Understanding Student Behavior And Its Effect On Retention

Retention and graduation rates are two of the biggest factors Americans consider when we talk about what makes a school successful.  There are countless approaches schools take to improve retention, but to implement an effective retention initiative, it’s imperative to understand the students’ mindsets as they progress through a program. Research into factors that keep students enrolled has brought to light some interesting findings about students psychology that schools can take to heart when starting their own retention efforts. We’ll take a look into the factors that drive students to make decisions about their enrollment status. Let’s dive in.

Attribution Theory

Broken down, attribution theory in education suggests that students create attributions – perceived causes of event outcomes – for their own actions and the actions of others and that these interpretations affect how motivated students are in their education. According to D.H. Schunk and B. J. Zimmerman’s “Competence and control beliefs: Distinguishing the means and ends,” students attribute individual successes and failures to four causal factors: ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck. Only one of these factors is controllable by the student, which is noteworthy because students are more likely to feel in control when the factors they attribute to their success feel internal and controllable. When students feel more in control, they are more likely to persist in their education. When students can connect the dots between their behaviors and successes, they feel more in control of their academic journey and feel increased pride and confidence. Additional research into the real effects of attribution theory found that postsecondary students who expressed a sense of control over their academic performance are more likely to bounce back from setbacks, such as academic probation, that commonly contribute to the decision to withdraw from an institution.

Improved Sense of Ownership

Students with increased insight into how their actions translate into results have a heightened sense of ownership of their progression. Through more consistent transparency, students can begin to understand the cause and effect of their behavior to see which actions trigger which changes and lead to higher scores and better success. With a way to actually understand how their actions turn into outcomes, students will have an environment where they’re motivated to understand their habits and can work towards stronger outcomes.

Attribution Retraining

When students are able to review their historical score trends and interact with their personal behaviors that caused those scores, they can begin embarking on attribution retraining. With concrete insights into the impact of their behaviors, students can restructure their explanations for performance (retraining), replacing external attributions like luck and task difficulty with internal, controllable attributions such as effort, study habits, time management, etc. By retraining their view of attributions, students can create sustainable motivation to continue improving their scores and behaviors. By emphasizing what they are doing “right” rather than solely focusing on what needs to be corrected, which is the approach academic advisers commonly take, attribution retraining will be swift and efficient. Students can take this insight and focus on those attributions that are internal and controllable.


By identifying new attributing factors that students feel like they can control, they achieve a sense of self-efficacy, which centers around the extent to which a student believes they are able to perform an action that results in a desired outcome. Equipped with an understanding of which behaviors are most effective, students can perceive those actions as repeatable, ultimately creating a higher sense of self-efficacy when the course of action is simplified into buildable habits. With a new perspective on their own behavior and the results that derive from them, students can feel much more confident in their behaviors and ability to succeed.

Interaction With Others

So far, we have highlighted the individual’s mindset about progressing through a program. The flip side of a single student’s internal, controllable habits is the external interaction they have with peers and faculty. Vincent Tinto (1999) identified that frequent and quality interaction with faculty, staff, and peers have been proven to be independent predictors of student persistence. Students learn and make friends in tandem, and connecting with peers is a huge resource that students utilize as they learn. As the students interact more with each other, their relationships begin to grow. Those strong connections between students (and faculty, too) incentivize students to stay enrolled. By bridging the gap and creating greater social integration for students, institutions can create better opportunities for students to achieve improved academic outcomes.

Retention Efforts Rewarded

Dedicating resources to intervention has been proven to work. Florida State University, for example, implemented new intervention strategies with a focused goal on improving first year student retention. Of the top ten strategies that were implemented to target first year retention, one included making students aware that they were being monitored and established an automated contacting system through digital channels students were familiar with. In this effort, FSU sent congratulatory messages to students who did well at the end of a term and sent check in messages to students whose overall GPAs dropped by a quarter point or more (Hanover Research, 2014). Their efforts resulted in an increase from 85.3% retention in 1999 to 92.4% in 2010 and an eventual increase in graduation rates. Their graduation rates increased from 68% in 2008 to 74% in 2012.

New Possibilities With Tech

While these strategies resulted in impressive results for FSU, the efforts are still reactive, as they rely on summative results at the culmination of the academic term. Schools today can take their efforts one step further, implementing proactive retention initiatives to keep students engaged and on track. With new tech-driven opportunities to understand student learning data in real-time, like CourseKey’s dashboards, schools can better position themselves to engage with students throughout the term instead of waiting for and reacting to stale data.

It’s important to put yourself in the students’ shoes if you want to effectively implement retention initiatives. Understanding the motivating factors for students to stay enrolled helps institutions make informed decisions about their approach to increasing retention.

To find out how your institution can boost its retention, schedule a demo with a CourseKey team member below or visit www.CourseKey.com.

Request a Demo

Leave A Comment

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest