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DIT and student retention

Author - Frank Costello


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Research demonstrates that students partaking in certificate and diploma courses who fail or withdraw are quite often overwhelmed academically. There is a skills gap between Leaving Certificate level and first-year requirements, which manifests early in the first term: 20% of diploma/certificate students withdrew prior to June 2002[year added in editorial process: is it correct?] exams, in contrast to 11% of degree students; only 50% of diploma/certificate students passed sessional exams, in contrast to 63% of degree students. While across the faculties the number of withdrawals in degree courses varies between 10% and 13%, at diploma/certificate it varies from 11% to 28%. The technical subjects which students must take as part of their courses are the stumbling block for most of these.

Many students who withdraw are citing wrong course choice as the reason. Contrary to popular perception, research to date indicates that most students entering DIT are on their first to third choice. There is evidently an information gap between what is being offered and students’ perception of what is being offered.

Initiatives

The retention office has had to take a look at the big picture and involve itself in programmes and services that have been addressing the issues involved. It is evident that, for retention initiatives to take hold and be embedded in the institution, an overall long-term programme needs to be put in place. Off-the-shelf solutions rarely work, so it is imperative that a tailored programme of initiatives be introduced in each faculty, and indeed in each programme. These strategies should be generated by the course providers, the faculty management and the institution’s strategic planners, in consultation with the student retention office and other relevant parties.

There also needs to be ongoing reviews and strategy-development in the area of sourcing and recruiting students. A holistic approach will help to make students more aware of course requirements. Validation committees and programme managers should be sufficiently flexible to consider introducing interviewing, psychometric testing, skills-gap testing, understanding of admissions criteria, and bridging courses. To have students connect with their fellow students, their chosen programme and the institute itself, the validation committees and programme managers need to develop and continually improve induction/orientation, peer mentoring, student guides and academic mentoring initiatives. It is also vital that support systems are in place for students. Research makes it is clear that DIT has been at the forefront in providing a positive support service, with many services in place such as counselling, chaplaincy, student services, student union, access service, disability service, clubs and societies.

However, the key to improving the student experience – which will logically improve retention rates – lies in providing the resources and dynamic curricula redesign which will enable incoming students to develop as active learners. There is a need to have an integrated needs-basis study and key-skills module embedded in all programmes from day one, and delivered by the people who are providing the course content. Such skills, which are lifelong skills, are the backbone to a student’s motivation to persist and retain intrinsically the wish to continue to learn.

This transformation of the student will prevail only if the framework and culture to transform the institution is put in place. Staff-development programmes should be provided which initiate curricula redesign, introduce solid guidance structures and assessment practice, and introduce academic mentoring. Again much of this is in place or is in the process of being developed or reviewed, thereby providing a template for cultural change. With the development of the Learning and Teaching Centre, the advent of modularisation and the provision of Learning Technology as examples of institutional transformation, DIT has placed student retention in the forefront of its objectives. Whether this is appreciated universally is a moot point.

The retention office has conducted numerous studies to inform empirically on anecdotal theories that had heretofore provided opinion on retention issues. These reports, along with the reports of 2000, have formed the basis for its identified aims priorities and initiatives. (All of these reports are available on the DIT website and can be accessed by linking to http://www.dit.ie/)

Here is a summary of reports completed:

Issued 2001
  •  student withdrawal in DT231: a specific report into the withdrawal of engineering certificate students (Russell, 2001)
  •  course handbook students guide: A generic guide for staff to adopt in providing a handbook for students (Russell, 2001)
  •  insights into student retention: A study of retention issues that need to be addressed for a first-year programme (Costello et al., 2001)
Issued in 2002
  •  annual retention figures: an overall, faculty and programme based report on the persistence of the 2001-2002 first year full-time cohort (Costello et al., 2002)
  •  numerical skills and retention rates amongst first-year students in the faculty of engineering (Costello et al., 2002)
  •  course-specific reports (DT402 and FT351) (Costello et al., 2002)
  •  first-year survey 2001–2002: a report on each faculty and 43 programmes on students at risk (Russell et al., 2001–2002)

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