Student Success & Retention: Key Ideas

I’m working on a project which involves a search for strong research articles and summaries, and that included some work on ‘retention in STEM’.  I have some references on that, later; however, I wanted to present some key ideas about how to keep students in class so they succeed and how to retain them across semesters.

Rather than look at certain teaching methods as ‘the answer’, let’s look at some key ideas with surface validity and examine their implications for teaching.

  • Students need to be working with the content over an extended period in order to be successful.

We know that learning is the result of effort, usually intentional.  Attendance is easily measured, but is not sufficient by itself.  The class needs to establish environments where students want to work with the material, and we know that grades are insufficient motivation for many students.

  • Non-trivial ‘success’ (positive feedback) based on effort is strong motivation for most people.

If success seems impossible regardless of effort, it is easy to see why students would stop working.  However, success regardless of effort is also likely to result in drastic reductions in effort.  As in most human endeavors, people need to see a connection between effort and reward.

  • A teacher’s attitudes are more important than specific methods.

A few years ago, I was trying some very different things in a class; in fact, I was not very proficient with some key parts of that plan.  However, my students responding to my attitude more than those methods.  As one student said, “Mr. Rotman would not give up on me!”  An honest belief that almost all students are able to succeed is strong motivation.

We need to see our classes as a human system, a community with a shared purpose.  Most people need relationships with a purpose … connections that help them deal with challenges.  I am not trying to be a friend to my students, but we do form a community which can support all members.

  • Every student contributes to the success of the class.

Not all students will pass a math class.  Some of those who do not pass are able to provide help to those who do pass.  This past semester, I had a student who did very poorly on written assessments who routinely helped the class understand concepts and procedures.  The contributions of a student are valued independently of their grade, and independently of any other measure or category (ethnicity, social standing, mastery of formal language, etc).

I have not mentioned any teaching methods; pedagogy does matter … but the pedagogy follows from other ideas.  I can not use the key ideas above if all I do is ‘lecture’ (though I do a fair amount of that).  My class must provide a variety of interactions in order for my attitudes to be clear … and for all students to have opportunities to contribute.  Establishing a community is social navigation, so students need times to talk with each other in smaller groups as well as the entire class.

Here are some good articles and summaries of retention in mathematics and other STEM fields; these studies focus on retention in programs as opposed to courses … though there are obvious connections between the two.

  1. Teaching For Retention In Science, Engineering, and Math Disciplines: A Guide For Faculty
  2. Increasing Persistence of College Students in STEM
  3. Retaining Students in Science,Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Majors
  4. Should We Still be Talking About Leaving? A Comparative Examination of Social Inequality in Undergraduate Patterns of Switching Majors
  5. Gender and Belonging in Undergraduate Computer Science: A Comparative Case Study of Student Experiences in Gateway Courses

Success and retention starts with us, and depends upon both our attitudes and our professional knowledge.

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