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Addressing attrition: Why we need a unified approach to transition issues

D. Darlaston-Jones, Lynne Cohen, Neil Drew, Sue Haunold, Lisbeth Pike and Alison Young
School of Psychology
Edith Cowan University

The transition to university can be a time of extreme stress that if not adequately addressed by the university often leads to student withdrawal. Not only do universities have a moral obligation to offer students as much assistance as possible during this time to enable them to adjust but new government funding strategies are making it a financial necessity. The face of higher education is changing and universities can no longer view themselves merely as citadels of learning, they are businesses subject to market forces in exactly the same way as any other organisation. As such there is a need to recognise that transition problems equate to high attrition rates that may lead to fewer graduating students and thus less funding. Irrespective of new funding arrangements, transition problems can result in high social and economic costs to families and the community as well as the individuals concerned (Evans, 2000; Tinto, 1993; Yorke 1999).

Various factors impact on attrition rates, including the background characteristics of the students (Dobson, 1999; McInnis, James, & Hartley, 2000; Shields, 1995) as well as external and institutional factors (Tinto, 1993). For example, the disposition of the student on entry, his or her goal commitment, and individual university experiences after entry (both social and academic) can contribute to the decision to withdraw. The size of the institution, and the type and nature of the course also have significant influence on whether or not the student remains at university (Tinto, 1993). Coupled with these factors are the needs of specific student groups and difficulties they might encounter as a result of their academic, social, cultural background, and personality characteristics (Lewis, 1994; Long, 1994; McJamerson, 1992; Scott, Burns, & Cooney, 1996; Strage, 2000; Terenzini, et al, 1994; West, 1985; Western, McMillan, & Durrington, 1998).

The School of Psychology at Edith Cowan University reports attrition rates for first year students of 17.7% in 1994, 20.3% (1995), 21.6% (1996), 21.0% (1997) and 20.0% (1998) (Drew, Pike, Pooley, Young & Breen, 2000). While these figures are accurate in terms of students not continuing in the university, and they are representative of the national trend, it must be noted that attrition rates are often skewed because they include all 'drop outs', even temporary ones, and those transferring to other courses at other institutions (Evans, 2000; Tinto, 1993). Therefore applying 'input/output' analysis offers little clarity or understanding to the issue of attrition. What can be said is that a significant number of first year students find their experience of university to be so different from their expectation that they do not continue (Tinto, 1993).

Institutional factors

Feelings of isolation present the biggest hurdles for students and institutions to overcome (Peel, 2000). School leavers readily anticipate the move to university because of the greater independence and freedom it offers, however, it is often these two factors that cause the most anxiety for this group (Peel, 2000). There is often a mismatch between their expectations and the reality of university life (Abbott-Chapman, Hughes, & Wyld 1992). It would appear that the person-environment fit is an important variable in terms of student retention as the incompatibility between student and university is a primary cause of attrition (Tinto, 1993).

Institutional commitment to students is identified in the literature as being critical to retention (McInnis, et al, 2000). Surveys of students withdrawing from courses suggests that those who feel isolated or disconnected from the institution are more likely to withdraw than those who feel connected to the institution and its occupants (Peel, 2000; Tinto, Goodsell-Love, & Russo, 1993; Tinto, 1995). The other issue highlighted by withdrawing students was the lack of integration between students and lecturers outside of the classroom environment (Tinto, 1993). Students' felt ignored by lecturers and inhibited about contacting them even about academic issues. With up to 14% of withdrawing students describing staff as uncaring and indifferent to the needs of the students there is an emphasis on the need for institutions to establish connections with enrolling students (Tinto, 1993).

Student factors

Students also bring with them a complex combination of idiosyncratic variables that impact on university performance and success. With the advent of alternative entry methods to university, age has become an important variable in the debate (Evans, 2000). Unfortunately, much of the literature that considers this aspect is contradictory. West, Hore, Bennie, Browne, and Kermond (1986) found that age had little impact on university success, while others argue in favour of deferring university study for a year following high school graduation as greater maturity increased the chances of university completion (Long, Carpenter, & Hayden, 1995). Clark and Ramsey (1990) found age to be highly correlated with performance, and in a national Australian study, Shah and Burke (1996) found that a 20-year old enrolling student had the greatest chance of completing his or her degree course compared with a student of any other age group. However, considering age in isolation of other mitigating factors is to over simplify the complexity of the issue.

