Improving Student Retention in Higher Education: The Role of Teaching and Learning

Author(s) Glenda Crosling, Liz Thomas, Margaret Heagney
Publisher Routledge
Published 2008
Pages 188
Price £22.99
ISBN 9780415399210
Reviewed by Dr Deborah Lee
Nottingham Trent University
Review published 18 December 2007
Retention of students is a key issue for higher education institutions in many countries. This new edited collection recognises that a variety of factors can affect retention, but focuses upon 'one facet that is within the control of educators - the teaching and learning programme' (Crosling et al, 2008:v).

The book is organised into three sections which explore three particular themes: i) student diversity; ii) modes of teaching and learning; and iii) disciplines of study. Each section offers an introductory research-informed chapter followed by a series of relatively short, real-life case studies written by contributors drawn from a wide variety of countries.

In the introductory chapter of section one, Heagney (2008:26-27) notes that 'while changing the curriculum cannot assist students with issues which have their origins in domains outside the academy such as financial support, the importance of curriculum development in the retention of non-traditional students cannot be underestimated'.

Blunt then begins the first section's case studies by exploring support for diverse students in post-apartheid South Africa. Educators at his university 'realised that the students who struggled were suffering from mystification, rather than from lack of ability' (Blunt, 2008:31) and responded effectively, for instance by introducing transparency of learning objectives. I was, however, concerned by Blunt's remarks about some lecturers being 'defensive' when faced with new developments such as student evaluations of teaching. Student evaluation is not an unproblematic notion. Indeed, its potentially punitive nature for educators is underlined by a case study from the Netherlands (by Wolff, Severiens and de Crom). In an otherwise instructive discussion of assisting foreign background students, they report that 'poorly performing teachers, evaluated as such by the course program management and by students, are withdrawn from the program if they do not improve their teaching within a certain period of time. Furthermore, it is recommended that new and poorly performing teachers take a one-year teacher-training program...' (Wolff et al, 2008:47). Later, such individuals are even referred to as 'bad' teachers (Wolff et al, 2008:48). These points are presented too uncritically.

Ellender and Drysdale's case study reports upon a cultural awareness programme for Australian health professionals working with indigenous people. It is clear from the piece that visiting a remote indigenous community was helpful to the students. It would have been interesting to have heard more about that. But instead much of the case study focuses, quite inappropriately, upon the personal misery of a suicidal student. Two final case studies are more helpful: Kok Soo talks of difficulties in a group project at an Australian university in Malaysia, highlighting the importance of 'open discussion on...cultures, traditions, beliefs and religions' (Kok Soo, 2008:54); and Bamber explores mature students' experiences of work-based learning at a UK university. He notes that students were wary of work-based learning when they began his module, but that they developed their understanding as time progressed. The chapter thus indicates the importance of not responding in a knee-jerk way to student articulations of their likes/dislikes.

In the introductory chapter of section two, Thomas (2008:76) stresses that 'research about student withdrawal indicates that learning, teaching and assessment strategies are crucial to student retention and success'. Keenan then provides a passionately-written overview of an induction programme for new students at a UK university. As she explains, induction is usually an information-giving process at the very beginning of the student's course, and that, as such, it is 'decontextualised, de-personalised and de-pressing!' (Keenan, 2008:83). Keenan's approach is to provide information for students before they start university, and to ask them to come to induction having prepared some work - work which is then well-used for intellectual and social purposes.

Other case studies in the section are provided by Warren, who comments upon a history module which incorporates study skills; Leask, who provides a discussion of internationalisation (students are asked, for instance, to collect information from an academic/student beyond their own country); McMillan and Solomon, for whom using cooking analogies (including cutting up apples in class) helped in the teaching of quantitative research methods; and Russell, who used weekly tasks and feedback to encourage student engagement in a previously-problematic module. Russell's ideas are particularly useful to consider; cutting up apples is questionable.

The final section of the collection focuses upon disciplines. After Crosling's introductory chapter, Cahyadi talks about responding to high failure rates among physics students at an Indonesian university by promoting active engagement in classes; Ryan discusses attempts to decrease third-year drop-out rates from an Education degree in Australia by involving students in projects at schools - as a result, students 'feel more engaged with their learning at university, more a part of a school community and that they have indeed made the correct choice of vocation' (Ryan, 2008:143); Garlick and Brown report upon teaching presentation skills to non-traditional medical students; Kirk discusses researching student support issues with students; and Tennant talks of a field trip to a brewery, which allowed students to explore course issues in a real-life context.

The collection ends with the editors offering a series of reflective questions, and an invitation to continue to debate the issues with them. That is an invitation to be welcomed. The book itself is also, on the whole, likely to be a welcome practical addition to the literature on student retention.