Student retention | Ormond Simpson the Open University

This is an excellent Breeze presentation by Ormond Simpson of the OU for anyone interested in HE retention issues. If the financial discussion isn’t of interest, skip onto slide 23.

Concluding this Breeze presentation Ormand suggests that there are two kinds of staff in universities:

1. ‘Survivalists’ – student progress is ultimately about the survival of the fittest – entity theorists?
2. ‘Supportists’ – students need support to overcome problems – incremental theorists?

Veronique Johnston (2003 Napier University) says, ” The biggest barrier to student retention is the institution itself”

It follows that a key question is where do individuals’ values and practices and the values and practices of our institutions sit in this mix?

Ways to retain students

Ormand explains that, from the OU perspective and supported by further research by Yorke and Longden (2004), the single best thing to do about student retention is to get students on the right course in the first place. A simple proposition at one level, and Ormand explains how the OU approach this challenge by giving students different perspectives and sources of information on which to base their choices:

1. Course descriptions – done with varying degree of efficacy by all institutions. An interesting development by the OU is an automatic referral system that suggests other courses that they may be interested in – similar to the Amazon online store approach
2. OU website – where student and tutors post course reviews about their experience on completion of a course
3. Taster packs – containing some course material and assignment exemplars, an example

In Ultraversity, we attempted to achieve the above through the use of an induction blog. Information and taster activities were available for potential students to familiarise themselves with the programme and meet the staff and fellow students.

Tension 1: As Ormond pointed out, institutional marketeers and others who focus solely on recruitment numbers may well protest at this approach. There is a there is a very real tension between simply signing students up to meet recruitment targets and selecting students who are likely to complete the course.

Secondly, the OU undertakes early identification of vulnerable students by “binary regression analysis” based on record of previous students profiles (age, sex, previous qualifications, ethnicity, course and socio economic status) and their completion rates. This gives a prediction of success in the range of 83% down to 9% that is pretty accurate. In a given year, 3000 students with predicted probability of success of 21-30 %, 75% will drop out.

This analysis allows for targeting of students that are vulnerable. An approach is supported by Anderson (2003) who states “‘student self-referral does not work as a mode of promoting persistence. Students who need services the most refer themselves the least. Effective retention services take the initiative in outreach and timely interventions”

It follows that proactive contact is required which Ormand explains for the OU looks like this:

Early contact:
The telephone call. This happens before a course starts working alternately up from the bottom up of a predictability of drop-out list alternately, this last part for reasons of time constraints and ethical practice:^) Advantageously, this gives the OU a balanced control group showing 5% return on those who are contacted (OU research 2002 – 2004).

Proactive contact during the course:
In an ideal world this would be so, but work-place incentives mitigate against this practice which highlights tension 2 below. This view is supported by a data collecting exercise undertook by the OU that followed a group of at vulnerable students and interviewed them on a weekly basis hoping to identify points at which they left. Ormand pointed out that few of the students did drop out as in effect the weekly contacts were a form of support given…

Tension 2: Much can be done to improve retention, but there is an diminishing rate of return from an investment perspective.

External sources of support
Research at the OU has found that in descending order of importance this is how students value support: From families and friends; from tutors; from other students; from employers; and finally from the institution directly.

This point is, perhaps, the most relevant to my own work over the past 4 years. Ormand explained that it was the research teams impression that students who stayed had really good informal support networks. This chimes a chord with our own research at Ultraversity which found that students’ family and friends were a significant source of support.

In this work we also found strong evidence that online communities enable significant support to be given between students and by the course staff – for those who were successful, online community has significant positive impact on their experience. Arguably, this is a different experience to that of the OU as typically their course do not place such a premium on student collaboration through online communities. By building in models that encourage student-student support (mentoring between cohorts, collaborative work, etc.) the direct support for students can be increased without overwhelming university staff.

From deficit model of remedial action to a motivational approach that celebrates individual strengths

Towards the end of his presentation Ormand explained a new line of research using Positive Psychology. Put simply, rather than focus on weaknesses and then talk about developing learning skills (literature indicates this isn’t effective), the focus is on building motivation through concentrating on strengths not weaknesses. The aim is to discover and promote that which makes individuals happy and allows them to thrive.

“Positive Psychology… is the scientific study of optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals…to thrive. [It is the] psychology of happiness, flow, and personal strengths” (Seligman, 1999).

“The best predictor of student retention is motivation – retention services need to clarify and build on motivation and address motivation-reducing issues. Most students drop out because of reduced motivation” (Anderson, san Diego, 2003)


2 thoughts on “Student retention | Ormond Simpson the Open University

  1. Gina

    If I ever finish this MA of mine, I’m hoping I will have some data to show that an online community can help retention. I’m not looking into that topic for my thesis, but it is looking into the student experience and I would imagine the online community will come up – I’ll keep you posted – with drafts in fact 😉


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