Cultural differences might also impact on a student's decision to withdraw but again the research is conflicting. For instance there is some evidence to suggest that equity groups are less consistent in terms of their performance and less persistent in pursuing further education than non-equity groups (Abbott-Chapman et al. 1992; Bourke, Burden, & Moore, 1996; Dobson & Sharma, 1996; McClelland & Krueger, 1993). Although other research shows no difference between the performance of equity groups and non-equity students (Long, et al, 1995). Again the contradictory nature of the research indicates that there is more than just the issue of culture in the equation.

Other issues such as financial difficulties (Abbott-Chapman et al. 1992; West, et al. 1986) gender (Scott et al. 1996) school type (private or public) (Elworth & Day, 1983), mode of entry (McClelland & Kruger, 1993) and socio-economic status (Western, et al, 1998) have also been found to impact on attrition rates. In addition, the psychological make up of the student in terms of how prepared he or she is for university (West et al. 1986), previous school performance (McInnis, et al, 2000) and long term goals (Abbott-Chapman, 1992; West et al. 1986) have also been shown to predict first year success.

Perhaps one of the strongest indicators for student success is the level of social support he or she has from family, friends, and peers (West et al. 1986). Students studying externally are more likely to withdraw than those studying internally, possibly as a result of feeling disconnected from the institution or the difficulties associated with limited contact with lecturers and peers (Long, 1994). Therefore establishing strong support networks is important for a successful transition to university (Dalziel & Peat, 1997; West et al. 1986) for both internal and external mode students.

Despite the conflicting nature of some of the literature, what does emerge clearly is the need for institutions to provide adequate student support services and to provide them in such a way that students feel comfortable in accessing them. As with the other variables discussed one cannot draw causality between the provision of student support services and attrition rates (Promnitz & Germain, 1996). What can be said however is that support services such as academic skills advisers, counsellors, medical services, financial management advice as well as equity support officers can provide a vital resource for students experiencing difficulties, particularly in the first year (Promnitz & Germain, 1996).

Institutional action and planning

Orientation programs have been found to improve retention rates (Terenzini et al. 1994). A successful orientation is one that incorporates faculty and parental involvement and is crucial to a successful transition (Terenzini et al. 1994). It is likely that parental and peer support are especially important in Australian universities because so few students live on campus and therefore do not forge the social and academic relationships found on residential campuses (Peel, 2000). For this reason, transition and first year experience programs need to emphasise the need for social interaction outside of the teaching and learning environment. Program coordinators need to stress the importance of friendship networks as both academic and social supports (Tinto et al. 1993).

Post orientation experiences are also an important ingredient of a successful transition as early experiences provide a 'script' of what is to come in the future (Pargetter, 2000). Students who feel cared for as a result of enthusiastic interaction with staff are more likely to persist and overcome difficulties (Peel, 2000; Yorke, 2000). Several studies (Kantanis, 1999; Peel, 2000; Tinto, 1993) support the notion that regardless of peer support the key ingredient to success is at least one staff member who is willing to offer encouragement and make the effort of knowing students by name. This issue highlights the importance of comprehensive training for sessional tutors. Because of the nature of tutorial groups it is reasonable to assume that it is the tutor rather than the lecturer who will best be in a position to identify and encourage the struggling student.

Schools also have an important role in the transition equation as it is during the final years of high school that students expectations of university are formed (Pargetter, 2000). Best practice would include an awareness of potential problems in terms of time management and self discipline, adequate literacy skills, computing and IT experience and learning how to access library and online information. In addition, there would be an emphasis on the need for ongoing support from schools for a period of time after students leave high school (Pargetter, 2000). This is to allow students who feel the need for additional support to seek it from an environment in which they felt comfortable and secure rather than having to deal with unfamiliar people and services.

Transition programs that incorporate strong links with high schools, comprehensive orientation, and on-going support are most effective when they are designed for the specific learning environment for which they are aimed (Boddy & Neale, 1998; Gillespie & Noble, 1992; Pargetter 1999; Tinto, 1993). While there are a range of strategies that have proven effective in a number of universities (Andrews & Van Dyke, 1998; Chappell-Lawrence, 1998; Peel, 2000; Stewart, 1998; Tinto, 1993) a detailed understanding and analysis of the first year experience as it applies to the specific institution is integral to the design and development of any program.

Vincent Tinto's model of transition

Vincent Tinto is professor of education at Syracuse University and project director for the National Centre on Post-secondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment and is a well known author on the topic of transition (Tinto, 1987, 1993, 1995, 2000; Tinto & Goodsell-Love, 1993a, b; Tinto & Russo, 1993a, b; Tinto, Goodsell-Love & Russo, 1993). Tinto recommends a combined approach to transition to university that recognises the role of high schools, family, and peers as well as the university. An integrated orientation program that introduces students to faculty and services in an atmosphere of fun and support rather than stress and anxiety is an integral part of a successful transition.

