Helping students succeed: Dal explores the retention question

- October 24, 2014

Students from Dal's Medical Sciences program in conversation. (Danny Abriel photo)
Students from Dal's Medical Sciences program in conversation. (Danny Abriel photo)

Every year, hundreds of new students come to Dalhousie, and their numbers have been growing. According to statistics published by the Association of Atlantic Universities, Dal welcomed more than 2,700 first-year students this fall, with about 1,330 transfer students joining them.

The hope is that all of those students will have a great experience at Dal, in and out of the classroom, and get to cross the stage at the Arts Centre or Langille Athletic Centre in due course. But we know not all of them will make it there.

In fact, Dalhousie’s retention rate — the percentage of first-year students who continue onto their second year of studies — lags behind the average of the U15, Canada’s group of large research-intensive universities. At other U15 universities between 2008 and 2011, an average of 88 per cent of students continued into their second year of studies. At Dalhousie, that number over the same period was just under 82 per cent, and lower among international students.

For Anne Forrestall, senior leader for Student Services, those numbers are a concern, but not just for their own sake. For her, it’s really about the stories behind the numbers.

“Every student has their own definition of success, and there will always be students who come to a university and decide, ‘this isn’t for me’; that’s to be expected,” explains Forrestall.

“But when you have students who want to be here and don’t find the supports or the environment they need to succeed — to finish their studies and graduate with the degree they came here to earn — then that’s a bigger concern, and one that we all have a responsibility to help address.”

Understanding the situation

Given the data, it’s no wonder that retention and degree completion emerged as major topics of discussion in the 100 Days of Listening last fall and became one the initial priorities in the university’s new Strategic Direction. Responding to this, a group that combined academic and student services leadership refocused their efforts in the spring to understand the root causes and solutions to retention.

To assist with the planning, Dalhousie has hired SEM Works, a leading higher education consulting firm with expertise in enrolment management, especially student success and retention. The company has worked with over 400 institutions across North America and beyond.

“SEM Works will help lead an audit of our retention situation — assessing current activities that connect with students and support their success across the university — and combine that with research-based lessons and best-practices from other institutions to suggest a plan for the university,” explains Fiona Black, associate vice-president academic and co-lead on the project.

“We have invested in a number of student success initiatives in recent years,” adds Dr. Black. “We know that some units and programs are having great success, but we certainly don’t know everything, and often one faculty doesn’t know what the others are doing, This project will help us to figure out what best practices could help improve students’ success across all of our programs and faculties.”

Phase one of the project kicks into high gear next week as two senior SEM Works colleagues visit campus for an intense four days of consultations. They’ll be hosting cross-sectional sessions of staff and faculty who tie into student success from a variety of perspectives (academic supports, health and wellness, orientation, communications, etc.); leading several focus-group sessions with students, both in Halifax and Truro; and meeting with deans, as well as associate and assistant deans who work with students.

From there, SEM Works will work with the university to develop a retention plan designed to take the university through 2018. It will identify initiatives, priorities and strategies for Dalhousie to implement aimed at helping more students complete their studies.

“We expect there will be some small projects, and some major ones, coming out of that plan, with varying priority,” explains Dr. Black. “We’ll be working with Senate, administration, faculty, staff and students across the university about how best to implement the plan.”

Making a difference for students

The project has an active steering group that includes Mary Jane Jennings (director of the Office of Institutional Analysis and Research), Susan Spence Wach (associate vice-president academic), Asa Kachan (registrar) and Mairead Barry (associate registrar). And there’s a great deal of enthusiasm among everyone involved for getting underway.

For Dr. Black, it’s an exciting opportunity to examine how program structure and planning affect students’ degree progression and to build capacity for success across the university.

As for Anne Forrestall, she believes that it’s vital the university do everything it can to support students.

“When we welcome students here, we have to do our very best — our informed best — to support them. They’ve met our admission requirements, but they come from different backgrounds, with different levels of readiness for the university environment, and we have a moral responsibility to help them fulfill their potential.”


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