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Module Enhancement
Reasons Why Students Leave
Project: Reasons why first year, full-time students exit from their chosen UCD programme.
Project Team: Suzanne Quinn, Bairbre Redmond
Collaborator(s): Catherine Devitt, Judith Archbold




Lasting engagement of students, particularly in first year, is a fundamental strand of the UCD Education Strategy 2009-2014, with retention of students in the first year being a key performance indicator of success. Blaney and Mulkeen (2008) reported a 14.5% exit rate among first year entrants in UCD, from 1999-2007. The current Focus on First Year project is exploring the development of the most effective curricular structures, assessment strategies and academic supports for first year students across all undergraduate programmes. This study will contribute up-to-date evidence on why students exit and what needs to be developed to address retention issues.
  • To complement and update existing quantitative data on student retention with rich, in-depth qualitative data.
  • To explore engagement and retention among first year student entrants from a qualitative research perspective.
  • To provide up-to-date, in-depth and clear evidence on the reasons why some first year students exit from their undergraduate programme/UCD and their experiences around this time.
  • To develop an understanding of former students’ expectations and influences in choosing their undergraduate programme and chosen third level institution.
  • To explore and understand the views of support services (student advisors, student health services, programme office directors, and peer mentors) in their experiences of support provision to all first year students, and to former first year students who have exited. To use this data to complement student data in order to provide a holistic and rounded view of the experiences of exiting students.
  • On the basis of data, to develop improved approaches to supporting students who are considering leaving their programme/UCD and to students who have made the decision to leave.
  • For professional programmes: to consider the reasons why students exit, and the decision processes that are involved at this time, and from this, to incorporate data into future approaches to student retention at a programme level.
  • For support service provision: to incorporate data into improving support services provided during the academic term.
  • To integrate data on student decision-making processes into current initiatives that aim to provide information to students at second level education.

This study will employ a qualitative research methodology. Firstly, a cluster sampling procedure will be used to identify a cohort of former students, and to ensure that each programme is included and proportionally represented in this cohort. A pilot study will be carried out with a small number of former students in order to assess the usefulness and relevancy of methodology tools. Telephone interviews will be conducted with consenting students who have exited. Focus groups will be conducted with the relevant support services. A synthesis of data will provide a rounded, inclusive viewpoint which will underpin key recommendations. 

April 2011: Recruitment of study participants and commencement of data collection.

May- June 2011: Data collection and analysis.


Reasons Why Students Leave  is a qualitative investigation into the reasons why students exit from the first year of their programme and UCD.

Next Steps:

It is intended that results will be used to:

  • improve student retention and engagement;
  • improve the support services provided to first year, undergraduate students, targeting in particular, at-risk students who are considering withdrawing from their programme/UCD;
  • to provide a more positive learning environment and experience for first year students.