Don’t leave me this way

It’s always interesting listening to my academic colleagues discuss what they think goes on inside the heads of students. Not that we sit in the Senior Common Room discussing such things. I would but where I work we don’t have a common room – senior or otherwise. But in team meetings (yes, we have such things) we speculate on our inability to retain students.
In most conventional universities retention rates of 98% or more are common amongst full-time undergraduates. Very few full-time students quit their courses. For part-time students (and I do appreciate that many so-called full-time students are working to support themselves these days) the pressures of fitting in study around often complex lives make academic success that much harder to achieve. As a result failure to complete rises.
Now add to that the problems faced by my own institution, The Open University, in having students studying at a distance and you can see why we might be exercised by retention. In my own Faculty, Social Sciences, our retention rates remain stubbornly resolute at around 67%. To put that in simple terms 1 in 3 students who start a course of study with us, don’t complete it.
It’s not as if we are unaware of the problem. Every year around this time we get a spreadsheet which compares modules. We have various University and local committees whose sole function is to dream up new and innovative ways of retaining students. Much of this work falls upon our legions of part-time Associate Lecturers ( or, as they are sometimes called, tutors).
And, it is these tutors who form part of my team. And, they are not shy about expressing what they think are the problems. Some students are not really interested in study, they certainly don’t give a jot for feedback only worrying about their mark, they don’t want to attend tutorials preferring to sit at home and read their course books. Students, it is often said, are more instrumental these days only concentrating on things with a mark attached. And, the answer to these problems seems often to be more compulsion. If tutorials were compulsory students would turn up, wouldn’t they? If they had to read all the materials, if there were marks attached to every single paragraph, they’d read them, wouldn’t they?
To be fair, tutors are as diverse as their students and whilst I have heard these sentiments expressed I have also heard them contested by other tutors. The point is that we desperately want to understand what the problem is so that we can apply the situation. We are, it must be said, led into this way of thinking by “managers” who seem to be in a constant search for the magical intervention that will improve retention.
I sometimes wonder if our failure to find “the answer” is more a symptom of asking the wrong questions than of any failing on the part of students. Students, it seems, are to be on the receiving end of education, rather than an integral part of a process that includes staff and students. What, for example, would our courses look like if students were involved in their production? How would our (teaching staff) thinking have to change if at every stage of the planning of a course we had to justify it to students who will take it? How would our teaching methods change if students were seen as partners in an educational process rather than passive recipients?
There are arguments against this. Students do not have the knowledge of their tutors being a key one. It is undoubtedly true that students lack the subject specialism that is the stock in trade of lecturing staff, but that does not mean they aretabula rasa, empty vessels waiting to be filled. Their knowledge, especially in social science, could be part of the curriculum. It could bring them into the knowledge community and place their experiences at the heart of our teaching.
Or, is this just another fanciful idea?

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