Improving Student Retention

Welcome to #5 in our five-part series: “Improving Student Retention”

If you have been following along, you’ll know this was to be the last in this five-part series …. but I have been asked to maybe add one more instalment to summarize what we have learned over the course of this series on the issue of learner retention.  So #6 at the end of April will be a summary of what we have learned…

Meanwhile, this month’s (March) instalment discusses two successful strategies for Improving Retention After the Easter Break.

If you are a first time or returned reader….here’s a quick recap of the series so far:

1.  In our first instalment, I discussed a “Planning Framework for Retention” and some of my research on ways to retaining the most “at-risk” students during those first three critical weeks of literacy/BE programs.

2.  In the second—December—instalment, we saw successful examples of projects during the first three weeks. And, we saw a special instalment written by Jacqueline Bruce, Onion Lake. She discussed how she addressed  little or no attendance in her Basic Education class.

3.  We then moved on to two instalments and a number of summaries of successful action research projects that addressed both retention and attendance in the “Middle Months.

Now, with our fifth instalment, we see summaries of two successful projects conducted by Cumberland College staff. These are timely as they deal with attendance and dropout after the Easter Break—and Easter is not far off.

And, I’m happy to say that Teri Thompson, BE Instructor, has graciously agreed to write up a summary of her group’s “After Easter” project. To see Dennis Weibe’s group project, also from Cumberland College, on how they addressed the same problem, just click to go to that group’s full report on the SARN Website.

Just a reminder….these five instalments are only summaries. Full reports by the practitioners are on the SARN Website (WWW.SARN.CA) under the “Sask Practitioner Reports” link. The practitioners who have posted the reports have given their e-mail addresses if you want to contact them to discuss wht they did..

Now, here’s Teri’s story…


Building on the Strength of Others: Improving Attendance & Retention after the Easter Break

Teri Thompson, ABE Instructor, Cumberland College

Last spring we had a Cumberland College staff in-service on Action Research for all of our ABE instructors and ABE support staff, as well as instructors from our Business Ed class and the Correctional Studies Certificate programs.  Dr. Allan Quigley, Jaqueline Bruce and Bula Ghosh came out and talked to our group about how an action research project works and how educators in the field had been using action research already.  We were able to view posters, look at other professionals’ projects, and hear from people who had worked through this process more than once. This was vital to making the project a success for our group.

It really brought to the forefront two important ideas of Action Research:

  1. No problem is too small/too big. We begin with the “doable”…
  2. We can build on the research of others—it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel.

We then worked in small groups and were tasked with the job of identifying an ongoing student problem and breaking it down into a workable unit.

Choosing a question/problem that was small enough for us to address in a short timeline was possibly the most difficult part of the project. As instructors, we tend to look at the larger student retention issues and often become overwhelmed by the large number of variables over which, as instructors and student support personnel, we feel we have no control. However, we were guided by the work of others. We realized we didn’t need to tackle the overwhelming number of variables; we just had to pick one part of the problem and make an honest effort to affect change.

Our group decided to focus on student attendance and retention at the end of the academic year; we only had about 10 weeks left in our second term when the workshop was held.

We looked at some of the research questions that had already been addressed noting that Jacqueline Bruce had done a project on improving the social environment during the first three weeks and experienced success. We decided to adapt that idea for our own question: “Would an improved social environment between the Easter break and the end of the academic year increase student attendance and retention?”

Teri teaching a class

Teri describes her group’s action plan to workshop participants at Cumberland College

 We had a question now what?

During the 8 weeks from the point of student return from Easter holidays until term  end (June 7, 2013), we planned various lunchtime activities with a goal of one activity per week. Our hypothesis was that a social activity once per week might encourage better attendance throughout the week. It might also improve retention rates. Our test group was a group of 31 students from both the level 3 (Adult 10) and the level 4 (Academic Grade 12) programs, all located in Tisdale, Sask.


Some Limitations of our Study:

We were not completely successful at hosting an event every week. There were 2 weeks in May when we had several other competing events. With staff away on various days and interrupted time tables, unfortunately, we were unable to get an event off the ground during those 2 weeks.

Also, going to the attendance records, we found, for comparison purposes, attendance had run at an average of 67% over the previous 5 years during the equivalent seasonal time period. However, we could not establish retention rates for the same time period from the previous years. The records were inconclusive. Therefore, without a retention baseline for comparison, the question of retention improvement proved to be inconclusive as well.

What activities did we conduct on attendance? What happened?

Here is the list of weekly activities we implemented:

  1. The week of April 8: Game of Guesstures. Event attendance 75 %
  2. The week of April 15: Wii Wednesday. Event attendance 55%
  3. The week of April 22: Comedy TV and popcorn. Event attendance 18%
  4. The week of April 29: Hotdogs and Bingo. Event attendance 68%
  5. The week of May 6-13 no event.
  6. The week of May 24: Bingo. Event attendance 50%
  7. The week of May 27: Wii. Event attendance 50%
  8. The week of June 3: Bowling. Event attendance 75%

What did we learn?

We were able to have an activity during 6 of the 8 weeks of the study. Of those six activity weeks, half of them saw an attendance increase over the previous years’ 67% baseline. So, despite not having an event every week, we were happy to see that classroom attendance was up overall following Easter Break as compared with the five year adjusted average.

