It’s no surprise that student retention is one of the biggest strategic concerns in Higher Education these days. With 30-50% of university students withdrawing from their studies before completing their degree, the need to find a remedy to this costly problem has quickly become a priority.
So, where does this leave you as Higher Education providers? What tools exist today to tackle such a mighty and multifaceted issue? The good news is that the solution might be simpler and more accessible than you think.
This is where student feedback comes in. But, how can something as simple and commonplace as student feedback solve such a complex issue as student retention? The answers may surprise you.
1. Cultivate a culture of continuous improvement through learning communities
Communities are founded upon collaboration, communication, and support. When a student feels the support from being part of a community, they feel a heightened sense of belonging. When a student feels like they belong, they will be more inclined to actively engage with their community and so the cycle continues.
If you’re an engaged student, you’re more likely to attend class, less likely to feel isolated and more inclined to actively participate in all facets of your learning journey – all major contributors to retention predictability.
By cultivating a culture of continuous improvement through feedback provision, you will help to establish a learning community. According to the University of Texas, learning communities build a sense of academic and social community and increase engagement among students and faculty, all of which lead to a variety of positive outcomes. These may include improved academic achievement and self-reported learning.
A learning community teaches students that learning is a two-way street. One that is balanced by the acquisition of new knowledge & skills in exchange for information about how to improve the Teaching and Learning (T&L) experience. This improvement, in turn, enables more efficient and effective knowledge & skill acquisition, and so the positive feedback cycle continues.
If you’re an engaged student, you’re more likely to attend class, less likely to feel isolated, and more inclined to actively participate in all facets of your learning journey – all major contributors to retention predictability.
When students feel that their voices are being heard and that their feedback is being put to good use, they will be more inclined to reciprocate by increasing their attendance, in-class engagement as well as the quality, quantity & usefulness of the feedback that they provide. In turn, this will help your institution further improve the T&L experience, and so the cycle continues and feeds off itself.
By implementing a learning community you will help to establish the belief and perception that your institution is a friendly, caring environment that values the student voice, open-communication and collaborative problem-solving.
Furthermore, you will help to instill and empower an individual student’s sense of control and self-governance as they navigate their learning journey.
Prevention is key. When this type of philosophy is cultivated deeply at the institutional level, you will lay the foundations for addressing poor student retention at the root cause, remedying the problem before it becomes unmanageable.
Ways to cultivate a culture of continuous improvement:
- Incorporate it into your Mission Statement / Strategic Initiative
- Actively communicate the value of student feedback to students & faculty
- Discuss improvement initiatives that actionize student feedback
- Increase public visibility of course evaluation reports – this has the added benefit of providing value to students (helps inform decision-making about which classes to choose). This provision of value is likely to be reciprocated with higher engagement and adoption of the continuous improvement culture.
2. Develop important meta-skills to drive inner engagement
The very act of ‘evaluating’ – when done often – helps students think more critically, promotes self-awareness and encourages them to pay closer attention to their learning experience at the metalevel.
For example, students will go beyond asking themselves, “What am I learning?” to asking questions like, “What can I learn about how I’m learning?” and “What do I need in order to improve my conditions for learning?” and “What do I need in order to achieve success and how do I get there?”, etc.
In turn, this will spur (and train) students to constantly think about and evaluate what they’re trying to get out of their education experience and what might be impeding them from achieving their goals. Questions such as, “Am I understanding the course materials / are they effective?”, “Am I getting value from the lab sessions?”, “Which learning resources should I be spending most of my time on?” and “Am I getting the help I need?” should begin to surface in the minds of enlightened students.
Resultantly, in their role as feedback providers, students become executives of their individual paths (and not just contributors to paths of the collective). In turn, students will become more active in terms of spearheading their respective learning journeys (as opposed to passive followers).
Students will go beyond asking themselves, “What am I learning?” to asking questions like, “What can I learn about how I’m learning?” and “What do I need in order to improve my conditions for learning?” and “What do I need in order to achieve success and how do I get there?”
The value of consistent feedback collection is hard to overstate. By entrenching the act of feedback provision into the daily lives of students and overarching culture of your institution, you will further augment these beneficial outcomes on inner engagement.
Just as regular attendance at the gym strengthens one’s body, regular feedback provision helps to strengthen students’ ability to think critically and more transparently about what they need in order to be successful as learners. But the value of regular polling does not stop there, of course.
3. Polls, pulses & (multiple) perspectives
Another excellent way to address low student retention is to regularly address problems as they arise (frequent correction). The keyword here is regular.
Regular feedback collection will better equip your institution to both serve students’ ongoing needs & concerns as well as ensure that expectations are being communicated and met in a timely manner.
