How can universities stop first years from dropping out? Help them become more independent learners

“Equipping university students for the digitally-focused workplace of the future needs to be a key priority”

  First years are struggling with independent learning. In fact, nearly 40% of students in their first year identify this as an area of concern – according to the results of a survey Student Voices we conducted in collaboration with research consultancy Shift Learning – which looked at students’ aspirations, needs and experiences.

This is perhaps not surprising considering most new students come directly from college into HE where there is generally more guided support.

However, with the drop-out rate of university students who give up their studies within 12 months on the rise for the third consecutive year – addressing factors that may help keep students in uni are key and could include:

  1. looking at the main areas for which they seek help
  2. what they need to achieve their goals and
  3. how they like to study

Many students don’t make it past the first year of university

The latest figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that 26,000 students in England who began studying for their first degree in 2015 did not make it beyond the first year.

Across the higher education sector, almost one in five undergraduates quit by the end of their first year at the worst-affected institutions.

In 2015-16, 6.4% of first-year students in England dropped out before starting their second year, continuing an upward trend from 5.7% in 2011-12.

Of all home students in the UK who started full-time degree courses for the first time in 2015-16, more than one in 10 (10.5%) were expected to leave higher education without a qualification.

New HESA data on students quitting university will be published this March 2019.

“Providing opportunities for students’ voices to be heard and needs to be met is an ongoing process for higher education institutions”

So what can we do to encourage more students to stick it out?

We posed the below question:

What helps students become more autonomous learners?

Students say digital resources are key.

In our Student Voices survey:

  • Almost 80% of university students commented that digital resources are an essential part of their course
  • 20% said they wanted more digital offerings
  • 15% said they wanted more guidance on how to find and use digital resources.

Research by not-for-profit Jisc, a learning and resource HE provider, also found that 70% of university students said that when digital technology was used on their course, they could learn more independently and fit learning more easily into their lives.

Students’ identified the top five most important features of any digital learning resource as:

  • Test yourself/practice questions
  • Chapter summaries
  • Instant feedback for questions
  • Assignment questions that form part of a final grade
  • Online tutorials and walkthrough videos or written guides.

To improve the quality of digital resources provided by their institution for their course, students said they would like:

  • Wider digital offerings or recommendations
  • More guidance on how to use and find digital resources
  • Improved accessibility (e.g.: no caps on usage, off-campus access, easy to use).

Additionally, more than half of respondents rated digital skills as one of the top five employability skills.

This is seconded by another recent Jisc survey of 37,000 students (released last September) – in which 70% of students said digital skills would be important for their chosen career.

Despite this, only about 41% felt their courses actually prepared them for the digital workplace.

This all comes as the Government’s Industrial Strategy states: “Within two decades, 90% of jobs will require some digital proficiency – yet 23% of adults lack basic digital skills”.

Equipping university students for the digitally-focused workplace of the future needs to be a key priority and should be urgently addressed by higher education institutions across the country.

Where to from here?

Demands for students are rising and complex.

Providing opportunities for students’ voices to be heard and needs to be met is an ongoing process for higher education institutions.

Only by doing this, do universities stand a chance of providing students with the best education can offer – today, tomorrow and beyond – and preparing them for life in the modern workplace.

Click here to download a full copy of the Student Voices Survey.

About the author:  Andrew Robinson is the director of Higher Education EMEA at Cengage Learning.