Students less likely to drop out if taught via lectures, study finds

Thinking about dropping out is associated with perceptions of low one-to-one contact with staff and non-traditional delivery methods, research on one university suggests

October 15, 2018
A student sitting in a lecture theatre
Source: Getty

Students taught by traditional methods are less likely to contemplate dropping out of university, according to a new study.

The paper, published in the journal Teaching in Higher Education, used data from an institutional survey to look at the academic experiences of those who withdraw early from university.

“We found that students who said they were taught mainly based on lectures, the traditional model, were less likely to contemplate withdrawing early from university,” according to Oliver Webb, educational developer at the University of Plymouth and a co-author of the paper.

The research, which looked at the experiences of 1,170 students surveyed at one UK university, also showed that there was a direct correlation between contemplating withdrawal and actual withdrawal, which backed up previous studies’ findings, Dr Webb said.

He added that he found it surprising that students were more likely to stay if they were given more traditional teaching methods, “as you would have thought that more contemporary approaches to teaching would mean people were less likely to drop out”.  

Recently there has been a surge in universities and teaching leaders exploring new approaches to learning, such as through the “flipped classroom” and blended learning. Advocates say that students absorb knowledge better via these methods, rather than simply sitting in a lecture theatre.

“It could be to do with the expectations people have when they arrive at universities,” Dr Webb told Times Higher Education. “Students who arrive expecting the traditional lecture-based approach might find more active methods of participation a bit of a shock to the system.”

Usually studies about early withdrawal from higher education focus on social and demographic factors, such as gender, race and geographic region. But Dr Webb said that this research wanted to take advantage of a large institution-wide study, which gave researchers the ability to look at the academic experience and the link to early withdrawal.

The study also found that low levels of one-to-one contact with teaching staff were linked to students contemplating withdrawal. Although students had strong opinions on large class sizes and perceptions of personal tutoring support, these were not found to correlate to early withdrawal.

The findings highlight the difference between personal tutoring and one-to-one interaction with teaching staff, Dr Webb said. “It seems that it is course related discussions that students want, to help them refine their understanding and knowledge, and I’m not sure that a lot of universities are quite hitting that: we’ve got teaching through large lectures and personal tutoring, but we need something in the middle,” he said.

This suggests that “a different model of delivery, where we try to get lots of one-to-one contact that can sit alongside the continued use of large lectures, would be useful”, Dr Webb added.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (8)

In case you are interested and want to follow up on this, here's the reference! Webb OJ, Cotton DRE. (2018). Early withdrawal from Higher Education: A focus on academic experiences. Teaching in Higher Education; 1-18. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1437130
This is, of course, highly interesting to curriculum designers at every level. The evidence for learning gain via 'non-traditional', flipped and blended structures is not so convincing as to debar the consideration of existing approaches. However, there are lectures and there are lectures. I am not entirely confident that the lecture format is the single or most impactful causal factor. I would suggest there may be several others to eliminate before this correlation can be convincing, including the over-arching course structure and expectations, especially if there are PSRB requirements, assessment strategy, how the Academic Personal Tutor is valued and resourced, University and course standing and entry tariff, and even geographical location. I am not sure that data generated from 1,170 students, who have already determined to withdraw, within the actual exit interview, is broad enough to justify the re-evaluation of course learning and teaching strategies. Learner analytics and course-level TEF metrics may also be needed to drill down into an overall risk factor associated with how specific groups of students engage with specific delivery modes.
Students even within one course structure are never a homogenous group let alone in the larger class configurations. Yet pedagogical adaptation to every individual peculiarities is impractical goal . The ‘best teaching’ method in any particular situation can only be a moving average ; that average is easier to determine the smaller the size of the class and almost impossible to at very large sizes. That determination is never helped by inexperienced/ uninterested teachers and or poorly motivated students and or incongruous teaching environments .
Students even within one course structure are never a homogenous group let alone in the larger class configurations. Yet pedagogical adaptation to every individual peculiarities is impractical goal . The ‘best teaching’ method in any particular situation can only be a moving average ; that average is easier to determine the smaller the size of the class and almost impossible to at very large sizes. That determination is never helped by inexperienced/ uninterested teachers and or poorly motivated students and or incongruous teaching environments . Basil Jide fadipe.
Очевиден тот факт, что традиционный формат образования имеет очень сильные позиции. Мало кто среди студентов захочет отказать от удобного формата занятий, который опробирован веками. Я не совсем уверен, что формат лекций является единственным или наиболее влиятельным фактором. Проблема намного серьезнее. Она может заключаться в сложности самого курса, преподавателях, экзаменах и т.д.
The fact that the traditional format of education has very strong positions is obvious. Very few people among students will want to refuse from a convenient format of occupations which is tested for centuries. I am not absolutely sure that the format of lectures is the only or most influential factor. The problem is much more serious. It can consist in complexity of the course, teachers, examinations, etc.
This is very interesting. We need to look at new teaching techniques from a different perspective.

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