In the 18th Century Joseph Haydn composed as symphony that ended in an usual manner. Towards the end of the last movement the each of the players in the orchestra stops playing. Snuffs out the candle on their music stand, and leaves in turn, so that at the end there are just two persons letft, Haydn (the conductor) and his concertmaster playing a muted viiolin. I always think of this rather unusual ending when I am dealing with student completion and disengagement. Just as audiences were puzzled at the time by the departure of the musicians. most of the analyses since are pretty arcane.
It is a truth that despite the huge literature in student disengagement there is a similar level of mystery about the disengagement of students – many untested assumptions but a smallish set of known plausible reasons. And many of the analyses are just as arcane as those disentangling Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony. It remains something of a mystery. Just why do students get up and leave?
A few years ago a study was published and amongst the statistics gathered on students undertaking diploma courses and their progression over time, was something of a surprise. “Over 40% of those leaving without a diploma had passed every course they enrolled in, some 21% of those who started [a diploma].” The report suggests that some students possibly enrol without any intention of getting the qualification but rather are seeking opportunities to undertake parts of the programme they particularly want or need. It further speculates that many might have already gained a qualification and that their study at diploma level is in the nature of filling a gap or seeking a particular area of knowledge and skill or perhaps to update their knowledge and skill in a clearly targetted area within the field.
These are untested assumptions somewhat and there might well be a different set of motivations. It could be:
• that they make the decision that they are in the wrong course;
• that they are not being engaged in the course and in the direction that it is taking them;
• that something has changed in their lives and the end of a semester or a year seems like an appropriate time to make a change;
• that the award of the qualification is not a matter of importance;
• that they simply didn’t have the requisites for the programme;
• that they are displeased with something or other – the content, the teacher, the fellow students, who knows?
• and so on….
I always find it hard to accept the argument that students are happy with a partial qualification – “they have got what they came for!” “they don’t need the qualification, just parts of it,” – that kind of thing. And if there is a smattering of truth in this, what efforts are put into perhaps suggesting that qualifications are important and better if they are complete. Yes, the students who are early leavers from the programme will be qualified by a set of skills and a body of knowledge that they have accrued from their partial completion – that is not to be ignored. But when it comes to shifting employment the piece of paper becomes important. And if we are satisfied that not all of the qualification is necessary for the student to claim expertise and skills then questions are raised about the qualification.
Georgia State found that they increased successful completion of qualifications through the use of Academic Maps. This is a simple process in which the students receives a schematic outline of the totaa programme, its courses, the requisites and the order in which the programme parts might be undertaken. Discussion with an academic advisor sees the student complete a potential track they will undertake not just for the semester but for the whole qualification. It’s the old story – the end is where you start from. Knowing how to navigate the journey is a prerequisite for understanding the logic and progression of the ways in which the courses are put together to constitute a qualification. Without understanding the relationships between courses that constitute the programme the student could simply be blundering through ticking off papers/courses but not really understanding the whole picture. If this is so, student could well end up with an incomplete but full kete.
The reasons for passing all the papers but not completing the qualification could be as much a mystery as the departing musicians even though the outcome is not as dramtic as there being only one violin (muted at that) and the conductor. Whjy do students get up and leave the stage?