Holding students back to repeat a course, term or whole year of study – a policy known as “grade retention” – has positive effects on performance although it also increases dropout rates, a study has found.
Universities may support failing students through either remedial education – repetition of below college-level courses – or grade retention – the mandatory repetition of college-level courses. While previous research has shown that remedial education is helpful, less research has been carried out into grade retention.
Grade retention has been controversial. Aside from its effects not being understood, it is expensive and requires students to wait an extra year before they can enter the job market.
Students who fail exams can be forced to repeat a whole year of study at tertiary-level institutions, including Princeton University and Queen Mary University of London. Many other institutions – including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California system – can force failing students to repeat courses.
In the study, published in the Economics of Education Review, researchers analysed academic data from students at the University of St Gallen, in Switzerland, which retains students for a whole year of study.
Retained students, researchers found, learn far more when repeating a failed year, having a better match between their knowledge and the level of teaching. The researchers observed “large and persistent” benefits to the policy.
As well as the advantages students reap from returning to familiar course material, and the extra motivation they may have after failing once and being given another chance, the authors suggest that improved results may also be related to “maturation effects”.
“Students age and may become ‘wiser’, maybe because of more life experience and better judgement abilities [and] this may help them perform better in their studies,” said Darjusch Tafreschi, the lead author and a consultant at international development company Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit.
Most retained students enjoy better grades than previously and graduate, but the policy of forcing students to resit failed years generates higher dropout rates.
At the University of St Gallen, while only 1 per cent of non-retained students drop out, 14 per cent of retained students do. While some students view retention as offering them a second chance to succeed, others may feel that their degree is a lost cause.
“I imagine the major factors [relating to increased dropout rates] to be loss of motivation, fear of failing another time, the burden of having to pay for an additional year and having to get used to new peers,” said Dr Tafreschi.
Despite this cost, Dr Tafreschi is positive about the grade retention policy. “To look at the St Gallen example, it seems that [the university has] made some [good] choices,” he said.