Engineering schools spend considerable time and effort in an attempt to attract students. In many cases this involves more than simply advertising the existence of a particular program of study or stimulating some interest in a particular course. Due to entrance requirements, not only is it necessary to deal with competing student interests, but students must also be undertaking the appropriate prerequisite courses in the final two years of their high school studies; something that may require them to make a conscious decision to select appropriate subjects around the time they are in Year 9.
And after all this work to attract them, just under 10% (eg. University of Adelaide, 2008) leave their studies, with many doing so during or at the end of their first year. Some may simply be changing courses, others may find that university is not for them. However, within this group there are others who have, for whatever reason, failed to engage with the course or have failed to engage with the concept of university learning, and it is these who are the focus of the current work.
Of course, there has been much work done on student retention already, with studies going back to the 1950s (eg. Malloy et al, 1955; Athanasiou, 1971). In those days attrition rates appear to have been much higher (Athanasiou was following a group of 862, of whom 195 had left by the second semester of their second year, giving a two-year attrition rate of 23%) and the focus seemed to be on determining entrance tests that would identify those who were likely to stay the course, although there was mention of the need to change the course to appeal to the student with broader interests than the narrow range assumed for the traditional engineering male at the time.
In a study of first-year students at university, McInnis et al (2000) found many students are actively engaged in the workforce and, according to Bell (2006), many see their lives revolving around work rather than study. Those that work outside the university engage in fewer contact hours and are more likely to be isolated in their study. A key finding from the study was that students had some difficulty in making the transition to a system of learning where much more personal responsibility was required. Procrastination and time management have also been found to be key issues. Research has shown that the better students get onto the task sooner and work at it more efficiently, while the poorer students leave it to much later and then spend excessive amounts of time trying to get what is required prepared in time (Bernold, 2007).
Another key factor in student retention has been shown to be student confidence, both in their basic background knowledge and in their ability to succeed in engineering. This confidence is in turn determined, to an extent, by personality and other issues rather than straight competence (Besterfield-Sacre et al, 1998; Bernold et al, 2007). For example, females in engineering have been found to be less confident, and even those with the same marks as males are more likely to be part of the program attrition (Besterfield-Sacre et al, 1998). This lack of confidence is important since it points towards the need for strategies that are likely to be successful in building student confidence and retention. Some universities have gone so far as to set up special first-year transition programs to address this issue (Fink et al, 2005) and some started offering special help on a voluntary basis with the unfortunate result that those who needed it most did not take part (Bernold, 2007). Many universities have appointed senior academics as first-year experience coordinators in an attempt to reduce attrition rates.
But it is not just first-year students who are at risk of disengaging from courses and the university. Later-year students, and particularly those who develop a pattern of missing lectures and tutorials, are also at risk. …