Addressing HE student isolation, re-connection and engagement, before it’s too late!

Posted by Oliver Mussett

In our last blog in this series, we discussed the importance of community when it comes to engaging students from application, to their first day at university, through to the completion of their studies, and beyond. This has been a particularly hot topic in recent years, when many students’ experience of university has been predominantly virtual, leading to a lack of friendship and connection, and soaring attrition rates.

It’s why universities’ online learning and support offerings are currently under intense scrutiny, and Higher Education (HE) leaders are looking to implement ways to engage students and support their good mental health and wellbeing. Not least because research in this area consistently shows that learning and teaching environments that are intentionally designed to support student mental wellbeing also support academic achievement. 

Despite the efforts to date, earlier this year, we published the State of the Nation Report on Student Mental Health in Higher Education, which pulled together three key findings from a number of student surveys, concluding that:

  • 35% of students feel lonely at university (Wonkhe and Pearson)
  • 41% of students feel anxious or stressed (International Student Barometer 2021), and
  • 80% of students have a fear of failure.

These feelings, combined with the continuous rise in the cost of living whilst at university, concerns around the perceived value of their chosen course, and the growing number of graduates who advance in careers outside their field of study, make it easy to see why students might opt out of continuing their education. 

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The true costs of dropping out

The risk of attrition – or students ‘dropping out’ – is front-loaded in year one. This is perhaps not surprising given that students will have moved away from their trusted support networks and are adjusting to university life. The good news is that the longer a student persists in their study, the more likely they are to see it through to conclusion.

Whilst the average attrition rate across all UK universities is 7%, according to the HESA statistics shared in the State of the Nation Report, some institutions suffer 25% attrition, with as many as 1 in 4 students dropping out. Quite apart from the implications for these individuals, these attrition rates should be a significant concern to university leaders. As Lee Rawlinson, Director of Institutional Research at Student Ventures, who contributed to the State of the Nation Report, explains:

If a student continues in their study year to year, it indicates the student feels adequately supported in their study, and in their life at university; that their experience – at least somewhat – matches their expectation. If your attrition rate is high, you need to look at the barriers students may experience when requesting, accessing and receiving the support they need. Whether that’s day to day support with their learning, assistance with funding and living arrangements, or wellbeing services.”

Rawlinson also highlights in his research that whilst the HESA data on attrition is readily available (because of how valuable it is to the university and the way it impacts funding and marketing ROI), the reason that an individual student leaves university is rarely captured in any detail. Which makes it very difficult for universities to design appropriate programmes to specifically retain students who are at the highest risk of dropping out.  

There is, therefore, a lot at stake in not capturing this data and using it to retain students. For each student that is lost, the institution loses at least two years’ worth of tuition fees (typically £18,500) plus related accommodation and other costs.

So ensuring the university has a single source of data capture for a student withdrawing from their course, and mapping this to a central, 360-degree view of the student record, is an important first step in addressing student retention and engagement. But what more can be done to address engagement and support good mental health before it’s too late, and a student drops out?


The value of nurturing connection and engagement

To create a learning environment that supports student mental wellbeing, institutions need to actively design-in something called ‘M-BRAC’ (motivation, belonging, relationships, autonomy and competence):

  • Autonomous motivation - a key driver of mental wellbeing, it is psychologically nurturing for students to have a sense of owning their actions, and those actions being aligned with their interests, values and goals.
  • A sense of belonging - especially important in the early days of university is the need for students to feel accepted and valued by others within their new social groups, and the wider organisation.
  • Positive relationships - all students need to feel able to trust, rely on and care for others and experience others trusting, relying on and caring for them to build positive relationships, which contribute to their sense of belonging.
  • Experiences of autonomy - students rely on the opportunity to self-choose actions, tasks and goals to establish an authentic sense of self and sense of purpose. Pressure to act or being controlled by others is proven to undermine wellbeing.
  • Feelings of competence - students experience competence when they are able to effectively manage their own interactions, tasks and challenges. This pillar of well-being is essential to task motivation, engagement, and persistence.
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It’s why institutions are increasingly embedding technology in their students’ daily university lives - via an app - as a scalable way to meet these needs whilst also offering a hyper-personalised experience that consistently nurtures engagement by:

  • Getting students’ attention - facilitating students’ interaction and engagement with the elements of the curriculum and extra-curricular activities they care about, deepening their sense of connection and increasing retention and success.
  • Keeping students on track - enabling teachers, tutors, students and learners to set goals and tasks, and helping them see them through to completion by collaborating through persistent group timelines to post links, tips, hints and reminders.
  • Making communication easy - via a safe and secure social network so that staff, students and learners can communicate one to one or in groups, all in real-time. No need to share personal data to connect with others, unlike other messaging apps.
  • Helping students develop relationships - by offering students and learners a collaborative space to learn and support each other with in-class activities and self-learning.
  • Increasing feedback - engaging students and learners with near-immediate feedback to reassure them of their competence and better inform them ahead of their next lesson, lecture or appointment.
  • Connecting all parts of university life - providing deep integration between all of the university’s technology to provide quick linking opportunities to wider campus support systems - from the palm of their hand.

Tribal’s Engage solution is specifically designed for Higher Education institutions to connect your entire campus ecosystem, consolidating all your existing web portals into a single app that makes access to class activities and self-learning, simpler. It gives students a secure, collaborative space to learn and support each other, and enables teachers and tutors to actively monitor engagement and implement interventions in time to make a difference.

For more information about Tribal Engage, download the brochure here >

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