The transition to university is often associated with stress, anxiety, and tension and in many cases can lead to students failing or withdrawing from university. Transition problems result in high social and economic costs to families and the community. The past decade has seen a proliferation of transition strategies across universities. Results from evaluations of these transition programmes suggest student retention rates are significantly higher among those students involved in these programmes. The emphasis now though is to develop school or department based programmes as these are more readily adapted to meet the specific needs of students than university wide initiatives. The School of Psychology at Edith Cowan University has developed a transition programme that incorporates initial adjustment strategies, with ongoing support throughout the first-year, designed to help students cope with, and adjust to, the demands of university life. Issues regarding the development, implementation and evaluation of this programme are discussed.
Various factors impact on attrition rates, including the background characteristics of the students (Dobson, 1999; McInnis, James, & Hartley, 2000; Shields, 1995) as well as external and institutional factors (Tinto, 1993). For example, the disposition of the student on entry, his or her goal commitment, and individual university experiences after entry (both social and academic) can contribute to the decision to withdraw. The size of the institution, and the type and nature of the course also have significant influence on whether or not the student remains at university (Tinto, 1993). Coupled with these factors are the needs of specific student groups and the difficulties they might encounter as a result of their academic, social, cultural background, and personality characteristics (Lewis, 1994; Long, 1994; McJamerson, 1992; Scott, Burns, & Cooney, 1996; Strage, 2000; Terenzini, et al, 1994; West, 1985; Western, McMillan, & Durrington, 1998).
Students also bring with them a complex combination of idiosyncratic variables that impact on university performance and success. With the advent of alternative entry methods to university, age has become an important variable in the debate (Evans, 2000). Unfortunately, much of the literature that considers this aspect is contradictory. West, Hore, Bennie, Browne, and Kermond (1986) found that age had little impact on university success, while others argue in favour of deferring university study for a year following high school graduation as greater maturity increased the chances of university completion (Long, Carpenter, & Hayden, 1995). Clark and Ramsey (1990) found age to be highly correlated with performance, and in a national Australian study, Shah and Burke (1996) found that a 20-year-old enrolling student had the greatest chance of completing his or her degree course compared with a student of any other age group. However, considering age in isolation by excluding other contributing factors is to over simplify the complexity of the issue.
Cultural differences might also impact on a student's decision to withdraw, but again the research is conflicting. For instance there is some evidence to suggest that equity groups, such as mature age students, women, students with disabilities, and non-traditional groups, are less consistent in terms of their performance and less persistent in pursuing further education than non-equity groups (Abbott-Chapman, Hughes, & Wyld,1992; Bourke, Burden, & Moore, 1996; Dobson & Sharma, 1995; McClelland & Krueger, 1993), although other research shows no difference between the performance of equity groups and non-equity students (Long et al. 1995). Again, the contradictory nature of the research indicates that there is more than just the issue of culture in the equation.
Other issues such as financial difficulties (Abbott-Chapman et al. 1992; West, et al. 1986), gender (Scott et al. 1996), school type (private or public) (Elsworth & Day, 1983), mode of entry (McClelland & Kruger, 1993), and socio-economic status (Western et al. 1998) have also been found to impact on attrition rates. In addition, the psychological makeup of the student in terms of how prepared he or she is for university (West et al. 1986), previous school performance (McInnis et al. 2000) and long term goals (Abbott-Chapman et al. 1992; West et al. 1986) have also been shown to predict first-year success.
Despite the conflicting nature of some of the literature, what does emerge clearly is the need for institutions to provide adequate student support services and to provide them in such a way that students feel comfortable in accessing them. As with the other variables discussed, one cannot conclude that there is a causal link between the provision of student support services and attrition rates (Promnitz & Germain, 1996). What can be said, however, is that support services such as academic skills advisers, counsellors, medical services, financial management advice as well as equity support officers can provide a vital resource for students experiencing difficulties, particularly in the first-year (Promnitz & Germain, 1996). The School of Psychology at Edith Cowan University reports attrition rates for first-year students of 17.7% in 1994, 20.3% (1995), 21.6% (1996), 21.0% (1997) and 20.0% (1998) (Drew, Pike, Pooley, Young & Breen, 2000). While these figures are representative of the national trend, it must be noted that attrition rates are often skewed because they include all 'drop outs' including temporary ones, and those students transferring to other courses or institutions (Evans, 2000; Tinto, 1993). Consequently the simple application of 'input/output' analysis offers little clarity or understanding to the issue of attrition. What can be said is that a significant number of first-year students find their experience of university to be so different from their expectation that they do not continue (Tinto, 1993).
Transition programmes that incorporate strong links with high schools, comprehensive orientation, and on-going support are most effective when they are designed for the specific learning environment for which they are aimed (Boddy & Neale, 1998; Gillespie & Noble, 1992; Pargetter 1999; Tinto, 1993). There is a need therefore for universities to develop comprehensive policies on the issue of transition and for individual schools and departments to design and implement specific strategies to assist their students in negotiating the transition phase of university life and develop the skills necessary for successful completion.
