Two Courses That Made a Difference in Student Retention

UPDATE Feb. 2016: Please see this handout with a list of more strategies that increase student success & retention in college.

Universities and colleges have a huge problem with retaining and graduating their students – particularly students in STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, math, where 60% drop out or transfer) and students at community colleges (55% never graduate).  But state colleges (only 51 to 77% graduate [ref]) and many private universities also have retention problems (Western Governors only has a 6.5% graduation rate).  Online programs and courses also suffer from poor retention (see “The dirty little secret of online learning: Students are bored and dropping out“), and of course MOOCs have the worst retention of all, with an average of 90 to 95% of enrollees never completing the courses (see an earlier post that discusses pedagogical problems with many MOOCs).  All universities and programs are also showing disparities in the graduation rates of minority and low income students.

With regard to STEM majors, a recent report by the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) found that:

  • Fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.
  • High‐performing students frequently cite uninspiring introductory courses as a reason for switching majors.
  • Low‐performing students with a high interest and aptitude in STEM face difficulty in introductory courses due to insufficient math preparation and help.
  • Many students, and particularly members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields, cite an unwelcoming atmosphere fromfaculty teaching STEM courses as a reason for their departure.

Here are a couple of courses that seemed to make a significant impact on student retention, followed by a list of strategies for improving student retention (and learning and engagement, which are associated with retention):

Learning and Motivation Strategies @ Ohio State

“Students in academic difficulty who took the “Learning and Motivation Strategies” course in their first quarter at Ohio State were about 45 percent more likely to graduate within six years than similar students who didn’t take the class. Average-ability students who took the course were also six times more likely to stay in college for a second year and had higher grade point averages than those who didn’t take the class.” [ref]

See this AERA paper by Bruce Tuckman for more info about the research and design of this hybrid course.  Here is the book and online activities associated with the course, and here is a video of Bruce Tuckman introducing the course:

Engineering 101 @ Wright State

“only about 42% of  incoming students who wish to pursue an engineering or computer science degree at Wright  State University have traditionally advanced past the required first-year calculus sequence. The remaining 58% either switch majors or leave the University.” “majors requiring EGR 101 saw first-year retention increase from 68.0% to 78.3%.” “In addition to first-year retention, EGR 101 and the associated just-in-time structuring of the required math sequence have had a significant impact on student performance in calculus. Of the students ultimately enrolled in Calc I, 89% of those who had formerly taken EGR 101 earned a “C” or better, compared to only 60% of those who had not.” [ref]

They found that students that took their engineering math class had triple the two year retention rate.  They also created an EGR 100 course for remedial students that doubled first year retention. Here’s a video describing the project and the results:

I should note though, both these courses received hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars in funding for their development.

Strategies for Improving College Student Retention (and Learning)

There are a variety of strategies in and out of the classroom that have positive effects on student retention & graduation, and don’t have to cost thousands of dollars:

