the data suggest that students who start strong finish strong

Enabling students to make educated decisions about whether or not they should continue with a course post census is of paramount importance. Poor decisions have large financial, social and employment implications that are inextricably tied to them, and they also weigh heavy on the conscientious lecturer. This is the first in a series of posts designed to support the capability of faculties in the application of 3 strategies to help reduce the number of students who drop out after census without being able to formulate precise understandings about their aptitude for learning in a particular course.

The numbers in black represent hypothetical, but likely familiar, attrition of 1st year undergraduate students in respective faculties filtered by low participation in online engagement. Since modern higher education is very much characterised by a blended learning experience, where the online component is used to address the lack of personalisation in the face to face offering, the data suggest that students who start strong finish strong, and conversely, those who don’t won’t.  

This leads to the burning question: why aren’t these slow starters getting involved? There could be multiple reasons, but what this resource proposes is that it is not simply that they don’t like the look or navigation of a page, but that dis/engagement is also affected by the sequence of instruction and perhaps most critically, by the levels of support embedded in the sequence specifically dedicated to the development and building of schema

Modern learning design then needs to be considered on several fronts:

  • the sequence of learning and its purpose
  • the support presented to students in terms of scaffolding cognition
  • the user experience  

I suggest that attention to these factors would increase the participation levels of these disengaged students, and give them a better indication if the content they are engaging with is suitable either in terms of academic difficulty or actual interest in the course.

For some students, disengagement at the first signs of challenge can become the default behaviour; then failure is not seen as their fault ( a learned helplessness) – they are able to maintain dignity. The trouble is that they and indeed we will never know if they were actually capable of achieving in the course. Supporting cognitive load from the first instance will ‘catch’ some of these students too.


Students failing your course is never a nice feeling. The impetus for attention then is not solely limited to the plight of the student, but for faculties eager to retain students initially drawn to them, and the lecturer who has to bear the statistics. Of course, sometimes students simply get it wrong and enrol in a course they would never be suited to, and faculties are forced to work harder to guide and reposition them in something more appropriate. But even in such a context, this resource is still of use, in helping students arrive at an understanding quicker, and at a more informed and conclusive decision. Once the strategies are applied, the lecturer can safely conclude that they did all they could to sustain their students’ attention, and not feel a gnawing sense of guilt or worse, shame at the darkness on the graph.


Perhaps tellingly however, large numbers of students who persist through semester one and actually had mid-range online participation levels do not re-enrol in any course within the same faculty in semester two.

Notably, these numbers are larger than the disengaged numbers in semester one. Even with online engagement, these students did not experience enough satisfaction to continue their interest in the course; they were willing, but the course couldn’t support them. Because of this outcome, it could be argued that even though some of these students did start strong in terms of participation, it may have simply been motivation and therefore resilience that drove their engagement. Resilience at this stage of the student’s journey then is a poor proxy for success and reiterates the need for stronger learning design that works on building intrinsic engagement in students. Intrinsic engagement is only likely to form when students experience success in their learning, almost always the result of deeper understanding of concepts and topics – facilitated by scaffolded cognitive loading.

IN SUMMARY: Learning sequences that support the significant cognitive load demands on beginning students by:

  • explicitly focusing on the sequence of learning and its purpose,
  • by supporting students in terms of scaffolding cognition,
  • and by following the technological design principles necessary to engage the modern user

 will all combine to help students to begin their studies on the front foot, and eliminate poor design of a course as a possible contributor to discontinued enrolment.

Learning design that supports the building of intrinsic engagement then empowers students to make the correct choices in deciding to continue or discontinue with a course. Concomitantly, this resource also provides additional structure for students already experiencing success, helping them move more quickly from the novice learner to the expert learner, and thus independence, and adding weight to statistics that support the notion of Strong Start, Strong Finish.

In the next post I will discuss the first learning design focus, and explain the power and necessity of a curriculum map

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter (@edmerger) or on LinkedIn for more discussions about learning design.

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