Tinto also argues for a collaborative pedagogy that sees the student as an active participant in the learning process (Tinto, 2000). To achieve this goal Tinto proposes a model of learning that encourages integration between students and lecturers and promotes social and academic support networks among students by developing learning communities and collaborative teaching strategies.

Learning communities comprise groups of approximately 20-30 students who are enrolled in the same courses. They share the same experiences in terms of their lectures and tutorial sessions, which encourages friendship and support networks among the students. Because learning communities encourage contact between students outside of the classroom setting they provide a bridge between the academic demands of university and the social and friendship needs of the students (Tinto, 2000). This has been shown to translate into improved academic performance with learning community students performing up to 25% better than students not involved in such programs (Tinto, 1993).

In conjunction with the use of learning communities, Tinto recommends utilising senior students as peer mentors and peer tutors for first year students. Peer tutoring has reciprocal benefits for both the student and the tutor (Petress, 1999). For the student, peer tutoring reduces the anxiety and possible embarrassment associated with seeking help because it is viewed as enhancing academic ability rather than a remedial program. For the tutor there is the opportunity to enhance his or her own knowledge and understanding of a topic by having to explain and elaborate issues for the student. The symmetry of the relationship between student and peer tutor is more conducive to learning than the asymmetry of the relationship between lecturer and student. Peer support helps students' balance the many conflicting demands placed on them by work, study, and family, it enhances the student's sense of belonging, and promotes commitment to his or her program of study and the institution (Tinto et al. 1993).

Edith Cowan University, School of Psychology model of transition

The School of Psychology at ECU is developing a transition program to be trialed at the Joondalup campus at the start of the 2001 academic year. This program has been developed as an extension of the Peer Mentoring Program (PMP), which has seen a reduction in attrition since its inception in 1998. Students involved in the PMP both as mentors and mentees report increased satisfaction with the course and their role in it (Drew, et al. 2000). In addition to the PMP, the transition program model incorporates all the components of Tinto's transition model - orientation, learning communities and collaborative associations with High Schools. However, the School of Psychology model extends Tinto's model by recognising the unique role played by postgraduate sessional tutors in the lives of students.

The model incorporates the student-tutor relationship as an integral component and as such a training program has been designed to assist tutors in developing the necessary skills to maximise the benefits associated with this relationship. Tutors play an important role in the lives of the students with whom they come into contact. Because the tutor is also a student, he or she is often viewed by the students, as more approachable than the lecturers. Therefore if a student is experiencing difficulties or has a query about some issue it is likely that the tutor will be the first point of reference for that student. The tutor is also able to bring his or her experience as a student into the classroom as a means of dispelling anxiety regarding assessment or progress through the program. Because tutors were seen to be pivotal to the success of the transition program it was deemed necessary to provide them with adequate training for that position. This included issues relating to assessment and marking and ways in which to give supportive, constructive feedback to students without them losing faith in their ability or reacting negatively to lower than expected grades. Tutors also play a pivotal role in establishing the learning communities among students by encouraging them to appreciate the benefits derived from such networks both academically and socially.

Learning communities will be created with students who are Psychology majors by maintaining the same tutorial groupings for the entire first year. This encourages students to form collaborative study groups as well as friendship networks providing them with the support structure on campus, which has been identified as a crucial element in a successful transition to university.

The orientation program planned for 2001 builds on the activities provided in previous years. It extends the standard format of acquainting students with the physical environment of the school and introducing them to lecturing staff to include access to student support services and postgraduate students as well as establishing the social infrastructure of the school by including a BBQ and entertainment.

The final component of the model will be an on-going initiative and will involve aspects such as orientation visits to the university by year 11 and 12 students, on-going access to university facilities such as the library, and more accurate information regarding the nature and demands of university study being provided to students. In addition to these strategies, high schools will be encouraged to provide an on-going support service to their students for a period of time following graduation. This is in line with the recommendation made by Pargetter (2000) that students should be encouraged to seek guidance from their school support officers until they feel comfortable accessing university services. Finally, the School of Psychology has developed a range of promotional materials in the form of workshops and presentations to be taken out to schools by staff or postgraduate students to promote the School and the university to students in a non-threatening and innovative manner. All these initiatives are designed to dispel the myths associated with university life and enhance the transition experience of first year students in an effort to reduce the distress that often leads to withdrawal.


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Please cite as: Darlaston-Jones, D., Cohen, L., Drew, N., Haunold, S., Pike, L. and Young, A. (2001). Addressing attrition: Why we need a unified approach to transition issues. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/darlaston-jones.html

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