Retention of At-Risk Students: a Case Study from a Tertiary Education Institution in the Middle East

Bourchak, Mokhtar (2020). Retention of At-Risk Students: a Case Study from a Tertiary Education Institution in the Middle East. EdD thesis The Open University.



This study investigates the engagement and retention of higher education students in the Middle East. It focuses on a group of students who have been identified as ‘at-risk’ of leaving before completing their course in a government-funded tertiary education institution, one of a group of 17 male and female colleges spread across one country in the Middle East. The study reflects growing concern over the need to improve students’ retention and success levels in this part of the world and contributes theoretically and practically to the field. More specifically, it addresses two research questions: 1) What are the main reasons for poor student engagement and retention in this context? and 2) How can faculty through their formal and informal interaction with students contribute to the retention and engagement of at-risk students?

An interpretive method of inquiry was adopted and conducted through a qualitative case study focusing on a single institution. The empirical data were collected through focus groups with students and staff. The focus groups were conducted in Arabic with students, and English with teachers, reflecting the linguistic preferences of the participants. The qualitative focus group data were analysed thematically and then considered in relation to existing institutional quantitative data. This process helped triangulate and extend the qualitative data findings to enhance the validity of this investigation.

The study was informed by existing literature on student persistence regarding course completion. To develop a theoretical framework, Tinto's model of departure (1975) was utilised initially, as it recognises the importance of both social and academic integration, and the contribution of the attributes that students bring with them to the institution, such as prior education and personal circumstances. The second phase of the empirical work homed in on the role of academic staff in contributing to the engagement and success of students.

Findings from the case study research reaffirmed the consensus in the literature that retention is a multidimensional issue; students leave for a range of reasons (Sanders et al., 2016). The thematic analysis of the empirical data identified additional issues that contribute to early departure, which are specific to the cultural and geographical context of the Middle East. Following on from this, a new conceptual model for students’ engagement and retention in the Middle East, which identifies practical ways to improve the outcomes of students in this part of the world, is presented.

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