Increasing retention and graduation in a PTE learning environment
This project investigated the causes of learners withdrawing or not completing courses of study in Kiwidotcom, a Northland PTE, and to identify those current practices which are working effectively in keeping at least 60% of learners engaged to completion.
Date: September 2011
One of the key challenges in working with learners in the non-compulsory education sector is maintaining consistent attendance at courses until completion. Whilst it is clear that the reasons for non-completion of educational programmes in an adult education setting are diverse, Zepke et al., 2005, this small study has been able to provide clear indications for a small PTE, of the contributing factors relating to its experiences in post-secondary education within Te Hiku o Te Ika1.The main body of learners studying at Kiwidotcom fit into the general grouping of ‘second chance learners’2 who seek both long-term and ‘just in time’ learning opportunities. These are important factors in analysing the reasons for students not completing their chosen courses of study. In addition, geographical and environmental factors also play their part.
Programmes delivered by the organisation have graduation rates between 52% and 70% (and average of 60%), and an average retention rate of over 75%3. Of particular interest in this study, are the reasons that the remaining participants (30% - 40%) do not complete and whether some influence or strategies can be identified which would increase education achievement levels. This is important not only because the organisation expects to continue to improve its performance and positively influence local communities, but also because with a change in government there is a shift in paradigm to ‘value for money,’ increases in participation, retention, graduation, learning pathways and obtaining qualifications. The Tertiary Education Commission and government have clear priorities, (TEC Strategy 2010-2015), which naturally have a flow-on effect to providers.
This study found that the main elements impacting on retention and graduation of its students are:
- Family situations and unplanned events – personal situations impacted on learners heavily
- Under-estimation of the commitment required for tertiary study/workload
- A limited understanding of the multiple aspects of study support
These can be further categorised into ‘institutional and non- institutional’ factors. (Zepke et al, 2005). It is in the main the non-institutional factors which hold the most influence over learners in their attempts to engage and complete tertiary study.
Since the last engagement with formal education for most was as teenagers in a compulsory education model, adult learners re-engaging with education find themselves challenged in having to re-evaluate their routines and absorb new thinking and ideas. Many find the initial weeks of class difficult and exhausting. Over 60% of learners studying at Kiwidotcom persevere to completion, however 40%, with half that number (20%) giving up within the first few classes. The remaining students (20%) withdraw over later periods of the programmes due to personal circumstances.
As adults it is easy to assume that students are ‘independent learners’ with the skills and motivation to seek the necessary support required to complete their programmes of study. However this research and recent programme evaluations indicate that this is not the case. The more recent contemporary culture of study where negotiating workloads and timeframes is a normal part of meeting student goals and outcomes is relevant to students understanding and seeking support services to assist with personal challenges.
Part of what has become apparent in this study is that even though tutors have a ‘learner-centred’ approach (Yorke and Thomas, 2005), and participants actively use tutor support in terms of utilising catch-up tutorials, or completing assessments, this ‘classroom’ support is the only support sought. Consequently, students give no indication that they consider study support (Hallet F, Bernstein B, 2000 Pedagogy Symbolic Control and Identity), as an integral part of their programme or work ethic. To know that study support is part of enabling success as a student is not generally understood by students themselves. Layers of study support relate to many other aspects of succeeding as a student; and while tutor support is also vital, there are a number of other factors implicit.
Modern learners are accustomed to receiving instruction on topics such as how to study, how to write assignments or essays, managing timetable and study load so on and so forth. Second- chance learners however by their nature, are a pool of learners who having left the formal learning scene some years hence, have either not received this kind of instruction or have not received it for many years. This is a key factor in their ability to understand the importance of study support in successful learning.
Larger education groups operating in the area either do not have dedicated student support staff located in Kaitaia or have staffing at very minimal levels. PTE’s provide tutor support and skirt some areas of study support however are not equipped with full provision of support services which research shows are critical to successful learning pathways. (Ross C, Zepke N, et al, 2005)
Not having access or an understanding of how study support contributes to learners achieving their goals meant that learners simply stopped study when they were confronted by significant personal issues.
It is therefore evident that there are gaps relating to the following:
- comprehensive technical skills support prior to programme commencement to include workshops on
- study skills
- study management
- assignment writing etc
- easily accessible and locally available student support services
- orientation or induction to study which involves
- identifying and setting clear goals
- greater focus on informing learners of the importance of support services and how they are used to best effect
- awareness of where and how to access greater levels of support
In addition successful students had one or a combination of the following:
- clear, end goal/s
- short and long term aspirations
- engaged in working in or owning an existing business
- familiar with writing tasks/assessments
- high expectations of their own outcomes
- learner centred tutors
If Kiwidotcom is further able to ensure that services or support is available for learners to better plan, engage and achieve successful study then there is a high likelihood that they will be further able to positively influence a greater proportion of learners in terms of programme completion. It would not be unreasonable to expect that this could relate to at least half (of the 40%) of those currently failing to complete their courses of study. This is especially true since as has been demonstrated in this research, the main reasons affecting completion of study in Te Hiku o Te Ika, are non-institutional.
- 'The tail of the fish' – geographic ally the most northern area of the North Island of New Zealand located to the north of the Mangamuka Ranges including the Te Aupouri and Karikari peninsulas with Kaitaia as its main centre of business.
- Students re-engaging in study, mature age, unmatriculated school-leavers, students returning to study, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups www.aall.org.au/forum/second-chance-learners
- Statistics and data Kiwidotcom 2010
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