June 8, 2023

Improving student learning, retention, and access in STEM subjects | Graide

Manjinder Kainth, PhD

The ongoing, complex, seemingly intractable issue of student attrition from STEM is nothing new. But there’s good news. The latest technology offers scalable, accessible, and sustainable solutions, especially for early intervention.

First-year culture shock

Away from home and the usual support networks, students have a lot to contend with and adapt to in those early months of undergraduate life. Add to that a whole new way of learning: lectures, small groups in seminars, and assessed group work. All this can be unsettling for many.

Let’s not forget this year sees the first post-pandemic cohort of school leavers.

“Rates of depression among students have increased since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, new research suggests.” – BBC, Northern Ireland

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) recently reported that “mental health remains a very significant concern and is by a considerable margin the most common reason students give if they are considering leaving university”.

Their 2022 Student Academic Experience Survey questioned 10,000 undergraduates. 34% cited mental health as the reason for dropping out. The next most cited reason was “course content not what I expected” (8%).

Students highlighted the importance of lecture staff being there to support them, not just mental health specialists.

Onboarding process essential

Students are especially vulnerable to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and overwhelm in those early months. To counter this, institutions and academic departments need to foster a sense of community and common purpose from the outset.

Nearly 1 in 4 students report they felt lonely most or all of the time, according to Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) research. Sustained pastoral support, with continual, consistent communication, is imperative, and tech is a great facilitator.

University lecturers are more accessible than ever. While academics in the dim and distant past seemed so remote, today they’re available remotely when not in person. Weekly progress updates and encouraging emails of support make a world of difference, allowing tutors to check in regularly with students. Platforms like WhatsApp play an integral role in group information sharing and joint problem-solving. There’s also the facility of communicating and note-sharing through interactive digital textbooks and shared documents and resources. Add to that the success of chatbots to answer students’ common questions and concerns.

Communication, these days, is so much quicker.

Culture shock worse for some groups

Class and race present issues that need addressing.

Drop-out rates are even higher for those from poorer or minority backgrounds or first-generation students. Many who drop out never saw themselves as university-goers in the first place: “not for the likes of us”.

Nathan Samson, CEO of The Access Project, says, “The really important thing that supports the transition into university is the sense of belonging. That seems to be one of the really crucial things which give students a sense that they are in the place where they are meant to be, and that is particularly an issue for students from a disadvantaged background.”

We applaud the work of non-profit organisations like The Access Project, which mentors young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, helping them with life skills such as budgeting and logistics.

While institutions, and society as a whole, are making great strides, there’s still work to be done on diversity and inclusivity.

Academic support from the get-go

Early intervention for those struggling academically is also vital.

“What’s really interesting about the statistics is that 25 per cent of students drop out of their first year because they’re worried they won’t be successful in getting their degrees,” reports Gauthier Van Malderen, CEO of Perlego, an online textbook library. “We found a direct correlation between those who felt engaged in their courses and those that completed them.”

For many students, there’s a gap between Sixth Form and university study. For STEM students, it is more of a gulf.

There’s the increased complexity of content coupled with the step-up to demands of independent learning. The absence of “spoon-feeding” or “hand-holding” at university comes as a shock to many undergraduates, and studying STEM means the material may well be largely unfamiliar – the likes of engineering are simply not available at A Level. And methods of study, such as days spent in a lab, may seem entirely alien.

Then there’s a lack of confidence in core skills such as maths and digital learning.

Software like Graide, however, ensures speedy marking and feedback, which benefits both teacher and student. Fundamental problems can be spotted early and nipped in the bud.

Predictive analytics

Again, the tech can help. “Predictive analytics” join the dots to identify those most at risk, and, more importantly, in good time.  

Data include:

Student dashboards are improving all the time, and all this enables institutions to intervene early on with timely communication, support, and appropriate action plans.  

Furthermore, moving forward, artificial intelligence can piece together patterns in those who typically drop out:

Better data can then illuminate and inform the recruitment and retention process in the future, highlighting which students are most at risk, who needs extra support, and when. For example, an analysis of unconditional offers suggests that this is a problem. In short, those with unconditional offers are likelier to drop out.

With exit interviews to supplement the raw data, our understanding of student attrition is growing all the time.

Financial pressures

Along with academic pressures, students are also managing their finances for the first time. And they are particularly vulnerable to rising costs. Some students have to juggle academic commitments with part-time work.

The NUS Vice-President for Higher Education, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, recently told the BBC, “We're hearing from students who are working three jobs, can't afford the bus ticket to their university library, and who are cutting back on cooking food to avoid spiralling energy costs.”

Help is out there. The thing is, making sure it is well known and widely accessible. Online forums and organisations can definitely help.

It’s worth noting that tech has made universities more affordable in terms of finding the best offers and deals available, from living costs to course materials.

The shift to digital textbooks is noteworthy. They offer far greater accessibility and flexibility, with book loans going the way of Netflix and Spotify. Renting or streaming is increasingly the preferred option.


Post-pandemic, blended learning has also become normalised. Video-recorded lectures and seminars suit everyone, especially those who have been absent due to ill health or other personal reasons.

All this means that students feel they have more control, and that’s what most of us want in our daily lives.

What the future holds

HEPI cited several reasons to be cheerful, noting “35% of respondents reported ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money; a significant improvement from 27% last year”.

This year, the competition for places is fierce.  The Guardian reported, “Parents and teachers say some students predicted to gain A* grades are being rejected after a surge in applications.” Consequently, next year’s undergrads should be readier than ever to meet the academic challenges of studying STEM.

Sources and further reading

Students signal significant bounce-back in the value of their studies - HEPI

What current research demonstrates about student mental health, and why there is still much room for improvement – FE News

Depression: Rates among students increased during Covid-19, study suggests - BBC News

University students are far lonelier than other adults - study - BBC News

Setting a new bar for online higher education | McKinsey

First generation university students need more guidance navigating education system | UCL News - UCL – University College London

'As a black woman in STEM I'm used for photo opportunities' - BBC News

Tackling student attrition and promoting success in STEM | Times Higher Education (THE)

Universities are using technology and algorithms to understand why so many students are dropping out (inews.co.uk)

Making academic literature more accessible to students with a range of learning needs - Education Technology (edtechnology.co.uk)

First post-Covid school leavers face fight for fewer university places | Admissions | The Guardian

Manjinder Kainth, PhD
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I’ve been intricately involved in teaching for many years. I have over 6 years of private tutoring experience, taught in higher education, and most recently worked on designing and delivering crash courses for a high school.