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Learning vs. Retention: It's not a battle

Updated: Mar 8

For years, higher education professionals and researchers have drawn a combative line between learning and retention/graduation metrics. For higher education to succeed, we need to understand that it's not a battle - it's a biathlon.

I don't have the long list of citations. Even a 5-10 minute Google search couldn't track down a scathing op-ed to support what I'm about to say, but I can assure you this statement is true: There are those in higher education who hate talking about retention.

Making statements such as this without citation can be dangerous. Nothing scares me more than seeing a video on social media where someone says, "I heard the other day" or "I read somewhere..." For those of you who work in information literacy, this must be a huge red flag. When you don't give a citation, you don't allow your audience to check your facts. Is your statement made up? Are you misquoting the findings? Was there a problem with the way they came to the conclusion that might impact our discussion?

Yet I assure you, this is no straw-man argument. I've read in enough books and heard from enough actual voices that some (let's be honest, they're all either current or former faculty) are concerned that conversations around retention promote an "efficiency mindset." If all we care about is retention, we won't care if students actually LEARN anything... or something to that effect.

Admittedly, conversations around "diploma mills" - institutions who essentially offer degrees for money and/or have less-than-rigorous accreditation - are a separate matter altogether. Frankly, having worked in higher education my entire career, across hundreds of colleges and universities, I've never encountered one. If anything, these might be a straw-man for those opposed to involvement in retention initiatives.

Here's the traditional way of thinking: Learning happens in the classroom. It is the domain of faculty (and more broadly, academic affairs). Retention happens outside the classroom and is the purview of those in student affairs. The real danger is to emphasize retention in the classroom because then we're not focused on learning any more and all we care about is getting students through.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Let's start with the first premise. The work of student affairs professionals over the last several decades (e.g., the CAS Standards) has helped to articulate the learning that takes place outside of the classroom. Few would disagree that factors such as belonging, cultural sensitivity, civic engagement, etc. - are, at best, developed through a blend of curricular and co-curricular experiences, and are important outcomes for nearly all colleges and universities.

Moreover, what happens in the classroom has MASSIVE impacts on student retention. A 2003 piece by the great Vincent Tinto articulated factors such as setting high expectations, providing constructive and frequent feedback, and active involvement in learning as key to student retention. All areas heavily, if not solely, governed by faculty.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that every horror story about sense of belonging (e.g., use of an insensitive word or phrase that made a student feel entirely unwelcomed) that I've ever heard involves a faculty member. So not only are some of our biggest supports for student success in the classroom, some of our biggest hurdles are as well.

Finally, this notion that the discussion of learning and retention is a zero-sum game is preposterous. The most important case against that came from a 2004 meta-analysis by Steve Robbins and colleagues at ACT. They looked at predictors of both first-year GPA and retention across 109 studies, and their findings emphasized an old psychological adage: The best predictor of past behavior is future behavior.

When you talk about academic success (i.e., GPA), the best predictors are academic in nature (i.e., high school grades, test scores). Yes, you can boost that understanding to some extent (a statistically significant but practically small-moderate amount) by adding things like noncognitive factors or socioeconomic status, but generally speaking, academic outcomes are best predicted by academic predictors.

Retention, however, is not an academic outcomes. Yes, ABSOLUTELY, learning is a part of that. But research into sense of belonging has really showed us that the decision to stay or leave is also determined by social factors. Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest lesson we learned from Tinto's early research into student success: it's not just the smart people who persist, it's also those who feel like they belong. A host of other factors - motivation, for one - can be added to the mix of things that are outside of merely the consideration of "was this student academically prepared when they got here?"

Here's the real test: ask anyone why students leave your institution. I will be shocked if the answer is, "well they just aren't smart enough." And yet, nearly all of the data that we collect on student readiness is related to academic preparation.

The fact of the matter is that retention is a behavioral outcome. It is the choice to stay or leave. Thus, if we go back to our psychological adage, a behavioral outcome would best be predicted by behavioral indicators. Of course, many psychological (e.g., sense of belong), sociological (e.g., social/cultural capital), and other contextual (e.g., "life happens") factors determine those behaviors.

If anything, I would argue that the mantle of learning has actually hindered retention, rather than facilitated it. A few years ago, I was giving a workshop on student learning outcomes to a group of community college faculty in California. At the break, one of the participants approached me: "I love student learning outcomes assessment. In fact, I give a pre-test to all my students on the first day to assess what they know! Then, if they get any wrong, I allow them to go look up the answers for half credit."

I replied, "That's really interesting... but I have to ask, why half credit?"

Her: "Because they didn't know it!"

Me: "Ok, so you punished those students because they did not meet some pre-requisite for your class that wasn't stated. Moreover, they went and actually did the work to learn the material for your class, while others just knew it - or perhaps randomly got the questions right?"

Her: "But... they knew it!"

Here, the faculty member was clearly valuing pre-existing intelligence/preparation (or perhaps dumb luck) rather than thinking about how promoting the effort and persistence to learn might help her students.

Moreover, for years institutions implemented a system of course placement and remediation that filtered students out. Developmental education - advertised as a system to help students overcome gaps in their knowledge - placed students into multiple semesters of remediation that, empirically speaking, had a nearly impossible path to success (see work from the Community College Research Center).

Why did it take so long for us to reconsider developmental education? Even now, effective practices like course acceleration, holistic placement, and corequisite models are not universal, simply because those students, based on some pretty crummy metrics of preparation, didn't know it. We sacrificed their success at the alter learning.

The fact of the matter is that - much like objections to student learning outcomes assessment - arguments about retention being an efficiency metric, a lower-bar than learning, or anything else that pits learning and retention against each other are merely objections from faculty about expanding their role beyond what they're comfortable doing. Don't get me wrong, many of the great leaders in the student success movement are faculty! But many of the leaders of the opposition are as well.

If I were to summarize, here are the things we should emphasize when talking about these outcomes across our institutions:

  1. Learning and retention are separate phenomena. Yes, they have a relationship, but one is an academic process and one is a complex interaction between individual characteristics, social context, and experience.

  2. Let's make sure we don't put one above the other. I don't want classes that are so easy everyone passes just in the service of student success. At the same time, we also can't sacrifice student success for learning, especially when we aren't exactly experts in how underserved populations interact with and learn from us. Indeed, many of the lessons from sense of belonging taught us that it wasn't them - it was us. We could perhaps apply that way of thinking to student learning as well...

  3. We need everyone. Perhaps the most dangerous tenet of the "traditional" way of thinking cited above is that learning belongs to academic affairs and retention belongs to student affairs. We are all responsible for both. Students can't show up to class and succeed if they don't feel connected and supported across "campus" (or the virtual learning environment). Students are also not likely to persist if they aren't prepared to engage and learn "in the classroom" (or the virtual learning environment). Both outcomes need conscious efforts from everyone within the institution to improve student success.

*AUTHOR's NOTE: While there are many op-eds that push back against student success, I refuse to cite them as it may risk adding clicks or visibility to that sort of work.

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