Aarhus Universitets segl

Retention in higher education – new perspectives

Nearly one in three university students in Denmark drop out, particularly during their first year. Research shows that often, it is because they are either insufficiently prepared or prevented from pursuing their independent goals.

The transition to university is complex and includes many environmental, social, and cognitive factors and changes in academic culture. This suggests that higher education institutions need to prepare to meet the needs of the changing student body and calls for a reconceptualisation of the transition.

Promoting student agency is seen as the primary goal of the new generation learning environment, as a process to guide learners and help them navigate the unknown.

The extent of the research on the institutional structures and possible didactic frameworks in higher education is quite limited. Moreover, the available studies on student agency mainly focus on very small groups of university students, leaving a significant gap in empirical research.

This project aims to improve our understanding of how universities can foster student agency during first-year educational programmes. We want to determine whether increased student agency is linked to lower dropout rates by investigating the didactic and curricular frameworks used in first-year teaching.

We will explore two areas:

  1. Identifying factors that higher education institutions must prioritise to cultivate agency and retention.
  2. Investigating which features students perceive as necessary for promoting retention.


In phase one, we will collect data through interviews, observations, and surveys. We will examine policy discourses and stakeholder positions to understand disciplinary practices for retention.

In phase two, qualitative data will be collected from observations of course activities and in-depth student interviews. Based on theories of student agency, available surveys, and phase one results, we will develop a preliminary questionnaire for assessing the dimensions of student agency. Throughout the project, our results will be shared and discussed with study directors, teachers, and educational developers to ensure pragmatic and communicative validity.


The project will contribute to the limited knowledge of the role of student agency in teaching, learning, and persistence in both international and national higher education. It will provide decision-makers in higher education with tools to increase retention.

Read more

  • Maria Hvid Stenalt & Berit Lassesen (2022) Does student agency benefit student learning? A systematic review of higher education research, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 47:5, 653-669, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2021.1967874