How do you manage student retention at challenging times?

4 January 2024

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One of the many challenges that Access to HE providers face is retaining students when times are tough. Returning to full-time education as an adult can be difficult and, given that many Access students have other responsibilities such as childcare and part-time jobs, it is understandable that some are unable to complete their Access to HE Diploma.

But what can providers do to help students stay the course through challenging times and complete their diploma?

This topic was the theme of our recent online TeachMeet. Facilitated by Access to HE Quality Manager, Julie Knowles, the session was an opportunity for staff at Skills and Education Group Access Centres to share their own retention challenges and exchange solutions.

Read on for the key takeaways from this TeachMeet.


Understand the challenges – and make sure students do too


Those in attendance began by discussing the times of year when students are most likely to drop out of their course.

Claire said dropouts are common in the first 42 days and that Christmas can also be a difficult period. The holidays give students time with their families and time to reflect. This, coupled with the financial concerns that Christmas can bring, means some students do not return to the course in the new year. Liz said her organisation mitigates this issue by not setting graded assignments for students over the festive period to relieve the pressure.

Providers can also reduce dropouts by ensuring that students understand the demands of an Access to HE Diploma beforehand. Claire said her organisation interviews students at the start of the course and set a pre-interview task to check whether they understand the level of commitment requirement. Will, Study The Wrd, added that providers should make it clear to students that they will be challenged and feel uncomfortable at times during their course. He said we should treat our delivery of Access to HE as a learner experience, not a customer experience, and that we should encourage students to step out of their comfort zones.

Furthermore, Julie said students often say Access courses are harder than they expect, and that inviting former Access students to talk to current students can be a good way to help them understand the demands. Sarah said her organisation give students a robust induction week and encourage students to persevere because “the rewards are so much more than they can imagine.”

Attendees also said some students drop out if they do not secure a university place. Therefore, it is up to providers to explain to students that there is still value in completing the diploma even if they cannot progress to higher education straight away – they can reapply next year. As Julie said, Access to HE does not have to be the “last chance” – the journey to higher education isn’t always a smooth one.

“The rewards are so much more than they can imagine.”

Be flexible

The importance of flexibility was mentioned throughout the TeachMeet. Amy, Academy Online Learning, said being an online provider allows her organisation to move the start and end dates of courses. She also recommended giving students the option of taking a break from their course if they are experiencing personal challenges. Will added that vulnerable students think in the short-term, therefore providers should consider what they can do to buy them time, such as extending a deadline.

Will also said, “money gives you choice.” He said that if financial barriers are holding students back, then money for specific items will often make more of a difference than “lumps of cash” for students to spend as they choose. Similarly, Claire said her organisation rents out laptops to support students.

Claire also mentioned the Free courses for jobs funding available through the government, which can support those students who cannot access the Advanced Learner Loan.

The Skills and Education Group Foundation offers learner grants that can be used to pay for educational resources, transport costs, and more, helping learners to overcome social barriers.

Applications will reopen in February 2024. Find out more here.

Use technology to your advantage

Will said online delivery should not be dismissed as less valuable. When done right, it can be more effective than traditional delivery. He recommended the use of high-quality recorded materials to allow students to learn at different times.

Recording lessons can make students reluctant to contribute, so Will suggested recording key sections rather than the whole session. Liz added that you can record a summary of the lesson- which students are more likely to watch because it is shorter. She has done this for ESOL learners at her organisation. To overcome students’ reluctance to ask questions during a recorded session, Will invites anonymous questions and uses post-it notes to remind himself of questions to address during the session.

Liz also recommended the Microsoft Immersive Reader. This free tool allows you to change the background colour and font size of text and can translate different languages. It also gives students the option to dictate their work and have it read back to them. These features can support learners with neurodiverse conditions such as dyslexia. Will added that learning technologies should be presented to students as ‘hacks’ rather than ‘needs’, so that students do not feel they are underperforming.

Offer flexibility to your students through online delivery

If you are looking for ways to offer greater flexibility to your Access students, our new online offer can help.

Through our partnership with Pearl Tech, you can offer many of our diplomas through online or hybrid delivery. Find out more here.

For other upcoming training and professional development opportunities, visit the Skills and Education Group Events page.