Talking Teaching

March 10, 2010

completions, teaching & learning, & funding

I remember the issue of tying some tertiary funding to student completion & retention rates first coming up about 12 years ago, and various governments have made noises about it ever since. Now I see that this is going ahead, with 5-10% of the funding given to tertiary education providers tied to retention & student performance.

Twelve years back this was being promoted, at least in part, as being a way of rewarding teaching excellence. I had real reservations about that as it seemed to me that using completion rates to measure teaching quality was a very blunt instrument indeed. This time round it’s ‘educational performance’, which I suppose is rather more holistic, but those concerns remain.

Various commentaries in the media have highlighted concerns around the ability to access tertiary education for students in groups that might be seen as more likely to fail: Maori, Pasifika, older students. An institution worried about its figures might simply decline to enrol them in the first place. They’ve also suggested that educators might come under pressure to pass students regardless of whether that pass is deserved. But so far I haven’t seen anything looking in detail at the issue of just why students fail to complete either papers or entire qualifications. This surprises me since I know of at least one fairly major government-funded research study that looked at this very question, surveying students from 7 NZ tertiary institutions  (Zepke et al. 2005).

The students told Zepke & his colleagues that personal problems were a key factor in affecting any decision to withdraw or partially withdraw from their studies: family issues, difficulties balancing work & study (or sport & study), personal health problems. This is something that institutions do not have the ability to control and may not have the ability (or the funding) to deal with. Yes, students also commented that workloads, and ways to manage them, were also high on their list of concerns, and there may well be things we (as educators) can do about that. (Certainly the Student Learning Support staff here provide students with a lot of help and advice centred on managing their studies.) And we can improve on the advice that we give about programs of study, given that students reported that feeling they might have chosen the wrong course also influenced their decisions to stick with study or drop out of it. And of course teachers continue to review their practices & reflect on how well what they do affects their students’ learning.

But there are, when it comes to the crunch, 2 sets of players in the teaching & learning world. And I have to say, if my teaching is in part going to be judged on how many students complete my course – then I’d quite like the ability to withdraw those students who enrol in my papers but never ever do anything else. They don’t come to labs, they don’t complete assignments, they don’t sit tests, they don’t come to exams. Every year there are 10-20 such students in a class of 200. They drag down my completion rates. I try to contact them, but rarely get any response. And I’d really rather they weren’t there on my class lists at all …

Nick Zepke, Linda Leach, Tom Prebble, Alison Campbell, David Coltman, Bonnie Dewart, & Maree Gibson (2005) Improving tertiary student outcomes in the first year of study. NZ Council for Education Research report

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