Making Connections: using e-learning data to improve retention rates in higher education

A Middlesex University project made possible with funding from the Higher Education Academy

Project team: Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou, Deeba Parmar and Barry Jackson

Research assistant: Jacqueline Priego-Hernandez

Rationale and aims

Student retention was highlighted as a significant issue in a number of government papers including the Dearing Report (NCIHE, 1997), Higher Education in the Learning Society, and the White Paper titled The Future or Higher Education (DFES, 2003), however, ‘education, not retention, should be the goal of institutional programmes’ (Tinto, 1993). The need to ‘bear down on student retention’ (DFES, 2003) is coupled with the widening participation agenda to encourage greater access particularly to under represented groups, aspiring to have reached 50% of 18-30 year olds in HE by the end of the decade (HEFCE, 2001); this adds to the equation of delivering a quality learning experiences to an increasingly diverse student body. The need to address retention issues within the UK HE sector, and at an institutional level, will clearly have benefits for both institutions (reputation, fee income, government grant income, etc) and students (student-centred support, qualifications, future prospects, etc) but the primary factors leading this proposal is the need to enhance the student learning experience.

Institutional research at Middlesex (ISLER Project), has shown that students withdraw for a complex combination of reasons, which are often masked by the HESA data under the categories of ‘other’ and ‘unknown’. The ISLER research discovered that these categories are masking factors related to the student learning experience (student/staff interaction, cohort identity, use of formative assessments, timely feedback, etc) Literature also suggests that learning and teaching methods have considerable impact on the retention of learners (Mortiboys, 2002; Yorke, 2003; Parmar and Trotter, 2004) and it is precisely on these which this proposal wishes to focus.

Literature contains many examples of work investigating the use of ICT to improve retention and progression rates in distance education, however, very little has been done in leveraging learning technologies to identify and support campus-based, blended-learning students who are considered at risk of leaving HE before completion.


The purpose of this research is to assist HE institutions in improving the learning experience of first year students, particularly focussing on those at risk of withdrawing from their courses. This proposal attempts to add value to recent investments into e-learning by exploiting the tracking data captured by VLEs in order to identify and describe how ‘at-risk’ students manifest themselves online, and to pinpoint appropriate timescales for interventions which may help improve retention. Simpson (2003) claims that both distance education and traditional institutions have started using customised ‘predicted probability of success’ indicators based on student profiles and life history data. However, we have identified an absence of research referring to behavioural patterns and identities.

Research Questions

  • How does the identity of students at risk of withdrawing from higher education manifest itself online?
  • Is there an associated behaviour of ‘at risk’ students specific to the online learning environment?
  • What are the characteristics of ‘at risk’ students and how do they differ from students who are not at risk?
  • Does the online behaviour differ depending on students’ access route to HE (direct, UCAS, partner institutions)?