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Supporting Student Progression and Retention

Why this is important

Despite a high quality student intake, the University’s retention rates continue to give cause for concern.  This not only has serious implications for the institution in terms of income and reputation, but the emotional and financial cost to students, especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, is huge.  At an institutional level, research evidence indicates that there is no single solution  (Jones, 2008, Yorke and Longden, 2008) – interventions and approaches therefore need to be co-ordinated.


Based on the HEFCE student lifecycle model, these pages offer some approaches that may be considered and provide links to relevant research articles and examples of good practice within Queen’s and in other universities.

Using institutional and subject-specific data, Schools should try to identify the reasons for poor retention and if these are related to the University experience, take appropriate action at the earliest possible opportunity. 

  • Factors that impact on retention

    Peelo and Wareham (2002) argue that withdrawal is more likely when:

    • Students have chosen ‘the wrong programme’
    • Students lack commitment and/or interest 
    • Students’ expectations are not met
    • The quality of teaching is poor
    • The academic culture is unsupportive (even hostile) to learning
    • Students experience financial difficulty
    • Other commitments take priority.

    The current economic climate makes these even more influential – students and parents are much more likely to question the value of their investment in a university education.  Further factors identified by Peelo and Wareham include the decline in staff/student interaction caused by rising student numbers and the resultant impersonalisation of higher education.  Modularisation also plays a part: courses are often dominated by end of semester assessment and this reduces opportunities for formative assessment and feedback.  Multiple small, formative assessment tasks in semester one are critical to student success and give an early indication of potential problems.

  • Indicators of low retention
    • Poor attendance

    Research (at Glasgow Caledonian, Kent and Southampton Institute) confirms that poor attendance (regardless of the reason) is very significant; efforts to monitor and improve attendance improve retention rates (Dublin Institute of Technology has doubled its retention rate by intervening if a student has missed 3 classes in a row).  Attendance monitoring in Computer Science has improved student exam performance, degree classifications and decreased drop-out rates.

    • Lack of student engagement should also sound a warning
    • Repeated failure to submit coursework on time
    • Non-attendance at pre-arranged meetings with Personal Tutors or Advisers of Studies
    • Friends report concern about the well-being of a student
  • Non-completion is more prevalent in:
    • students from lower socio-economic groups, since they lack the financial, social and cultural capital that supports success (Yorke, 2004)
    • students who have a lower entry tariff, as they may be more intellectually challenged by their chosen programme ( HEFCE, 2002)
    • mature students who encounter family or financial problems (Peelo and Wareham, 2002)
    • international students who do not feel fully integrated with their study cohorts and do not make use of support offered.
  • Pre-entry advice and guidance

    Students who fail to progress or drop out often cite the wrong choice of course as the reason. Staff involved in recruitment and marketing activities are therefore encouraged to engage more pro-actively with Careers Teachers and secondary level pupils in Lower Sixth (or earlier) forms to enable potential students to make informed choices based on up-to-date, accurate information on all aspects of the degree programme(s) offered.  In particular, this should include details of subject knowledge or competence that are necessary for success at degree level, even if these are not prerequisites.  It should explain what studying a particular subject at university entails and how the approach to learning differs from school.  This should help to ensure more realistic student expectations.  (Queen’s Management School liaises with schools and Area Learning Networks to ensure that AS Level students are clear on the differentiating characteristics of its programmes).  Contact Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions for expert advice.

    Review admissions criteria (grades and prerequisites) – raising the entry tariff can have a positive impact on retention rates.  Architecture has done this successfully.

    Consider setting up an online discussion room for students to meet and socialize pre-entry: see Swansea Metropolitan’s ‘Heads Up!’ initiative at  

  • Welcome and induction

    Queen’s Welcome Week and induction have been enhanced and now offer a host of opportunities for new entrants to discover the many ways they can get involved with the Queen’s community, to get to know their tutors, their peers and to learn about the range of support services and extra-curricular activities that are in place to make their Queen’s experience a great one.  Contact Student Affairs for further information on Welcome Week and Induction:

    View a transition video at:

    View the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences transition video at Making the Transition to University  

     ‘The library uncut’ – a retention project that produced student-led video guides,  now accessible on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, the Student Computing website, QOL and the Prospective Student Portal.

    • Induction is not a one-off event, but should extend throughout first year. 
    • School-based induction should provide a thorough introduction to the student’s ‘academic home’ and the key contacts there, such as Personal Tutors and Year Convenors; it should flag up the differences between 2nd and 3rd level education, i.e. less contact hours/the importance of independent study/achieving a work-life balance/the different types of assessment approaches that are used/the importance of acting on feedback and making links between modules, etc. 
    • Focus on the positive, rather than providing information on what to do when things go wrong (this should be in School Handbooks). 
    • Provide opportunities for students to do some group activities and use these same groups/teams for projects throughout the semester – this strengthens social bonds and can be particularly valuable for international students who have to familiarise themselves not only with a new learning experience, but a new culture.  
    • Avoid information overload!  Try to provide information as it is needed over the first semester.
  • First semester/first year

    The first 6 weeks of first semester constitute a crucial period in the student journey – engagement then is critical to student success and progression.  Here are some approaches to consider:

