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What 'retention' means to me: The position of the adult learner in student retention

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Studies of student retention and progression overwhelmingly appear adopt definitions that place the institution, rather than the student, at the centre. Retention is most often conceived in terms of linear and continuous progress between institutionally identified start and end points.

This paper reports on research that considered data from 38 in-depth interviews conducted with individuals who had characteristics often associated with non-traditional engagement in higher education who between 2006 and 2010 had studied an ‘Introduction to HE’ module at one distance higher education institution, some of whom had progressed to further study at that institution, some of whom had not. The research deployed a life histories approach to seek a finer grained understanding of how individuals conceptualise their own learning journey and experience, in order to reflect on institutional conceptions of student retention.

The findings highlight potential anomalies hidden within institutional retention rates – large proportions of the interview participants who were not ‘retained’ by the institution reported successful progression to and in other learning institutions and environments, both formal and informal. Nearly all described positive perspectives on lifelong learning which were either engendered or improved by the learning undertaken. This attests to the complexity of individuals’ lives and provides clear evidence that institution-centric definitions of retention and progression are insufficient to create truly meaningful understanding of successful individual learning journeys and experiences. It is argued that only through careful consideration of the lived experience of students and a re-conception of measures of retention, will we be able to offer real insight into improving student retention.
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Keywords: adult; formal; individual; informal; lifelong learning; lifewide learning; non-formal; non-traditional student; retention; student; widening participation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2013

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  • The journal is based on the belief that there are neglected links between research and theory, and policy and practice in the promotion of widening participation in post-compulsory education and lifelong learning. It aims to provide a forum for the development of theory, the addressing of policy questions and the dissemination of innovative practice in the field of widening participation and lifelong learning.
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