Duty, Dennis J. (2011) Seven years at the coal-face: the retention phenomenon through the lens of a year tutor. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

Each year in higher education institutions around the world millions of people embark on degree level study. Unfortunately many of these hopefuls, for whatever reason, fail to progress to their second year of their course. This phenomenon transcends national boundaries, and yet despite over 80 years of research, and significant investment in programmes, there remains little evidence of any sustained, systemic or operational improvements in retention performance.

Just such a problem existed on the first year of the full-time business programmes at the University of Huddersfield. In 2002 and 2003 it was found that on average nearly 30% of students did not progress into year 2. This was the catalyst that initiated a seven year investigation of retention covering the academic years 2002-2009. It led to the establishment of two key objectives, firstly to establish the nature and incidence of student non-progression to year two, and following on from this to endeavour to investigate how the rate of non-progression could be reduced.

The research approach taken in this thesis is a departure from traditional retention research in that it is practitioner based, i.e. it is research by an insider, in this case a year tutor. Working within a realist framework a pragmatic stance was taken, combining elements of action research to investigate the case of the first year of a business studies undergraduate programme in post-92 university. Two key episodes characterise the project, the first covering 2002 and 2003 involved the establishment of effective retention data systems and the second covering 2004-2008 involving a period of systemic intervention. Seven consecutive years of consistent quantitative and qualitative data collection and observation allowed for the construction of a detailed picture of retention. It also facilitated the effective evaluation of the subsequent retention solutions that were implemented.

Over the period of the study 174 out of 753 students failed to progress to year 2. These 174 students could be classed into one of two non-progression categories: those who withdrew before the end of the academic year and those who did not withdraw but still failed to progress. Individual student withdrawal behaviour was unique and highly complex, but three types of withdrawal were identified, early leavers, late leavers and circumstantial leavers. Despite the strong interventionist and supportive policy, students identified as having problems would often actively avoid contact with the institution.

Identification of the nature of student failure to progress provided a guide for potential solutions. Three general approaches were deployed: early intervention and engagement, academic skills support and institutional change in the form of teaching. Early intervention was an ongoing process and served to enable and support the key process of data collection and student-faculty contact. Academic skills support was shown to have an impact on individual student performance but its effect on retention was difficult to identify because of the need to control other variables. It was found that this type of retention programme tends to speak to students who have the relevant cultural capital or who are highly motivated and those deemed at risk are unlikely to make use of the service, a concern for all considering that the bulk of retention programmes follow this pattern.

Institutional change was effected by changing the teaching delivery method and moving away from classic lecture structures to small groups. It was observed that students with lower UCAS entry points tended to benefit more under the seminar system, but it also proved to be effective in increasing student class attendance and the performance of all students. Furthermore the incidence of student academic failure was significantly reduced thus contributing to higher retention levels.

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