The School of Psychology has developed a site-specific transition programme designed to achieve this. The Retention and Persistence Support (RAPS) Programme is aimed at creating a strong sense of community (McMillan & Chavis, 1986) among students, designed to transform the transition to university from a situation of high stress to one of support and engagement. The RAPS programme was developed and trialled at the Joondalup campus at the start of the 2001 academic year. This programme was developed as an extension of the Peer Mentoring Programme (PMP), which had seen a reduction in attrition since its inception in 1998. In addition to the PMP, the RAPS programme incorporates all the components of Tinto's transition model - orientation, learning communities and collaborative associations with High Schools along with recognition of the impact of HECS and the financial demands faced by students. Figure 1 illustrates the RAPS programme. All first-year students experienced the programme as it was integrated into the learning environment of the School of Psychology for the entire academic year.
Figure 1: RAPS Model
Tinto also argues for a collaborative pedagogy that sees the student as an active participant in the learning process (Tinto, 2000). He proposes that to achieve this goal there needs to be a model of learning that encourages integration between students and lecturers and promotes social and academic support networks among students by developing learning communities and collaborative learning strategies.
Learning communities comprise groups of approximately 20-30 students who are enrolled in the same courses. They share the same experiences in terms of their lectures and tutorial sessions, which encourages friendship and support networks among the students. Because learning communities encourage contact between students outside of the classroom setting, they provide a bridge between the academic demands of university and the social and friendship needs of the students (Tinto, 2000). This has been shown to translate into improved academic performance with learning community students performing up to 25% better than students not involved in such programmes (Tinto, 1993).
This issue highlights the importance of comprehensive training for sessional tutors. Because of the way courses within the school of psychology are structured and taught it is reasonable to assume that it is the tutor rather than the lecturer who will best be in a position to identify and encourage the struggling student. The tutor is also able to bring his or her experience as a student into the classroom as a means of dispelling anxiety regarding assessment or progress through the programme. Training provided to tutors included issues relating to assessment and marking and ways in which to give supportive, constructive feedback to students without them losing faith in their ability or reacting negatively to lower-than-expected grades. Tutors are also important in establishing the learning communities among students by encouraging them to appreciate the benefits derived from such networks both academically and socially.
It has been argued that best practice should include providing students with information relevant to potential problems such as time management and self-discipline, adequate literacy skills, computing and IT experience and learning how to access library and on-line information (Pargetter, 2000). In addition, there should be an emphasis on the need for ongoing support from schools for a period of time after students leave high school (Pargetter, 2000). This is to allow students who feel the need for additional support to seek it from an environment in which they felt comfortable and secure rather than having to deal with unfamiliar people and services.
Therefore an important component of the RAPS model is an on-going initiative that involves stronger relationships with high school. Year 11 and 12 students will be encouraged to engage in a range of activities and learning opportunities conducted at the university. They will be provided with access to university facilities such as the library, and more accurate information regarding the nature and demands of university study will be provided. The School of Psychology will also provide workshops and seminars to these students about stress reduction and coping skills as well as exam preparation. Finally, the School of Psychology has developed a range of promotional materials in the form of workshops and presentations to be taken out to schools by staff or postgraduate students to promote the School of Psychology and the university to students in a non-threatening and innovative manner. Clearly this initiative is not common among universities even in Australia but the school of psychology believes this is an important component in the RAPS programme.
Results from the focus groups indicate students felt supported throughout the year, they experienced lower levels of stress and anxiety, formed strong friendship connections, and were better placed to cope with the diverse demands of university study. Unit statistics indicate a net zero attrition from the research methods unit and a 100% increase in the number of students passing the unit at Distinction and High Distinction level compared with data from the previous cohort of students. A detailed account of the evaluation process and outcomes can be obtained from Darlaston-Jones, Cohen, Pike, Haunold, Young and Drew (forthcoming).
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|Authors: Dawn Darlaston-Jones is a lecturer at Edith Cowan University and is currently completing her PhD in Community Psychology. Email contact address firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Lynne Cohen is a community psychologist and a lecturer at Edith Cowen University.
Associate Professor Lisbeth Pike is a clinical, developmental and educational psychologist, and lectures at Edith Cowen University.
Alison Young is senior Administration Assistant for the School of Psychology.
Sue Haunold has been an integral member of the Peer Mentoring and the Transition Programs. She is involved in a range of research projects.
Associate Professor Neil Drew is Director for Regional Development at UWA. He is a community psychologist with almost 20 years experience.
Please cite as: Darlaston-Jones, D., Cohen, L., Haunold, S., Pike, L., Young, A. and Drew, N. (2003). The retention and persistence support (RAPS) project: A transition initiative. Issues In Educational Research, 13(2), 1-12. http://www.iier.org.au/iier13/darlaston-jones2.html