    • Implement a structured Personal Tutoring Scheme and make prompt referrals to specialist support providers
    • ‘Buddying’, or peer mentoring schemes link more senior students with new entrants and provide them with a friendly, informal support network.  Peer mentoring is now running in nine University Schools.  Contact the Learning Development Service for professional expert advice on establishing peer assistance programmes:
    • Enable students to feel part of a cohort rather than a name on a list by creating a stimulating learning environment and using teaching methods that require active participation.  Use this period to induct students into good study habits that enhance learning and improve retention – use online and actual help to do this 
    • Help students to understand that there are different types of reading – support them to become ‘active readers’ with a pen and post-it in hand, rather than reading passively while having the TV on.
    • Explain that there are different types of writing – personal and based on individual experience such as in a reflective log, and formal using academic conventions like passive voice and third person, as in written reports and essays.
    • Rethink how lectures are used; transmission of information alone is not enough – build in time for some activity as well as delivery of content.  Consider how technology might help to support engagement – new students will enjoy using PRS, for example.
    • Familiarise new students with the language and culture of the subject area (Northedge, 2003) – think of 10 discipline-specific words you would like your students to understand in their first 6 weeks.
    • Foster information literacy – ask students to find journal articles and websites and then to evaluate their usefulness; clarify the importance of the provenance and reliability of information found on the internet.  Make sure that students know where to go for help, eg.  Subject Librarians and the Learning Development Service
    • Help students to understand the rules of the game – make sure that they grasp what is required of them, for example that they are expected to contribute to discussion in tutorials and that challenging others’ opinions is not showing a lack of respect - this cultural difference may need highlighted to international students in particular.
    • Ask students to rate themselves on a range of personal and professional skills and attributes; use this information to fine tune the mode of delivery and also to direct students to specialist help.  (This exercise can be linked to PDP/Personal Tutoring activities).
    • Use careful curriculum design and communication with colleagues delivering other modules in the same programme to help avoid avoid bunching of assessments and slack periods that enable students to ‘tune out’.  Avoid over assessment – if you introduce an innovative new assessment, what have you removed to accommodate it? Assessment and Feedback
    • Consider piloting a long, ‘thin’ first year module: it will provide an opportunity for students to establish strong relationships with tutors and peers over the course of the full academic year.  (All Level 1 modules in BSc Music Technology run across both semesters and provide longer term learning objectives.  Mechanical Engineering student teams take part in authentic projects in the year-long ‘Introduction to Engineering’ module).
    • Provide multiple small formative assessment tasks in semester one to allow early identification of problems and time to remedy them: Nichol, D (2009) Transforming assessment and feedback: enhancing integration and empowerment in the first year, The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Mansfield
    • Use computer-assisted formative assessment (CAA) to automatically generate feedback by email.  Students like having the chance to find out how they are doing and to attempt tests several times in a ‘safe’ environment.  CAA also allows staff to monitor performance across a cohort and then focus on students who are repeatedly doing badly, or not engaging at all: e-Assessment Case Studies, JISC.
    • Monitor attendance and follow up absences with carefully worded communication – the tone is important.
    • Try to provide space for staff and students to meet informally – social and academic integration impact positively on student achievement (Tinto, 1975 and 1997).  Architecture’s week long ‘Street Society’ project enables Level 1 and Level 5 students to work together.
    • React to the student voice – use SSCCs, focus groups, informal occasions and mid-module student feedback (minute papers etc.) to identify issues as early as possible.  Let students know the changes you are making or have made in response to their comments. Explore options for the use of different teaching rooms and the configuration of those rooms: How to improve student attendance, engagement and achievement...Get flexible! (PDF, 3MB).
  • Progression through the course
    • Have a ‘re-induction’ for students entering 2nd and 3rd year; use this to highlight the ‘step up’ required and clarify what this means, eg. the need for more independent study, better time management etc.
    • Encourage greater communication between module co-ordinators and year convenors over issues such as submission dates for assignments
    • Implement consistent feedback practices and use Personal Tutoring sessions to encourage students to ‘feed forward’ to improve their future performance
    • Provide opportunities for students to synthesise their learning in different modules
    • Capitalize on staff research interests to link research and teaching.
    • Consider developing common or core modules that must be taken by all students in a School to foster a sense of integration - particularly valuable in split site Schools
    • Stimulate greater staff/student engagement through the development of learning communities; the use of School or discipline- specific social space (Tinto, 1997); the use of social media, eg. Facebook.  See report to SSASG in resources section for more suggestions
    • Consult the University’s Student Care Protocol (accessible via QOL) for guidance on supporting students at risk
  • References

    HEFCE (2002)  Performance indicators in higher education in the UK, 1999-2000, 2000-1.  Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council for England.

    Jones, R. (2008), Student retention and success, Research Synthesis for the Higher Education Academy:

    Northedge, A. (2003) Enabling participation in academic discourse Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2003, pp. 169 -180, Carfax, Taylor and Francis.

    Peelo, M. and Wareham, T. (eds.) (2002) Failing Students in higher education Maidenhead, UK, SRHE/Open University Press.

    Tinto, V. (1975) Dropout from higher education: a theoretical synthesis of recent research.  Review of Educational Research.  45 (10, pp 89 – 125.

    Tinto, V. (1997), “Classrooms as communities: exploring the educational character of student persistence”, Journal of higher Education, 68 (6), pp 599-623.

    Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2004), Retention and Student Success in Higher Education, Maidenhead, Open University Press.

    Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2008) The first year experience of higher education in the UK. Final report. York: Higher Education Academy.

  • Useful resources

    Higher Education Academy resources on retention and student success:

    Graham Gibb’s report on ‘Dimensions of Quality’ (2010):

    The Paul Hamlyn Foundation Retention Grants Programme (in partnership with HEA, HEFCE and Action on Access:

    ‘Factors that contribute to student engagement’ (Supporting Student Attainment Sub-group, 13 April 2010) (QUB only)

    With thanks to Professor Sally Browne for her kind permission to use material from her Guest Speaker workshop on ‘Improving Student Retention: Research and Practice’ held at Queen’s University on 18 April 2011.


Centre for Educational Development: