The evaluation of an evidence-based approach to student retention

Wade, Sally A. (2010). The evaluation of an evidence-based approach to student retention. EdD thesis The Open University.



Student retention has become an increasing concern in higher education over the last decade, particularly in those institutions committed to widening access and participation. Prompted by an increased focus on retention outlined in the White Paper `The Future of Higher Education' (DfES, 2003), institutions responded by introducing specific measures to address attrition. This study examines an evidence-based approach to improving student retention taken by one post '92 university in the UK, through its retention strategy. It explores the origins of evidence-based practice and debates around educational research and the policy/practice nexus as a means of understanding the context within which the retention strategy was introduced in 2003. The evaluation examines the management and implementation of a number of initiatives, located both centrally and within faculties and departments. The evidence demonstrating implementation and impact is identified and judgement made in relation to the reliability and validity. In addition, how the evidence is used or otherwise by the institution to review and reflect on the impact of its retention strategy is analysed. The focus of the study is summarised by the research questions,
1. What constitutes evidence within the university and the nature of available evidence in terms of its reliability and validity?
2. How is evidence utilised at local and institutional levels to inform future strategic development?
3. How does evidence demonstrate an impact on student retention?

The study draws from research on student retention and engagement in both the UK and US particularly that of Kuh et al. (2005), Tinto (1975) and Yorke (1999) to develop a theoretical framework within which to evaluate the strategy. The work of Berger (2002) and Bush (1995) is influential in expanding existing models on student retention, to examine the relationships between organisational structures and behaviours and the impact on the introduction of retention initiatives.

This study applies a realist evaluation methodology (Pawson and Tilley, 1997) to a sub-group of initiatives introduced as part of the retention strategy. The argument that evaluation can be undertaken as educational research is presented, and that realistic evaluation has relevance in acknowledging the complex nature of evidence and the importance of context. This is corroborated by the outcomes of the research, summarised within a realistic framework, identifying explanatory mechanisms, which contribute to theory on organisational development, education management and leadership, student retention and engagement.

The research findings identify the nature of evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, the latter including significant evidence, much of which was incidental and informal. The recognition and use of evidence at institutional levels is analysed. In addition, this study examines the role of complexity in relation to academic management and organisational change. The role of academic managers in supporting and facilitating change is considered alongside the role of individual practitioners engaged to introduce and embed initiatives. The findings identify organisational behaviours, management models conducive or otherwise, and present recommendations for future practice.

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