Thursday, March 24, 2016

Which Students are Most Likely to Drop Out of University?

RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology)...
Francis Ormond Building, RMIT Melbourne (Wikipedia)
by Gavin Moodie, RMIT University, The Conversation:

Almost since taking office, Education Minister Simon Birmingham has reiterated the Coalition’s commitment to allowing universities to recruit as many students as they wish. It is what the higher education sector has called “the demand driven system”.

Birmingham has, however, emphasised that universities should not admit students who are unlikely to complete their program. University attrition rates have increased from 12.5% in 2009 before the demand driven system was phased in to 14.8% in 2014.

Universities have been increasing enrolments to bolster revenue but some haven’t selected students with enough care and provided them with enough support to ensure they succeed. According to at least one report, the forthcoming budget on 3 May will include “penalties for institutions with high attrition rates”.

Just how that will be done is not entirely clear since attrition rates depend on numerous factors, only a minority of which can be influenced by institutions. So what do we know about who is likely to dropout and why? And what can universities do to reduce dropout rates?

Who’s most at risk? 

Latest research published in 2015 found that completion rates were lower for Indigenous students, part-time students, external students, students over 25 years, remote students and students from low socio and economic backgrounds.


It also found that students’ dropout rate was increased by being members of multiple risk groups.

If universities were penalised simply for having an unusually high dropout rate their rational response would be to admit only young, full time, metropolitan and non Indigenous students from high socio-economic backgrounds.

So presumably the government will follow its previous practice of adjusting financial penalties and rewards for universities by students’ type of attendance, age, location, socio-economic status, ethnicity, field of study and other characteristics.

All this is deeply unhelpful if the aim is to reduce student attrition and increase completion rates as it focuses attention on students, who are surely the victims of attrition in their lost potential, lost fees, lost earnings and loss of confidence in their learning.

And it ignores the big majority of variance in student attrition which is either not explained by the statistical data that is available or is not due to students’ demographics. It is far better to concentrate on what governments, institutions, faculties, departments and teachers can do to reduce attrition.

The literature is vast and what works depend very much on each subject, program, institution, attendance type and study mode. But here are four actions which are useful generally.

1. Develop students’ involvement and sense of belonging

One of the most frequently cited factors supporting retention is developing students’ involvement in and sense of belonging to their institution, faculty or department. Students “belong” to their university in different ways. Some students associate with a specific place on campus where they and their fellow students congregate, such as a common room for economics freshers or a “safe space” for minority students. Many students develop their institutional belonging from participating in extra curricular activities such as sport, religion, debating and political activism on campus which advocates of so-called “voluntary student unionism” keep trying to close down.

2. Support student transition and interaction

Students are better integrated into their studies if they get a comprehensive orientation and induction into their studies. A diversity of good teaching-learning methods is central to engaging students. Student success and thus retention is supported by promoting interaction between teachers, students and fellow students.

3. Give early and frequent feedback on progress

Students need a clear understanding of what is expected of them, an early indication of their capacity to meet those expectations, and encouragement and support if they are not meeting learning goals. Constructive and supportive formative assessment should be administered early in each subject. Students are more likely to persist if they are given frequent feedback on their progress.

4. Improve student funding and support

Disadvantaged students are more likely to drop out because of pressures of finance, family obligations, health or stress and “getting by”. This suggests completion rates would be increased by the government improving its weak student income support and increasing support for child care, health and other student services.

Gavin Moodie, Adjunct professor, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to Submit a PhD Thesis

The Gilbert Scott Building at the University o...
Gilbert Scott Building at University of Glasgow (Wikipedia)
by Rebecca Fallas, Times Higher Education:

You know the transitional phase of childbirth, where a woman says she can’t go on and the midwife will say that means you’re nearly there? Well, I’m hoping that it is the same with this thesis.

About a month before submitting my thesis, I found myself uttering this sentence (working on ancient infertility inevitably means that any analogies I make are related to childbirth in some way).

This was at the stage where the tiredness had really set in, but it was also the point where the end was in sight and I finally began to believe that my thesis could be completed before the deadline for submission.

As anyone will tell you, the final few months before submitting a PhD thesis are a whirlwind. There are drafts and redrafts being pinged back and forth between you and your supervisors. That section of a chapter that you’ve been (often with good reason) putting off for the past three years can wait no longer. There are corrections to be made, references to chase, a bibliography to check and arguments to refine - and all you really want to do at this point is lie down in a dark room and pretend that the world doesn’t exist (this may have been just me, but I suspect it’s fairly common).

Although slightly manic, as the thesis came together I actually found that I enjoyed the final stages of thesis writing. Admittedly this may have been an academic version of Stockholm syndrome (where kidnap victims start to identify with their captors), but I learned a lot in those last few months before submission.

Having had some time to reflect, I thought I would share some of the tactics I employed to get my thesis written, things that helped me to keep my sanity - and one thing that meant that I nearly missed my deadline. 

Get organised

In the final few months before submission, your world shrinks somewhat and your thesis is likely to become if not the only thing in your life, one of the few things that can grab your attention. Although this is true to some extent throughout your PhD, it does step up a gear at this point. Knowing that this would be the case a couple of months before submitting, I decided to get organised.

In terms of thesis, this meant going through all the criteria for submission from how to set out the title page to downloading the form that I needed to complete when I submitted. I also made sure that I had all the paper and ink cartridges I would need for printing. I also sorted out all the non-thesis things that needed to be done before submission. I wrote birthday cards, booked appointments and did anything I could that would mean I needed to keep as little as possible in my head and fewer things to distract me. 

‘Thesis brain’

Unfortunately, being so focused on one thing means that inevitably other things fall out of your brain. This might be a case of not being able to remember simple facts or completely forgetting people’s names. In my case, it was forgetting that the university library doesn’t open on a bank holiday (let’s be honest, forgetting that it actually was a bank holiday). If your brain deems something non-essential, it may well refuse to recall it.

I termed this phenomena “thesis brain” and, if it does happen to you, rest assured that you probably aren’t losing your memory and it is (mostly) reversible once you've submitted. The other positive of thesis brain is that it gives you some interesting stories to tell post-submission (one of mine includes two suspected cases of Ebola - don’t ask). 

Plan some time out

With a deadline looming, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “I don’t have time to stop”, but you do, and it’s essential that you do. This doesn’t have to be a big night out, and to be honest you will probably be too tired at this point anyhow. Take an hour out to have coffee with a friend or dinner with family or anything that involves communicating with another human being.

Admittedly, had I read this advice six months ago, I would have thought two things: a) what an obvious thing to say; and b) it’s OK for you to say that but I really don’t have time. However, in the middle of submitting a thesis, it’s easy to forget and, although it’s taken me a long time to learn this, taking that time out will make you more productive in the long run, I promise. 

Beware of the inevitable guilt trip

On the subject of taking time out, this seems the perfect time to mention guilt. For me, and probably a lot of people, writing and guilt go together. From asking myself why hadn’t I read/written this before now, to “what on earth was I thinking taking a week off last Christmas?”: I could beat myself up about anything. About two months before submitting, I realised that I was spending too much time and energy (of which I had little to spare) on asking myself why I hadn’t done something already rather than getting tasks completed now.

In the end, I told myself that there was time to beat myself up after submitting (although to be fair, after the thesis was finished it didn’t matter any more) and right now it was about getting on with it - this telling-off was the best thing I ever did and freed me to get on with finishing the thesis. 

There is no right way to complete a thesis

Of course, there are guidelines to follow and standards to be met, but how you go about getting there is unique to you. Just because Bob wrote his introduction in his first year and looks at you in horror when you say you haven’t written yours five months before submission does not mean you are doing the PhD wrong, just that you’re approaching it in a different way, and that’s fine (really it is).

Also if, like Bob, you did write a perfect introduction by the end of your first year, that’s also fine, but do try to keep the looks of horror to a bare minimum - they are not helpful. 

Do not - I repeat do not - finish proofing, print, bind and post off your thesis on the submission date

This is what I did - and it was nearly my undoing (and yes, I should know better). I was very lucky that this did not go terribly wrong. It will take you longer than you think to print out your thesis. In my case, this was a three-and-a-half hour printing marathon that involved much shouting at my printer (which I still cannot look at without an involuntary shudder) and cleaning the entire house because I could not stare any longer at the printer willing it to print quicker.

This resulted in my turning up at the binders 15 minutes before it shut. They (very kindly) ended up staying open 30 minutes later than normal, during which time they had to deal with a slightly hyper and very tired PhD student (I still owe them a box of chocolates). Then there was the sprint to the post office before it shut at 6pm.

Do not do this. However, if this does happen to you remember you are not alone. 

Recognise that the end is in sight

One of the scariest things about a PhD is that it is your project and only you can write it. This is not merely scary; it can be overwhelming at times. However, in those final few months I realised that while the impending deadline was still scary, my thesis no longer was.

Despite all its faults, all the things I might have done differently and all the things I still don’t know (I have a long list of all three), I had written a thesis. Four months before I submitted, I genuinely didn’t believe that this was something I would achieve. However, very slowly in those last few months, I began to feel that, although I still had no idea how it was going to happen, finishing my thesis was something I could do.

Those final few months are tough - there is no way around that - but for me they were also the most rewarding part of the entire PhD. In the final stages of thesis writing, everything happens fast: all of a sudden, chapters go from being drafts to being finished; you find a place for the pesky bit of evidence that needed to be included but didn’t seem to fit anywhere; and that perfect quote to open chapter five suddenly appears from nowhere.

There is nothing like seeing a project you’ve been working on for so long come together in this way. However, in the midst of submitting a thesis, it’s easy not to recognise this and to ignore all the little accomplishments because all you can think about is what is left to do.

And perhaps this is the most important message I would pass on to anyone heading towards completing their thesis. No matter how stressful it is or how tired you are, take enjoyment out of seeing your thesis come together and from the knowledge that the end is in sight. 

Rebecca Fallas is a full-time PhD student in the Open University’s department of classical studies who has just submitted her thesis on “Individual Responsibility and the Culture of Blame Surrounding Infertility in Ancient Medical Texts”. This post originally appeared on her department’s blog.