Furthermore, by optimizing the T&L experience, you’ll help faculty convey their valuable knowledge & skills more effectively and efficiently. This, in turn, will help improve the efficiency of student learning by helping faculty avoid repeated oversights relating to methods of instruction and teaching approach.
Regular polling will also enable instructors to tailor their methodologies to the constantly shifting needs of a rapidly changing population of students (with diverse backgrounds & priorities). This will not go unnoticed by your student body as doing so will further augment their perception that your institution cares about them as individuals.
Students will no longer see course evaluations as a means to improve the education experience for their classroom successors; instead, regular in-term surveys & polls will be perceived as tools to improve their current classroom experience (further reinforcing the inherent value of learning communities and the culture of continuous improvement).
How can you achieve this at your institution?
- Paint more detailed picture: Leverage Blue/Course Evaluations to increase the frequency of in-class surveys (e.g. midterm reviews). Mitigate absenteeism by paying closer attention to the practical & emotional hurdles that discourage classroom attendance.
- Paint a broader picture: Leverage Blue/Surveys and widen the net of the feedback data collected from in-and-around campus (in addition to in-class feedback). A great way to identify key student concerns and to facilitate improvement from multiple perspectives within your institution is to ensure a broader surveying strategy that accounts for multiple aspects and perspectives of student life (student services, library services, gym services, etc.)
- Evolve from a picture to a “motion picture”: Leverage Bluepulse to continuously collect feedback on an ongoing basis. Combine open, real-time student feedback with confidential exchanges, enabling faculty to address student concerns on an individual basis, when the student needs it the most.
4. Put existing institutional data to good use
Did you know that you’re sitting on a wealth of pre-existing institutional data that could be used – in combination/collation with your student feedback data – in order to reveal hidden gaps for improvement? Insights that could not only help you improve multiple facets of the T&L experience but also help you identify specific issues relating to different at-risk student demographic groups/profiles (e.g., 1st Gen Students, 1st Year Students, etc.)
How? By integrating valuable Student Information System (SIS) data into your feedback collection process. Combining institutional data, such as student demographics, into your student surveys & course evaluation’s reports, facilitates more in-depth analyses of student sentiment. E.g. breaking down aggregated student feedback into multiple sub-respondent (demographic) groups.
A course evaluation tool, such as Blue , enables a direct and automated integration with your SIS; allowing you to easily leverage existing institutional data to help uncover (otherwise) hidden insights into T&L improvement:
In the above example (Figure 1); the instructor’s overall rating for the question ‘The instructor communicates clearly’ is 3.7, but how are the students with an average GPA of <2.00 fairing?
With this new insight, an instructor is empowered to consider how they might be able to improve their Overall rating by adjusting their communication approach so to better serve this demographic segment.
In the above example (Figure 2); the 1st Gen students responded more favorably compared to the Non-1st Gen students when it comes to the instructor’s helpfulness with difficulties or questions.
It would appear that the instructor is doing a great job at serving the needs of the 1st Gen students in this area. Institutional leadership might look at this and think, “How can we learn from this instructor and replicate their best practices so to improve the experience of (typically at-risk) 1st Generation Students’ across the institution?”
Based on the results above, a Department Chair or Dean might be enlightened to learn that courses delivered via a Hybrid model tend to score higher, relative to courses taught solely in-class or online, when it comes to the Overall rating (at least within the Anthropology Department).
Moreover, institutional leadership might be empowered to consider how implementing this model across multiple departments could improve the institution’s overall T&L quality and effectiveness.
Did you know that it’s possible to take these data-infused, student feedback insights one step further when it comes support retention efforts? For example, Dalhousie University considers Blue’s advanced analytics to be one piece of their student retention puzzle. The university goes so far as to leverage Blue’s demographic-powered analytics to feed sophisticated retention-prediction models, helping the institution better understand and predict student retention. Dalhousie is using Blue’s analytics capabilities to make better data-driven decisions as well as to support/guide wider institutional initiatives.
As an institution, you’re sitting on a gold mine of useful data. Now is the time to put that data to good use if you wish to develop targeted, data-driven retention and improvement initiatives.
While the problem of student retention is a cause for concern, the outlook is not entirely gloomy. In the battle to tackle some of the most prominent influencers on student retention (poor attendance, student isolation, and low engagement, etc.), the solutions might be closer and more readily available than you think. As cliché as it sounds, the answer lies not in what tools you use but how you use them.
Couple this with a revolutionary shift in how your institution views and promotes the knowledge-feedback exchange, and you will be well on your way to building a culture of continuous improvement whose foundation is built on the premise of friendliness and care. Soon, your institution will start to be perceived as an environment that values the student voice, open-communication and collaborative problem-solving, where a student can truly feel like they belong.
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