How to ... Stop students dropping out

November 27, 1998


Mantz Yorke suggests a radical new approach towards undergraduate curricula to encourage students to maintain their commitment to studying


Declines in the amount and quality of tutor-student interaction are significant influences on student withdrawal


"Support from staff was minimal. Thisled to lack of commitment which led to lack of interest"

"I found ... that I just became one of the many unknown student faces"

Many students who have dropped out of higher education say that a lack of staff support influenced their decision. Others have described feelings of being lost in a large, impersonal institution. Common to such students is a perception that, in one way or another, the tutor-student relationship is failing them.

I have led research into student non-completion that confirms the enduring value student's place on the tutor-student relationship and also the importance of the first few weeks of a student's experience in higher education.

Across the system tutorial and seminar groups are increasing in size and their frequency is declining. Both trends vary institution to institution but are a reflection of an incrementalist managerial approach to this pressure.

Adjustment to incremental pressure has its dangers: in The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge tells the parable of a frog which, when faced with a steady rise in temperature of the bucket of water in which it was swimming, never felt sufficient of a shock to cause it to save itself from being boiled alive.

The curriculum is changing. Institutions are making greater use of open learning, in which developments in communications technology are playing an increasing part. There is a greater emphasis on work-related skills. The curriculum is being unitised.

But in general such changes neither reflect radical thinking about the concept of the curriculum nor respond to the Dearing report's more limited desire for a review of the balance between the quantity and quality of tutor-student interaction.

A lot still goes on very much as it did in the past. Lectures carry on the oral tradition of information transfer that extends backwards aeons beyond the invention of the printing press. This is despite a mass of evidence that questions their effectiveness (the argument for their efficiency is that of an accountant rather than that of an educationist: larger lecture classes merely make ineffectiveness more resource-efficient).

Academic staff are, of course, very busy. They have increasing teaching loads, which bring with them commensurate assessment demands, they are pressed to do research, they have administrative tasks, and so on. Their job these days is as difficult as trying to stuff a duvet back into the vacuum pack in which it came.

For their professional well-being also, a curriculum rethink is needed. Perhaps in some institutions there is a need for a reduction in the ratio of academics in administrative and managerial posts to teachers and researchers.

What are the principles on which curricula in higher education should be based? They are:

* to confirm that students have a clear idea of what they want to achieve in higher education and ensure that they are in the right place to do it (the most frequently mentioned reason for withdrawal is the choice of the wrong field of study)

* to ensure that beginning students have a clear orientation to what is expected in higher education (quick bursts of study skills are probably not enough)

* to encourage students to be active in acquiring knowledge, reaching understandings and developing skills, by sustaining throughout the curriculum activities such as seminars and tutorials that require committed engagement with subject matter and with academic staff

* to use lectures only when there is a positive educational reason for doing so (there is a case for the judicious use of lectures)

* to make sure that assessment supports learning (a particular challenge for unitised curricula).

The first two principles relate to the settling-in process. To assist the development of a sense of belonging, curricula could incorporate a discipline-related foundation component in which students could get used to the style, pace and expectations of higher education, in circumstances that support the growth of an academic relationship with one or more members of staff.

This component might also be extended to run alongside discipline-specific study. Regarding the next two principles, there is a general consensus that learning is more effective when students are actively engaged. This implies students making their own meanings and understandings, rather than passively absorbing those of others, even when the subject matter enjoys a considerable degree of consensus, as in science.

The active-learning curriculum therefore has at its heart a series of experiences that are designed to foster learning rather than the transmission of knowledge. Open learning materials of various kinds, problem-based exercises and group discussion are among the ways in which active learning can be encouraged. But they do have to place the onus for learning on to the students: "spoon-feeding" work-materials, seminars that are in reality lectures, and group work in which students can coast are not conducive to active learning.

Learning activities need careful construction and require lecturers to consider how the material at their fingertips can be reshaped to align with the growing understanding of how students learn. Much of a lecturer's work for the active-learning curriculum, therefore, is necessarily undertaken prior to the students' engagement. Students need to be told about this, since their own expectations of the lecturer's role may be very different. If they are not informed, then their reaction might be that the lecturers are simply not doing their job.

I vividly remember a colleague reporting the fierce reaction he got when he asked his students to use some small-scale open-learning materials, on their own in an evening class, prior to discussing the pros and cons of open learning with them.

The last principle draws attention to the potential that assessment has for learning. Too often, assessments take place at the end of a block of study, with feedback being non-existent, vestigial or too late to be useful.

If assessment is to contribute properly to students' learning, then sufficient time has to be built into the curriculum for feedback. The active-learning curriculum requires a greater degree of self-direction on the part of the students within a robust enabling framework provided by the staff. It also requires the provision of spaces appropriate for students to work in groups, and for staff to meet with smallish groups of students.

Critical tasks for institutions are to investigate how their teaching-room portfolios can be made appropriate to an activity-based approach and to ensure that adequate learning resources are available. A further implication of the activity-based curriculum sketched here is that the distribution of tutor-student contact across time will need to change.

Contact will need to be intensive at the beginning and end of a block of study. Hence, for the same total amount of staff commitment, it will have to be less intensive during the middle.

Indeed, with a substantial measure of self-direction on the part of students, tutorial-type activity could in large measure be used to foster reflection by students on the process of learning, on subject content, on achievements, and on outcomes yet to be achieved.

In our recent book Capability and Quality in Higher Education, John Stephenson and I have taken further this approach to curriculum in developing what we term "the capability envelope".

The envelope is largely based on the outcomes of workshops that John Stephenson has led over the past three years, under the aegis of Higher Education for Capability.

While some will not wish to go as far as us in the direction of capability, we nevertheless believe that the general approach to curriculum that we espouse will rejuvenate modes of learning in which tutor-student interaction is of paramount importance.

This approach has the potential to lead to a marked improvement in the quality of the student learning experience, which we would expect to see reflected in retention rates.

Mantz Yorke is professor of higher education at Liverpool John Moores University.

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