  • Make the Courses Relevant and Engaging to the Students
    • Not abstract, decontextualized, and dry and boring, but situated, problem/challenge/project-based, and engaging.  That’s the secret to the above Engineering 101 course – it teaches math in the context of engineering, so that you can better see its relevance and usefulness and importance.
    • The ENGAGE Engineering Project recommends using everyday examples in engineering courses.
    • Service learning is another example of contextualizing instruction. This paper (pdf) describes how service learning increased first year retention results.
    • “when college students abandon science as a major, 90 percent of them do so because of what they perceive as poor teaching; and, among those who remain in the sciences, 74 percent lament the poor quality of teaching.” [ref and ref]
  • Active Learning
  • Faculty-Student Interaction
    • “Two of the most significant factors affecting engineering student engagement, retention, and academic performance are the quality and extent of students’ interactions with engineering faculty. Positive student learning outcomes are correlated with faculty discussion with students about the nature of engineering work and affirmation of students’ ability to successfully perform such work.” [ref]
    • The ENGAGE Engineering project has several tips on improving faculty-student interaction.
  • Reach Out and Help Struggling Students
    • “In this intervention, instructors either met personally with students or sent them a personalized e-mail. Students who met with an instructor and discussed specific study strategies improved their performance from one exam to the next by up to 32 ± 7%, without increasing their study time. These students also reported changing their study strategies during the term more than other students. Students who received an e-mail also improved their performance but not more than would be expected without an intervention. These results show that a focused discussion advising a small number of specific study strategies can have a large impact on the lowest performing students in contexts in which the new study strategies are aligned with course structure, expectations, and assessments. This is in sharp contrast to results obtained from most general study skills interventions.”  [ref]
    • “Fowler and her colleagues assist students with navigating the online system, locating assignments, and finding online resources for additional help. Their efforts seem to be working. In 2012, online retention rates for eCore courses across all eight campuses reached 83 percent, up 11 percentage points from six years before. At the University of West Georgia, where the student success team was launched six years ago, rates are an impressive 92 percent, up from 68 percent in 2007. That campus also saw online course retention rates inch ahead of those of face-to-face courses (92 percent to 91 percent, respectively) for the first time this past summer.” [ref]
  • Student Coaching
    • A study of over 13000 students at 8 universities “found a 10 -to 15-percent increase in retention and graduation rates among those in the coached group.”
  • Orientation Programs
    • “completing an orientation course (during the first semester of enrollment) improved retention rates regardless of the gender, race, major, age, or employment status of the students” [ref]
  • Teach Study Skills, Time Management, and Other Student Success Strategies
    • Similar to the Bruce Tuckman Learning and Motivation Strategies course described at the top of this post.
    • “Brazosport College, in Lake Jackson, Tex., began to require first-time students to take a student-success course in 2007. It teaches time-management skills and proper study habits. As a result, the fall-to-spring retention rate for students who completed the course jumped to 89 percent, compared with the baseline rate of 66 percent.” [ref]
  • Discuss with Students their Attitudes, Motivation, and Career Goals
    • “That question, which is part of a Beginning Student Survey that is regularly administered at Maryland, reads as follows: “At present, your general attitude toward the University of Maryland is …” followed by a five-point scale that ranges from “strongly negative” to “strongly positive.” Fledgling students’ answers to that simple, banal question turned out to be strongly associated with their odds of dropping out or transferring away from Maryland over a six-semester period, according to the study that was presented here. If their attitude toward the university at that early date was positive, they tended to stay; if it was strongly negative, they tended to leave.” [ref]
  • Peer and Faculty Mentoring
    • “Valencia Community College found that when faculty mentoring was combined with student orientation courses, student retention rates increased by 10% more than when orientation courses alone were used” [ref]
    • “a freshman mentoring program in which upperclass students and advisers work with all freshmen, and providing more-appealing housing options for non-Greeks. That accounted for much of the 10-point jump in DePauw’s graduation rate” [ref]
  • Learning Communities
    • “students in the Coordinated Studies Program were retained at a rate approximately 25% higher than students enrolled in traditional curriculums” [ref]
  • Teach for Understanding, not to the Test
    • “When you measure performance in the courses the professors taught (i.e., how intro students did in intro), the less experienced and less qualified professors produced the best performance. They also got the highest student evaluation scores. But more experienced and qualified professors’ students did best in follow-on courses (i.e., their intro students did best in advanced classes).”
    • That is a description of a study from the Air Force Academy described in the article “Do the Best Professors Get the Worst Ratings?”  Student ratings correlate more with expected grade and negatively correlate with learning and retention.
  • Keep Track of Students
    • “The open source SSP case management software supports a holistic coaching and counseling model which expedites proactive interventions for students in need. SSP is designed to improve retention, academic performance, persistence, graduation rates, and time to degree.”
  • Support Learners Online
  • Other Strategies for Supporting Students at Community Colleges

Faculty developer. Interests: developing educational technology; faculty & student development; learning sciences & psychology.

Posted in education, learning sciences, research, teaching
2 comments on “Two Courses That Made a Difference in Student Retention
  1. […] Universities and colleges have a huge problem with retaining and graduating their students – particularly students in STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, math, where 60% drop out or trans…  […]

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Doug Holton

Doug Holton

Faculty developer. Interests: developing educational technology; faculty & student development; learning sciences & psychology.

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