We had actually increased attendance by 6%. This wasn’t the 20% we had hoped for back in the SARN workshop, but here was an improvement. We now have a pathway to change….we have a way forward.

More importantly perhaps, we felt empowered by the experience. We had made an attempt to improve the success of our students by dealing with the things we had control over. We had a great time participating with the students in the activities over the 8 week period and plan to repeat cycle 2 this year following the spring break. (We don’t have an Easter break this year, only an Easter weekend).

“Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
– John Wooden

Reflections on our Project and SARN

I had heard a lot about action research over the years.  Having been an active SABEA member for a number of years, I was familiar with the old moniker “Research-in –Practice” and, admittedly, I had never really committed myself to becoming active in the movement or the practice.  To be honest I had always looked at the projects and thought, “With such a small focus can you really affect much change?” This process was eye-opening to me in that way. 

We, as a small group, had improved our students’ social environment—and maybe even more importantly—our own.  We spent time collectively working towards a solution instead of complaining about a situation that we felt was repetitive and beyond our control.

As adult educators who are not working with mainstream, post-secondary adults and not with professional adults in an in-service training capacity, we can find our options for learning and professional development fairly limited.  There aren’t a lot of programs out there aimed at how to teach high school academics to adult learners, but there are now quite a few of us in Saskatchewan working at documenting what helped and what didn’t help through SARN. I think we can draw from both what has worked and what has been less successful …

SARN action research workshop in Melfort, 2013

SARN action research workshop in Melfort, 2013

Going forward

We will repeat cycle 2 this year. We have a very different group of students this year, both their academic strength and their collective personality differ.

Will the same activities make the same difference? Maybe … maybe not, but either way, we will know we have made an attempt to better our students’ chances of success. And more importantly, we will have added statistics and experience to show that this pathway indeed does point to success. We may be able to lobby for some funding for similar activities for our students all year.


As an individual instructor, I can say the Action Research process has illustrated a way to feel a positive forceSARN has provided a framework that is powerful, not because our projects are huge and all encompassing—not because any single one will solve all the problems of the world—but because SARN and action research provide a proven framework to make small, meaningful, manageable differences. And, small steps can lead to large changes.

Here are my suggestions for instructors looking to try something to deal with attendance and retention challenges after Easter or Spring Break:

  •  As our SARN workshop made clear….instructors and ABE support people should meet collectively to brainstorm activities to start with and to suggest to the students.  Collaboration and splitting up the workload is essential for long-term success.
  • Although we focused on attendance, try to keep baseline data on retention for this after-Easter period, asking: “Were students quitting?” “Why?” “Were they leaving for employment?” “Were they discontinued for attendance and academic issues?” Even if you can’t use this data this year, you can make a start in moving the retention issue forward next year.
  • Meet with students early in the process for feedback on activities they would like. Often times they enjoyed an activity that we thought wasn’t well received, particularly students who were shy and not actively engaged. Early feedback is very important.
  • Quick surveys or student feedback collection after each activity to gauge student interest helps with student buy-in as they are part of the process. It is the students who give the most valuable insight as to whether an activity should be repeated or adapted.
  • Food and a change of venue both seem to lead to increased participation, so try for a high number of those types of activities.
  • We found a mix of activities that require a lot of interaction, together with some requiring minimal interaction made up a good balance that did not overwhelm students, especially the shy students.
  • Time frame considerations matter: this year with a later Easter weekend and no Easter break, we will begin our action research project again after Spring break (we return on April 7).
  • Keep records—“data”—on what activities work well and how well. These activities can then be refined and assessed over time so a solid core of activities can be established across whole systems. With this data, maybe added funding can be part of this process. But without data, making a case for change will be very hard to do.



Tune in at the end of next month. We’ll add one more instalment to summarize what we have seen and learned…and make some recommendations to help with the complex, pervasive issues of attendance and retention

READERS,  IF YOU HAVE TRIED ANY OF THE STRATEGIES seen in these blog instalments, or have any thoughts on the series itself, go ahead and make  some comments in the space below.

Your comments are most welcome …





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2 Responses to Improving Student Retention

  1. Allan says:

    HI Naome. Thanks so much for leaving a comment on our Blog and I’m glad you found the Retention series helpful. The SARN team just conducted a workshop April 1 in Prince Albert. it was hosted by Dumont Technical Institute. We had participants who joined us from Northlands College, North West Regional College, as well as Woodland Campus/SIAST … Some excellent projects came out of that workshop. Three of the working groups from that workshop are now focusing on the question of how to increase retention after the Easter Break–the same timely issue Teri Thomson and Dennis Wiebe’s Cumberland College groups selected last year around this time. So, with the help of the Discussion Learning Circles on the Website where all the workshop participants can continue their discussions using secure passwords, we hope to be able to post more evidence-based practices in the near future. Thanks, Naome, for being such a loyal SARN supporter.


  2. Naome says:

    I enjoyed reading about all the projects. Creating a positive learning environment where learners want to be is key, and each researcher empowered learners to make good choices. Thanks for the inspiration!

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