Support and community building key to retention in enabling programs

July 18, 2016

OSuccessful retention in university enabling programs can be aided by strong peer and tutor-student relationships, Murdoch University researchers have found.

In two journal articles, academics from the teams which developed and delivered Murdoch’s free university enabling programs (OnTrack and OnTrack Sprint), say practices that foster community connections, such as engaging the learner with humour and storytelling, can influence student retention.

OnTrack, a 14 week university preparation course, retained 74 per cent of all students who enrolled in the program between 2008 and 2014, with 69 per cent of these enrolments translating into undergraduate degree enrolment. This is compared with the national average of around 50 per cent retention in other enabling courses.

OnTrack Sprint, the intensive, four week version of OnTrack for school leavers who just miss out on entry to university, had a retention rate of 92 per cent in its first iteration in January 2015 and all students who finished the course did well enough to be offered direct entry to Murdoch.

In their paper for the International Studies in Widening Participation journal, Dr Joanne Lisciandro along with colleagues Dr Angela Jones and Anita Olds said the success of the first OnTrack Sprint was down to participation and engagement, developed through building a solid learning community.

Dr Jones and Ms Olds said: “We developed an engagement zone, which is a place of shared interest between the teacher and student. For this particular cohort, our engagement zone featured music, humour and storytelling so these elements were applied in different ways to different modes of teaching.

“These students were potentially disenfranchised by previous learning experiences and the zone empowered them to be involved.

“Popular culture texts and themes that resonated with the students’ lives outside the classroom were embedded in lectures and tutorial activities to foster discussion, encourage critique and build skills.”

Dr Lisciandro said good student-tutor communication was a key factor too. For example, for the first week of Sprint, unit coordinators sent “how are you travelling?” emails after student had left for the day.

In their paper for the Australian Journal of Adult Learning, Dr Lisciandro and Gael Gibbs said a sense of belonging or connectedness fostered by the mode of delivery of the course, was strongly associated with improved retention of first year university students.

“The practice of delivering OnTrack not only in full-time, internal mode, but also as a complete, fully integrated, multi-disciplinary course, rather than a series of units, means that students work with the same tutor and peers at the same pace for the entire program,” said Dr Lisciandro.

Dr Lisciandro said the refinement of enrolment procedures and pre-program conduct may also have contributed to the retention rates.

“The use of information sessions to explicitly inform prospective students of the time requirement and level of commitment needed likely also contributed to retention figures, by ensuring that students entered the program with more realistic expectations.”

The papers can be read here.


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