In 2014 I undertook research for the then Higher Education Academy to explore the role played by academic discipline in the retention and attainment of students. The subsequent Overview Report in 2016 highlighted a number of findings that may be of interest in the current HE landscape.
The ‘student body’ varies across disciplines, producing different outcome patterns
The first finding of significance was that the composition of the student body varied considerably across disciplines. Students differed by key background characteristics – most obviously gender, but also, for example, by age, ethnicity, disability and how close they lived to their HE provider before starting their degree.
This was important because a substantial body of HE research had demonstrated that students with different background characteristics also had different retention and attainment levels. Some socio-demographic and background characteristics were associated with diverse levels of vulnerability to non-continuation and/or less likelihood of attaining an Upper Second degree. Such characteristics included: being a man, being from some ethnic backgrounds, being from a lower socio-economic class, being a mature student, studying part-time and studying at a more local HEI. This in turn means that if some disciplinary areas have more students in their cohorts that are mature and part-time then they may face specific challenges, linked to the make-up of their cohorts, in retaining the students and in ensuring their attainment.
Disciplinary areas exert their own influence on outcomes
The research further demonstrated that disciplines exert an independent influence on student outcomes. For example, part-time study generally was associated with greater vulnerability to non-continuation. Nonetheless, the impact of this characteristic varied markedly across the disciplinary spectrum. While the disciplines of Marketing and Built Environment shared the same overall withdrawal rate of 6%, in the case of Marketing, part-time students were over four times as likely to have withdrawn without their degree than their full-time counterparts, yet in Built Environment little difference existed between part-time and full-time students’ withdrawal rates. The variations in discipline-specific outcome patterns were often stark and emerged not just for attainment and non-continuation broadly but also, in the case of non-continuation, for recorded reason for student withdrawal. The majority of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, as well as the majority of Social Science disciplines, recorded higher than average percentages of students leaving for ‘academic failure’ reasons, while the majority of Arts and Humanities disciplines recorded lower percentages of students leaving because they failed to progress academically.
Curriculum, custom and culture
Why should this be the case? Do such differences primarily reflect disparities related to curriculum, custom, culture or an interaction between all three factors? Follow up work across six disciplinary areas produced snapshots of Computer Science, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Education, Business and Management, Veterinary Medicine and Art and Design, to begin to unpick some of the complexity of how disciplines interact with their student body to produce varied outcomes. This work emphasised a range of contextual practices that contributed to varied outcome patterns, including the extent to which disciplines: seek proactively to address a ‘preparedness’ gap across their incoming student cohorts; demonstrate the ‘vocational trajectory’ of their curriculum; take time to enculturate students into the tacit demands of the disciplinary curriculum and make these as explicit as possible; tolerate ‘high stakes assessments’ or develop ‘recovery paths’ for those who have episodes of academic failure.
Further follow-up work explored the relationship between students’ recorded reason for withdrawal and their ethnicity. This highlighted differences in the groups of students withdrawing voluntarily (eg to take up an employment offer) and those being required-to-withdraw (usually because of academic failure, but also fee defaulting and misconduct). Student leavers from a White background were less likely than all other ethnic groups to exit their studies non-voluntarily; in the case of some Black and Asian groups, the majority of student leavers were in the category of required-to-withdraw. What was of particular interest here was how this general pattern played out in the context of different disciplines. Within Business and Management, for instance, Black and Asian students were respectively over four and three times more likely than White students to be required-to-withdraw, whereas in Education student leavers from different ethnic backgrounds were not significantly more likely to experience non-voluntary withdrawal than White students. Similarly, within Biological Science ethnicity exerted an independent impact on the likelihood of non-voluntary withdrawal, whereas it did not in Psychology.
Disciplinary impact and Covid
Overall, this body of research suggests that student outcomes are, to an important extent, dependent on disciplinary cultures, customs and practices as well as on the characteristics of students themselves. What is further underscored here is the importance of reading both the continuation and attainment rates of different groups of students together to understand their overall position within the HE landscape. As unsettling as the lower attainment rates of Black students, part-time students, and mature students are, their import can only be fully appreciated if we read them in the context of the higher percentages of students from these groups who have already withdrawn from their degree courses as compared to their White, full-time and traditional age counterparts.
In recent decades HE has been grappling with how best to meet student needs, how to engage, retain and support students to achieve their best learning outcomes. Research on student outcomes focused on disciplinary differences, (as with research focusing on institutional type differences), highlights the importance of acknowledging the complex relationship between students, their background characteristics and their specific on-course context.
It is the on-course context that we have most control over and can develop to meet the particular needs of individual students, or specific groups of students, to ensure they flourish at university. We have learned that, typically, adaptations for particular individuals or groups, once mainstreamed, lead to benefits for all. HE providers and associated HE professional bodies have responsibilities to ensure that educational strategies and practices are as inclusive as possible.
Of course, some HEIs and disciplines have developed this strand of their work very well, some have significantly more resources than the average and some very different cohorts to others. What Covid-19 has taught us, however, is that no institution or discipline can be complacent about its educational experience and offer. Regardless of institutional or disciplinary context, we are all now pivoted towards retaining students and focused on meeting their enhanced needs as part of the retention effort.
We need to ensure we hear what staff and students have experienced over the past months, what has worked and what could be improved, what supported their education and wellbeing and what did not. This is best managed proactively through undertaking surveys or focus groups to collect feedback. We need to be ready to hear stories of the unexpected as well as the expected. This includes hearing the minority of staff and students who actively prefer online learning and teaching because it can afford different patterns of working and different inclusion strategies. What can we learn from this? How can we build on what we have learned? We need to reflect on the different patterns of satisfaction, retention and attainment that have emerged across disciplinary contexts, focusing on identifying exemplary retention practice and asking the question whether this can work in other contexts.
While maintaining different local curricula, cultures and customs is inevitable – and frequently desirable - within HE disciplines, our respect for disciplinary boundaries should not prevent us from identifying and sharing best practice across a range of academic contexts and supporting each other towards exemplary HE provision.
Ruth Woodfield is Professor of Equalities & Organisation in the School of Management at the University of St Andrews. She is currently working in the Principal’s Office and is Assistant Vice-Principal (Diversity).
Connect Member Benefit Series November: Exceptional student retention
Throughout November, our Connect Benefit Series focuses on the theme of ‘Exceptional student retention’. As part of the series, we will host a webinar on 26 November entitled ‘How to support and retain the Covid-19 generation in higher education’. The webinar is free to all colleagues at Advance HE member institutions.
Book your place here.
All outputs of November’s Exceptional student retention theme, along with related resources and services can be found here.