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The Instructor’s Role in Retention: Teaching Students to Stay in School

Larry V. Flegle, DBA, CSE, Theresa Pavone, PhD,
Jan Flegle, RN

The promise and potential to transform lives through learning is enormous. Yet all too often the promise of degree completion is never met. This paper looks at the role of faculty in providing academic, administrative and technical support to promote an educational community that enhances student learning and persistence to degree completion.

Most students approach college with high hopes and great expectations of gaining knowledge that will prepare them for a career and enhance the quality of their lives. All too often the student never realizes their dream of degree completion. There is a large body of research on the reasons for attrition from both traditional colleges and universities and online education programs. With the increased budget constraints, colleges and universities are finding it increasingly important to retain the students that they admit to their programs. It is much more cost effective to retain a student to degree completion than to recruit another student to replace the one that drops out before degree completion. Although there are a number of reasons why students do not complete their degree program this paper looks at the role of faculty in student retention and degree completion.

There is a large body of research on student retention and the causes of attrition. Vincent Tinto (2006/2007), one of the major researchers on college retention in the United States, postulates that student retention is one of the most widely studied areas in higher education. Tinto studied student retention over a period of four decades. During this time period institutions of higher education have experienced diminishing resources which have heightened the focus on student persistence and graduation.
Tinto (1986) describes five major theoretical perspectives on attrition: psychological, economic, societal, organizational, and interactional. Tinto’s model of attrition is interactional and stresses it longitudinal underpinnings. According to this view students bring to college a set of traits that influence their level of commitment to college. These traits include gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status to name a few. According to this view, other things being equal, the higher degree to which a student integrates into the schools academic and social community the greater their commitment to degree completion (Tinto, 1986).
Hermanowicz’s research shows that although attrition may be longitudinal it is short-lived from the institutional perspective. His research shows a student-centered approach and suggests several factors which institutions must address in order to enhance student retention. He defines these factors in this way.
...early onset of students’ thoughts about departure; considerable departure within or immediately following the first year; a multitude of reasons offered for leaving, few if any of which, if corrected, would correct much attrition; and a reasoning process among students that is hampered by a shortness of time, consideration, and consultation. At the same time, however, the reasoning element of the equation appears to stand as one of the more viable means of intervention: the evidence suggests that with time, consideration, and consultation, reasoning can be empowered, and reasons for leaving addressed and remedied (Hermanowicz, 2006/2007).

