A study of progression and retention in higher education : the search for an eclectic theoretical framework

  • Karen Gaston

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This research is driven from an increase in undergraduate withdrawal and failure rates in certain subject areas, especially the areas of science and technology. The aim of the study is to explore the various manifestations of 'failure', including: voluntary withdrawal, academic referral and underachievement. A specific scheme run by the School of the Built Environment (now School of Technology - Division of the Built Environment) at the University of Glamorgan is adopted as a case study. There is increasing concern with regard to the level of student academic ability and the quality and type of tuition received by students prior to their entry into Higher Education. This has become more apparent with increasing numbers of mature and non-traditional students coming into Higher Education without standard school-leaver entry qualifications. With increasing numbers of such candidates participating in Higher Education in the 1990's, it is feared that this will only be accompanied by an equal increase in the numbers of students who withdraw or are referred in their degree programmes. This study begins with a comprehensive literature review of both past and recent work on student withdrawal and failure in Higher Education both from within the UK and from overseas. A preliminary study has been completed during the first year of the project. This study identified one specific degree course for study - BSc Honours degree in Building Technology and Management as it constitutes a single integrated academic/vocational programme of study. Taking all three year groups, an individual student profile has been constructed of past (pre-university examinations) and present (each semester examination results) academic performance, and information obtained from diagnostic testing and other questionnaires. In the search for a theoretical framework, existing theories on student motivation and catastrophe theory were adopted in order to explain student academic performance at university. The thesis aims to identify and pinpoint the crisis points which are reflected throughout the student's academic performance. Examples include personal problems, points where work.load stress is at its peak, course structure and teaching methods. Further work closely analyses the individual student approach to studying and intellectual development through in-depth interviews and the use of appropriate tests and inventories. The information obtained from these sources are used to develop, update and redefine existing theories on student withdrawal and failure (Tinto, 1974; 1982), other work by Thomas et al. ( 1996) and the more recent works published by the University of Wales, Cardiff Institute (1997) and HEFCE (1997). This is further developed by incorporating this workwith the existing research on student intellectual development by Perry (1960) and Heath (1964) and the work by Elton (1996) which uses catastrophe theory to explain relationships between commitment, motivation, underachievement and withdrawal. The main aim of this thesis is to create a new eclectic theoretical framework which will assist in the identification of students 'at risk' before underachievement, withdrawal or failure occurs. This universal model takes the form of a composite set of models which identifies the determinants and associated critical points of withdrawal or failure and processes behind student underachievement, withdrawal and failure. This work has evolved from a simple project to identify students at risk of not achieving their full academic/intellectual potential to more sophisticated work, which focuses upon the factors which determine the level of academic performance and intellectual development in adults. The aim of this study is to collect and interpret information on the various academic determinants that may influence success or otherwise in Higher Education, leading to the identification of performance indicators. The ultimate objective has been to identify 'at risk' and vulnerable students by: • identifying potentially 'very successful', 'successful' and 'unsuccessful' candidates; • diagnostic testing - by the collection of all available data on each student and by employing various tests and questionnaires to diagnose an 'at risk' student. • determining what 'type' of students are at a greater risk of underachievement, of withdrawing or failing their course. The research followed three main lines or stages of inquiry: Stage One: the identification and collection of objective and quantifiable data held by the institution. Individual student profiles were constructed from university databases, diagnostic tests and questionnaires. The first part of this data included personal and entry information on all current students which obtained via the university records. Further to this, all examination and assessment results were logged after each sessional period and from University records. This information was later compiled to create individual student profiles which provided a comprehensive picture of how each student progressed through the course. This data collection includes all students studying on the degree at the time of the survey and three full cohorts of students studying at the University in the years: 1993/94, 1994/95 and 1995/96. An assessment of the non-completion rate was made for the years 1994-95 and 1995- 96, to illustrate the level of non-completion experienced for the degree programme under consideration. Stage Two: the collection of data on Intellectual Development, the student approach to studying, and a diagnostic test on mathematics. The main objective of the Intellectual Development and Approaches to Studying Questionnaire was to identify intellectual development and to provide a comparative study between the three levels of a degree programme. This follows on from the works of Piaget, Heath (1964; 1978) and Perry (1970) and the Post-Piaget researcher Sutherland (1980). The mathematics diagnostic test was designed to identify students who could experience difficulties with an essential fundamental component of the course - building mathematics, and its applications through such subjects as structures, materials and building science. This research proceeds to produce a composite theoretical model of student academic performance in the form of a predictive tool by: • investigating student intellectual development ; • investigating the impact of the student approach to studying and learning; • identifying those students with serious weaknesses in knowledge and skills at entry (eg.. in mathematics and general study skills); • investigating individual student motivation and the revel of commitment to the course possessed by each student. Stage Three: interviews will obtain qualitative data from the students currently studying on the degree programme, exploring perception and attitudes towards the institution and personal factors that might have an impact on completion. These included: • financial status • level of contact and integration with academic staff and students • career aspirations - commitment to the degree programme and the building industry • ability and motivation to complete the course (confidence, motivation & background) • reasons for studying at university • perceived threats to the completion - possible critical points (critical incidence interviewing) Stage Four: The research initially sought to identify the real reason(s) for non­completion, but as it progressed a complex picture emerged. It became evident that there is: • a positive, but weak relationship between the standard of entry qualification and exit qualification (the degree classification); • the degree programme studied received students with very diverse types of entry qualifications (A' Level GCE (from many different subjects), BTEC Construction and Building Studies, Access courses and City and Guilds qualifications). In conclusion, it was felt that the process of student progression was a particularly complex phenomenon. However, the reason(s) for non-completion and academic success were attributed to the non-measureable qualities of motivation, commitment, choice of degree programme and institution, future career aspiration and the level of student/department/institution interaction. After taking all of this into consideration, the research moved on to develop and suggest ways in which the institution could 'manage' student progression and reduce non-completion. (Note: the Robbins Report of 1963 suggested that non-completion was the responsibility of the institution). The research looked at addresses: • changes in general teaching and learning strategy identifying individual learning problems • identifying problems associated with admitting students from such a wide range of backgrounds • dealing with the problem of poor numeracy and mathematical skills • change in assessment procedures, type and timing - the use of continuous or formative assessment • greater control over the quality of teaching • improvement of the structure and organisation of the degree programme review of the admissions process - a new criteria for entry • the induction process - especially at the departmental level The main aim of this thesis has been to create a new eclectic theoretical framework which will assist in the identification of students 'at risk' before underachievement, withdrawal or failure occurs. This universal model takes the form of a composite set of models which explains the determinants or the critical points of withdrawal or failure and the processes behind student underachievement, withdrawal and failure. By constructing a composite set of models within one broad theoretical framework, a clearer description and explanation of the process of student withdrawal can emerge. To achieve this objective, an identification and explanation of the critical or crisis points during a student's academic career is made, where they are more likely to be 'at risk' of withdrawing or failing their course. To achieve this, an individual student profile is constructed from data collected on academic performance, from conducting one-to-one interviews, and compiling an inventory to identify the level of intellectual development. In addition, student academic performance is continually monitored on an individual basis and recorded in the form of an individual performance profile alongside other findings obtained through tests, questionnaires and interviews. The research provides a 'testing ground' for ideas on how future research could be generated within this field in Higher Education. A main problem with work of this type is the choice of methodology. A main outcome of this research, has identified that a more qualitative approach may be necessary before greater understanding of student learning in Higher Education is fully achieved. The research work produced two published works: Saunders, D M & Gaston, KL (1996) "An investigation into evaluation issues associated with simulation gaming by way of using a rank ordering exercise" British Journal of Educational Technology, 27,1, pp. 15-22 and Gaston, KL & Graham, MS (1997) "Using research to identify students 'at risk' of experiencing learning difficulties with mathematics", In: "Improving Student Learning through Course Design", (Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes University). The research also utilised various conferences as a means of exploration into the work in progress. In particular, a workshop was offered at the "Student Induction" conference held at Stoke Rochford Hall on 31st-1st June-July, 1995. This workshop explored what the participants thought about student non-completion and the student experience in general.
    Date of AwardMay 2000
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMax Graham (Supervisor) & Danny Saunders (Supervisor)

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