely below 75 per cent). There was no attempt to separate out those students that had subsequently passed at the second diet. The questionnaire was in two parts. Part A asked general background questions about the individual student and Part B asked about specific module failures. Where an individual failed more than one of the 55 modules investigated, they were required to complete a Part B for each one. 268 usable responses relating to 358 module places were received, a response rate of 22 per cent.

  4.2  Students were asked to indicate the degree to which a list of factors contributed to their failing a module at the first diet. The factors listed were separated into general factors and module-related factors. General factors were those that were thought to be unrelated to the module such as ill health. Module-related factors, were specific to the module identified and were a consequence of the interaction between student and module (eg didn't enjoy the subject area).

  4.3  The influence of general factors. The single most influential general factor affecting student first diet failure was poor time management (38 per cent) (Table 4.1). Over half of those students aged under 18 cited this factor and, as might be expected, time management skills appeared to improve considerably with age. Men (41 per cent) were also more likely to cite poor time management. The second most frequently cited general factor was that they had personal difficulties (34 per cent). These were very varied and included family commitments and relationship difficulties. Over a quarter said that they had worked too many hours in a job and a quarter that they had experienced financial difficulties. These two factors are linked, as of those students citing working too many hours in a job, 59 per cent also cited financial difficulties. Under 18's (38 per cent), third years (33 per cent) and men (31 per cent) were all more likely to point to financial difficulties. Previous research amongst first year students has also identified that men tend to cite more financial problems than women, and it is difficult to be certain why this might be the case. It may be that women are better at money management or that families are more prepared to subsidise female members.

Table 4.1

PROPORTION OF RESPONDERS CITING A GENERAL FACTOR AS CONTRIBUTING TO THEIR FAILING AT THE FIRST DIET

(ie selected 1 or 2 from a scale of 1=Contributed a lot to 4=Made no contribution at all)
Possible General Factors
%
N*
Did not manage my time well
38
268
Personal difficulties
34
268
Too many hours working in a job
26
268
Financial difficulties
26
268
Long commuting times
17
358
Ill health
14
358
Language difficulties
8
268
Other
7
358


  *  The base for ill health and commuting is the number of modules as inspection of the data showed that while students' responses to other general factors were not affected by the individual module, the responses to ill health and commuting did. The reason for this to be the case is perhaps obvious for ill health but interestingly, responders included inter-site travel within the commuting bracket and so for some students the fact they had to travel to a different site for one particular module meant long commuting times.

  4.4  The influence of module-related factors. The two most influential module-related factors affecting student failure were that the student didn't work hard enough (57 per cent—Table 4.2) and didn't enjoy the subject area (52 per cent). Respondents also identified influential module-related factors linked to teaching and learning quality. 44 per cent stated that there wasn't enough support if they were struggling with the work, 44 per cent that the module content was too difficult and 41 per cent that there was insufficient feedback on their progress. Issues of feedback and support have been identified in other research work at Napier. For example, the Student Satisfaction Survey found that the level of academic support provided and the usefulness of feedback on marked assessments to be the sixth and ninth most important issue for students but these same factors also came seventh and third in terms of student dissatisfaction.

Table 4.2

PROPORTION OF RESPONDERS CITING A MODULE-RELATED FACTOR AS CONTRIBUTING TO THEIR FAILING AT THE FIRST DIET (PART-TABLE) n=358

(ie selected 1 or 2 from a scale of 1=Contributed a lot to 4=Made no contribution at all)
Possible Module-related Factors
%
Didn't work hard enough
57
Didn't enjoy the subject area
52
There wasn't enough support if I was struggling with the work
44
The module content was too difficult
44
Didn't feel motivated to succeed
43
There was insufficient feedback on my progress
41
Insufficient academic background in the subject area
40


  4.5  The relative contribution of general and module-related factors as influences on failure at the first diet. Respondents were asked to assess the relative contribution made by general and module-based factors. (For example, if module-related factors accounted for all the influential factors then the relative contribution would be 100 per cent.) 70 per cent said that the balance of influence toward module-related factors was greater than 50 per cent, and 35 per cent said that the balance toward module-related factors was 75 per cent or more. Respondents were most likely to place the emphasis at 75 per cent or more on module-related factors if they cited a lack of feedback on progress (49 per cent), poor teaching (49 per cent), poor module organisation (44 per cent) or a lack of support (45 per cent). All of which are areas related to the quality of the learning experience.

