Early withdrawal from higher education: a focus on academic experiences


OPINION: Dr Ann Luzeckyj

Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

This is a very brief synopsis of a useful and interesting paper which discusses a complex issue. Student attrition as discussed by Webb and Cotton (2018) in their paper about early withdrawal from higher education, based on a study undertaken in the UK, is thorny. As the authors point out, the way in which withdrawal is counted is fraught, as students may leave one institution to attend another, leave a course to enrol in another within the institution, or leave to return a number of years later yet at some institutions still appear on the books as an attrition statistic. The study therefore considered the question ‘Have you considered withdrawing from your course?’, or COW for short (contemplation of withdrawal) (Webb & Cotton, 2018, p. 4), then tracked student actual behaviour. It identified that 15% had actually considered early withdrawal, and argued that a strong correlation exists between intention and actual withdrawal.

Many reasons are listed in relation to students’ intention to withdraw with the top five being:

  1. Financial concerns
  2. Became interested in another course
  3. Not coping with academic work
  4. Feeling unsupported
  5. Dissatisfied with quality of teaching.


Further analysis of results indicated four ‘potentially modifiable, academic experiences’ which might address early attrition were:

  • Students’ perception that one-to-one contact with teaching staff was low
  • Students’ reports that lectures were not the main teaching format
  • Students’ perception that opportunities to interact with other students were low
  • Students’ reports that the volume of assessment was excessive. (Webb & Cotton, 2018, p. 9)


These experiences are discussed in detail in the paper but the discussion or recommendations hold few surprises. The paper tends to ratify and repeat what I have read over the last decade about providing better support for first year students. For example, Webb and Cotton (2018) suggest better preparation of students and addressing their expectations during their early weeks of study; ensuring teaching staff are more accessible; developing pedagogical approaches to peer support among students; embedding approaches to transition for all students; and reducing assessment items so students are not overwhelmed by assessment across programs.

On one level, while there is little that is new in these recommendations, what I find concerning is a lack of shift – we know and have known for years what needs to be done, yet we do not seem capable of accomplishing it. Why we have not succeeded in addressing these issues might help us find the way forward.


Full paper by Webb, O. J., & Cotton, D. R. E. (2018). Early withdrawal from higher education: a focus on academic experiences. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-18.

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