The research over time has changed the thinking on why students leave colleges and universities before completing their degree programs. It was once believed that students need to break away from their community when they enter college. Current research (Tinto, 2006) has shown that for many students the ability to stay connected to their past community (family, church, etc.) is essential to their persistence. That in no way decreases the need to create an environment of community as a part of the learning experience. The learning community is one of the critical factors in student persistence and is enhanced when the student remains connected to their prior community.
Research (Tinto, 2006) has also shown that the process of student retention differs in different institutional settings. The persistence of students in a traditional, residential university setting is different from that of students in a non-residential setting or an online education program. According to Vincent Tinto, “As we studied persistence in non-residential settings, for instance, we have come to appreciate as we did not before, not only the impact of external events on student lives, but also the importance of involvement in the classroom to student retention” (Tinto, 2006/2007). The involvement in the classroom is especially important in online education. If students do not engage in the classroom, whether traditional fact-to-face or online they will have a higher probability of non-degree completion. Engagement during the critical first year has proven to be one of the predictors of student persistence and degree completion. Although student retention is the business of everyone within the institution the actions of faculty in the classroom are key elements to success in this effort.
It is increasingly clear that faculty actions, especially in the classroom are critical to institution’s efforts to increase student persistence and retention. There is an inference of the importance of faculty development because of the link of faculty pedagogy to student retention. Yet there is little research into how differing types of faculty development programs impact student retention rates (Tinto, 2006/2007). What is clear is that faculty training must include their role in student persistence both in their graduate education and in continuing education programs.
The role of faculty in academic support
The role of faculty in academic support that leads to enhanced student persistence and degree completion is multifaceted. Everyone needs to look up to someone and have someone who is their hero. The professor can be that person to her or his students. This need is especially prevalent in non-traditional students. These students have often been out of the educational arena for an extended period of time. Both traditional and non-traditional students may have been told that they do not have the ability to be successful in college. It is critical that the professor conveys his or her belief in the student’s ability to learn and be successful. Faculty members need to look for opportunities in the classroom, outside the classroom and in all communication with their students to encourage them and help build their confidence and self esteem. The professor’s confidence in a student’s ability is a strong motivator for the student to persist and complete their degree.
Faculty members have an important role in the creation of an academic experience that offers students exciting opportunities and useful guidance which will establish a sense of community. This is especially critical in the student’s first year. As previously stated, research has shown that students who engage in the academic and social community early in their first year have a greater change of persisting to degree completion. The faculty’s greatest opportunity is to engage students in class. The assignments need to provide real world experience that the student perceives as beneficial to them. When students perceive benefit they will engage in the class.
One area in which many students struggle is writing. If a student has difficulty writing they will often become discouraged and they may become an attrition statistic. Professors need to be cognizant of students who are below par in writing and provide intervention to give them the help that they need in order to be successful. Most schools have writing laboratories that students can utilize. There are also a number of online writing laboratories which are free and students can access them on the internet. Many institutions offer courses in writing remediation and the professor should encourage students whose writing is below average to attend these classes. Students may look at remediation in a negative light and the faculty member can help the student to understand that the need for remediation is not a reflection of their ability but simply a reflection on their past experience and training in that subject. Writing is an important aspect of education and a skill that is lacked by many students. If necessary the student should be required to attend a writing seminar or remediation class in order to gain the skills needed to be successful. It is also helpful if the professor offers to read a first draft of papers for students that are having problems writing. The faculty member can use this as a teaching tool and make suggestions on how the writing can be improved for the final version of the paper.
The role of faculty in administrative support
It is more cost effective to keep a student than to recruit them so institutions need to put as much effort into retaining students as in recruiting them. Student retention is a goal that is necessary for the success of any institution of learning and the administrative staff is responsible for instituting programs that lead to the accomplishment of this goal. Mentoring programs have proven to be successful in traditional universities. These programs may take the form or peer-to-peer mentoring programs or faculty-to-student mentoring programs. These programs help students find the balance in school, work, family and relaxation. It is important that students, especially in their first year, have someone who can answer their questions and be a sounding board for them. They often just need someone who will listen to them. Faculty members can participate in mentoring programs and they can also encourage students to take advantage of these programs.
Although mentoring programs have been successful in traditional colleges and universities they have not been widely utilized in online education programs. Whether or not there is a formal mentoring program the professor in online education programs can encourage students to serve as mentors for each other. Since online students have often been out of school for some time they especially need mentors. They may have insecurities about the class work, their ability to succeed and the technical aspects of online education. The professor should encourage students who have been involved in online education for a period of time to communicate with first term students and serve as their mentors. One way to encourage mentor type communication is to setup a “student lounge” communication area. This is an area where student can communicate with their classmates and ask questions. It is a place where they can get to know each other and develop a sense of community. The online professor can also serve as a mentor to his or her students. This is best accomplished in the class discussion board area. The professor can provide information of interest to the entire class such as online tools, encouraging and inspirational messages, and helpful hints. Participation helps to establish a sense of community so providing opportunities for students to interact through online seminars is helpful. This takes the form of a text based chat where the professor can ask stimulating questions, answer student’s questions and provide additional information of interest to the students.
Another idea that faculty members can use to help students who need additional encouragement is to develop a “Secret Pal” program (Harris, 2006/2007). The professor would ask a student to encourage another student who is struggling and to do so in secret. The student sends notes and messages of encouragement to the student they are supporting. Emails can be sent to the professor and he or she can then send them to the student so that the identity of the “Secret Pal” is not revealed. This, again, works well in the online classroom and will foster excitement as students encourage each other.
Since students need to see their education as relevant to their career goals the establishment of a protégée program can increase the probability that students will persist. The goal of this program is to pair students with community mentors who help them gain business and social skills that will help insure their success and degree completion (Bowen, 2007, March 6). These mentors provide opportunities for students to relate the theory that they are learning in class to everyday practice in the business world. The program can be as simple as a business person communicating with the student through email and can be as complex as a formal program where they meet face-to-face on a regular basis. The authors feel that this program has great potential for online education programs. Since the students are in disparate geographical locations they would have the benefit of communicating with business leaders from different parts of the country. This would be done in the form of email or a special “lounge area” could be set up for mentors and students. The students would definitely benefit from the relationship but we also feel that the mentor would benefit from the excitement and fresh perspective of the student.
One of the common reasons that students do not persist to degree completion is financial reasons. The professor should insure that students are aware of the services that are provided by the Student Financial Services Department. This department needs to engage with the student early and stay engaged throughout their education. In addition to providing information about financial assistance that may be available they can also help the student with money management. The faculty member can be helpful by making students aware of these services.
One of the best predictors of success in the classroom, especially the online classroom, is instructor experience. Since the first year is the most critical for student retention the most experienced professors should be assigned first year classes. Put the best first! We are not implying that students will not be successful if the professor is less experienced. However, it is important that faculty receive training so that they sharpen their skills. Experienced faculty members should mentor less experienced faculty. An online meeting where faculty can ask questions and share what works can be beneficial. Additionally an online faculty lounge area where helpful hints and questions can be posted works well. The most important thing to remember is that sharing of information is useful and benefits both experienced and inexperienced faculty.
Faculty responsibility in technical support
Whether faculty members are technically savvy or a novice, they can be involved in technical support for students. One of the most helpful ways faculty can assist students is to assure them that they can manage the technology. Students are often overwhelmed especially if they are not familiar with technology such as the internet. Most institutions have a Technical Support Department. Te professor should remind students of the availability of this department and assure them that they will receive the support they need. Faculty members can provide assignments that give the student the opportunity to use technology and become familiar with it.
Internet scavenger hunts are a great way to help students become familiar with searching the internet. The assignment would require students to find websites relating to certain subjects assigned by the professor. And like a scavenger hunt a prize of a few extra credit points are awarded to students who find all the items on the list.
Similar to the internet scavenger hunt the professor can plan an internet field trip. In this assignment students would be given several websites relating to a particular subject that is being studied. They would then review the websites and write a short paper on what they learned.
From time to time most students will have technical issues. The professor must be understanding and supportive of the students during this time. However, the professor should not allow technical issue to become the new “the dog ate my homework” excuse. Students should be given reasonable consideration for technical issues but they must understand that they are responsible for the work. The student can usually go to a public library and use a computer there if they are not able to use their personal equipment
Conclusion
In this paper the authors have discussed the role of faculty in student persistence and degree completion. We discussed the theoretical perspective of student retention. We also discussed the role of faculty in academic, administrative and technical support to insure student success and degree completion. We pointed out the importance of creating a learning community that allows the student to thrive and persist.
The promise and potential of enhancing the quality of students’ lives through learning is both a responsibility and reward for faculty. This promise can only be fully realize when the student persists and completes his or her degree. Faculty has a significant role in guiding students to reach their potential and accomplish their goal. The role of faculty in student retention cannot be underestimated. They should be trained and encouraged to accept this role with passion and excitement.

Please add your thoughts.

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