  4.6  To try to further unpick the relationship between the influences of general and module-related factors, those students who cited general factors as being highly influential on their module failure at the first diet, were asked why this general factor had not then caused them to fail all their modules (Table 4.3). It is clear from the responses that even amongst those respondents who emphasise the influence of general factors, failure is still a complex process where the interaction between the characteristics and circumstances of the student and the learning experience is a key aspect.

  4.7  The most frequently mentioned reason (53) was that the module itself or its assessments were comparatively harder or more demanding than other modules that they studied. It is difficult to assess the extent to which module workload does actually vary. For example, it may be a problem of perception because of the background and skills of the individual student. Another possibility being assessment methods, where perhaps group work is regarded as being more time intensive than individual work because of the organisation it requires.

  4.8  Issues associated with poor teaching, feedback, module organisation or module structure were cited by 45 module respondents. Teaching quality and module design and delivery are difficult issues to address. During their academic careers, students experience a wide range of teaching styles and approaches to module delivery, and inevitably they will make personal judgements about what they like and don't like. Not all judgements may be "fair" as mismatches between teaching and learning styles, for example, will always occur. However, there is also a view that as recipients of teaching and module organisational practice, students are also well placed to identify where the practice falls short of the ideal.

  4.9  The level of engagement with a module was also found to be influential as 43 respondents said they had failed that particular module because they had not found it as interesting or enjoyable as their other modules. From an institutional perspective, this is a particularly difficult issue to address. Enjoyment is an elusive quality and what is enjoyable to one is not necessarily enjoyable to the other.

  4.10  Another aspect to emerge was the relative infrequency in which a clash of class hours and job hours was cited (11 responses) as anecdotal evidence had suggested that this might be an important factor. 26 per cent of the survey respondents (70 students) said that working too many hours in a job had had an effect, but this research does not support the theory that students are frequently missing classes in order to be at work.

Table 4.3

REASONS GIVEN WHY A VERY INFLUENTIAL GENERAL FACTOR DID NOT CAUSE THE STUDENT TO FAIL ALL THEIR MODULES

Reason
No.
The module for assessment was comparatively harder or more demanding
53
Poor teaching, feedback, module organisation or module structure
45
Module not as interesting or enjoyable as other modules
43
Not as much help given as in other modules
28
Timing of illness, personal problems or financial difficulties
23
Worked harder for the other modules
20
Didn't manage time (including revision time) well
19
Insufficient background in the subject areas or a background was inappropriately assumed by tutor
17
Unconducive time-tabling of class time hours
15
Clash with class hours and job hours
11
Strategic decision to fail
9
Adjusting to student life in first semester
5
Insufficient access to facilities/resources
5
Administrative errors by Napier
3
Lack of awareness that a problem existed
3
Did fail everthing else
3
Other
3


  4.11  Initiatives to improve first diet pass rates suggested by respondents. This research has highlighted the complexity associated with factors influencing first diet failure. Many respondents expressed the view that their own actions had contributed to the failure. However, the results have also indicated that the interaction between student and institution is also a critical element in the overall picture. Respondents were asked to suggest three things which the University could have done which might have realistically helped them to pass the indicated module first time. There were 281 open ended responses to individual modules and these have been summarised in Table 4.4. The two most frequently suggested initiatives were more academic support (including a broader range and more access to help classes, smaller class sizes and additional tutorials) and improved teaching quality/practice. A desire for more feedback on academic progress was also expressed. As class-time contact is the main interface between the students and the institution, it is not surprising that their suggestions for improvement should lie within this area.

Table 4.4

NAPIER-BASED INITIATIVES WHICH MIGHT IMPROVE FIRST DIET PASS RATES SUGGESTED BY STUDENTS (n=281)

Suggested initiatives
No
%
More academic support including help classes, smaller class sizes and additional tutorials
94
33
Improved teaching quality or comments regarding teaching practice
81
29
More detailed feedback on assessments including supervised assessment and changes in assessment practice
48
17
Comments around time-tabling issues
36
13
Comments around revision practice, exam techniques and access to past papers with solutions
35
12
Greater empathy from academic staff
30
11
Greater provision/quality of resources (including lecture notes, materials, computers)
30
11
Greater clarity about what is required/expected in assessments
29
10
Continuous and structured monitoring of progress/attendance
28
10
Improved organisation of module
27
10
Comments about the appropriateness of the level taught (eg not taking into account the mixed background of students)
20
7
More personal support for general problems
17
6
Reduction in module content/workload
16
6
Sufficient response to formally expressed student concerns regarding a module
13
5
Nothing that Napier University could have done
11
4
Clearer description of module or programme regulations
6
2
Other
35
12

Student Retention Project,
Napier University, Edinburgh
January 2001


 
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