Retention @ Charles Sturt: Building a Retention Culture 

Kelly Linden, Neil van der Ploeg, Noelia Roman and Sarah Teakel | Charles Sturt University

Presented at ASCILITE Live! Webinar – April 2023


There is much in the news lately about the increased cost of living and inability of students to repay their HELP debt and we know failing is not free!


Retention is top priority

At our regional university, we pride ourselves on providing learning opportunities and highly sought-after graduate outcomes to students from equity group backgrounds. As our ethos states: we are a university of the land and people of our regions and we aim to develop holistic, far-sighted people who help their communities grow and flourish. We, the Retention Team, and are excited to share some of approaches to improve student retention at Charles Sturt.

Student retention is a simple concept but the interplay of contributing factors that lead to a student’s decision to remain or withdraw from university are complex, wide-ranging and vary over time. Unfortunately, there is no simple one-size-fits-all approach to helping students succeed. Understanding this, we have developed and refined a whole of institution ‘Retention Model’. Our retention model has many components that work in synergy to support and retain commencing students. We have broken down Faculty and Divisional silos to introduce new ways of working, facilitate meaningful data sharing, and establish a retention culture across the University.

Our Retention Model focuses on three main parts; embedding best-practice transition pedagogy, pre-census outreach support for disengaged students and embedded tutor support in key first-year subjects (see Figure). These initiatives support various stakeholders within the University while keeping the student front and centre.

Firstly, the team works directly with Subject Coordinators teaching first-year and support them through paid, targeted professional development series for continuing and sessional academics and assisted with high quality teaching support, the development of quality early assessment items and access meaningful data (Roman et al., 2022). Secondly, disengaged commencing undergraduate and postgraduate students are accurately identified and provided timely, targeted support due to non-submission of early assessment items or low LMS activity. We have recently shown that a holistic conversation with the Outreach Team makes a significant difference to student retention (Linden et al., 2023). And lastly, first-year undergraduate students have access to free, one-on-one tutor appointments with an embedded tutor, a subject matter expert who has been trained to provide draft assessment feedback to students. We have shown that meeting with an embedded tutor significantly increase assessment marks and unit-cumulative marks (Linden et al., 2022).

The Retention Model:

A retention model flowchart

Established first-year design principles highlight the need to provide early response systems for all students who appear to be disengaging through targeted communication regarding available support services (Kift, 2015; Meer et al., 2018). While many institutions have created alert systems that rely on LMS access and demographic data (Ifenthaler & Yau, 2020), other models have monitored assessment item submission and offered targeted support to those who do not submit (Cox & Naylor, 2018). We have focussed exclusively on student behaviour, especially non-submission of assessment items (Linden et al., 2023). A key challenge universities face in this area is that many students who appear to be at risk, because they have not submitted an assessment, are not at risk! This is because they have arranged an informal extension with their Subject Coordinator that is not centrally recorded. To enable accurate and timely identification of students prior to census whilst simultaneously gathering important contextual information to inform conversations with the students, we have created a modular data pipeline including a bespoke web-based app to facilitate efficient communication with Subject Coordinators at scale.

Tutors play a key role in student retention, particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds who are often the most affected by the shift to online study (Yale, 2019). While tutors are not novel per se, one-on-one tutor support is not often available as a content-specific support across an institution at a scale, and the innovative use of technology in our model allows the program to operate efficiently and effectively.

Commencing progress rates are an indicator of learning and teaching quality and student success for all Australian Universities. From the students’ perspective, they are financially liable irrespective of the result, so low progress rates indicate many students are incurring significant debt without anything to show for it.

The program has improved commencing progress rates since it commenced in 2017. If a student is identified as disengaged and has successful dialogue with the Outreach Team, the student is 14% more likely to be retained and enrol the following year. Similarly, students are 21% more likely to be retained if they meet with an embedded tutor.

Our initiatives promote the sustainable use of educational technologies to progress best practice transition pedagogy. Every aspect of this work continues to support student equity groups, which are over-represented at our regional University. Semi-automation of processes and embedding into university policy have made our approach sustainable. This evidence-based work, which is constantly evolving and improving through action-research cycles, has impacted student learning with increases in student progress and retention. Potentially more importantly, it has also reduced the financial burden on students who may accumulate unnecessary debt.


Cox, S., & Naylor, R. (2018). Intra-university partnerships improve student success in a first-year success and retention outreach initiative. Student Success, 9(3), 51-65.

Kift, S. (2015). A decade of transition pedagogy: A quantum leap in conceptualising the first year experience. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 2(1), 51-86.

Linden, K., van der Ploeg, N., & Roman, N. (2023). Explainable learning analytics to identify disengaged students early in semester: an intervention supporting widening participation. Journal of higher education policy and management, 1-15.

Linden, K., Teakel, S., & Van der Ploeg, N. (2022). Improving Student Success with Online Embedded Tutor Support in First-Year Subjects: A Practice Report.

Meer, J., Scott, S., & Pratt, K. (2018). First semester academic performance: The importance of early indicators of non-engagement. Student Success, 9(4), 1-13.

Roman, N., Linden, K., Teakel, S., Van der Ploeg, N., & Hicks, B. (2022). Developing a learning analytics resource with meaningful data for first year teachers. ASCILITE Publications(Proceedings of ASCILITE 2022 in Sydney), e22204-e22204.

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Tom Worthington
1 year ago

As a former equity group student myself, I appreciate any help. But this would need to be compulsory and part of the coursework for someone like me to benefit from it. I didn’t realize I was in several equity groups until long after I finished my study (despite studying education), so did not know I could get additional help. Also I avoided any optional, or extracurricular programs, seeing them as a distraction from my studies. I suggest there is a step before, to design programs and course content to suit equity group students. So you might have nested qualifications, so… Read more »