Stephen Louw

Academic tenacity

Student attrition in ESP courses

I once taught a private class at a highly reputable IT company – my students were amazingly successful and talented individuals driven to improve their English.

It was my first in-house ESP corporate class and how cool was that! I was given an attendance sheet with twenty names on it, but only 18 arrived for the first lesson. By the third lesson attendance was down to around 15, and by half way through the course I only had 5 or 6 who attended regularly.

Student attrition

This tendency for student numbers to dwindle as the program progresses is what I think of as student attrition. It seems to be fairly common, and if you’ve taught private lessons, particularly with adults, you must have experienced something like this yourself. Naturally, attrition is a major concern for private language schools which rely on student re-enrollment.

Whose fault is this steady decline in student numbers? Personally, I find it difficult not to attribute attrition to some shortcoming in my teaching: the students are not coming back because I’m doing something wrong. Perhaps the class is too difficult. Or too easy? Am I too serious? Too lighthearted? Is it boring? Not boring enough? Should I play more games? Am I just a terrible teacher?

It is also reasonable to believe that the attrition in my class had nothing to do with me at all. My students in that IT company were highly motivated adults, but like many working adults, they had high pressure jobs with plenty of meetings and deadlines. And like many ESP courses on company premises, our English time was woven around work schedules. Perhaps English just wasn’t important enough. Who knows?

Sticking it out

This problem of attrition, however, is not limited to language classrooms. We see this everywhere: with gym memberships, in degree programs, with online photography courses. According to some reports like this one nearly 75% of part-time university students never finish their degree. This UNESCO document reports that as many as one in five children dropped out of school in 2018. 

There is teacher attrition, too – it’s speculated that 70% of EFL teachers leave the field within four years.

A group of Stanford researchers have done some fascinating work on why some students can handle the pressures of study and see the value in sticking with it. Their term for this is academic tenacity. You can read about the four possible reasons why some students are more prone to dropping out than others in their report, but there is one factor leading to academic tenacity that I thought was particularly interesting: social belonging.

Social belonging

When someone feels they ‘belong’ in a school, or class (or gym, or online course), they stay. Because they feel welcomed, noticed, appreciated and encouraged, they stay engaged and are motivated to come back. The researchers found that students who had better relationships with their peers and teachers experienced a greater sense of belonging.

This makes sense to me. As an analogy, when I walk into a gym to work out and I sense that people are watching and judging me, or begrudging the time I’m spending on the incline bench, I’m less likely to feel motivated to go back (to that gym, or perhaps to any gym). By contrast, when I walk into a gym where people are friendly and I feel like I am welcome (in spite my spindly legs and puny biceps) I have reason to go back.

So too with a language classroom. Let me draw on a previously told story to make my point: Steve (yup, third person me in the historical present) walks into his first Chinese lesson. He doesn’t know anyone, some of the other students seem to be chatting effortlessly to one another in Chinese and they ignore him. 

He is one of only two occidentals in the room: the other is diligently reading his textbook. Steve sits down unobtrusively and tries to take up as little air as possible. After a bit, the teacher enters, hands out a worksheet and starts to give instructions in Chinese. Steve can’t follow. The other students start filling in the worksheet. 

Bewildered, Steve tries to copy from the student next to him, who starts to give a quick summary of what the task is about, but the teacher glances over and says, gently but firmly in English, “Speak Chinese in this classroom”.

Intimidating, right? There was not a lot of social belonging and the chances were stacked against any possible return to that particular class, or to the study of Chinese as a whole as it turned out.

Creating a sense of belonging

The social belonging argument is that the key to getting a student back into the classroom is to make them feel like they have the right to be there, and that they belong in the group. The students need to get to know each other, and they should feel free to help one another. This is especially important with groups of students who don’t already know each other.

The teacher’s role is crucial: acknowledge a new-comer, run an ice-breaker if it’s the first day, give attention to the students who need help, pay attention to worries and concerns, acknowledge success, learn and use the students’ names. Teachers who know the names of the students in their classrooms are giving powerful messages about membership and belonging.

If you are experiencing the unsettling problem of attrition in your ESP classes, give the question of social belonging some thought - there may be a way for you to make the students feel like the classroom is theirs and they can feel at home in it.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Hi Steve, I took an interest in this post, due to a short intensive course we just held at the Prince of Songkla University in Phuket, as we had attendance issues also. So, I'd like to tell you about my studies in teaching methodology, because I'm currently working on my Ed.D in this field and would very much appreciate it if you could allow me to send an anonymous questionnaire of 15 questions about teacher's methodology and awareness. If you could contact me, I'd be very happy to send you a copy for you to view first.
I have been here almost 14yrs and currently hold a Masters degree in TESOL. Hope to hear from you soon.
Many thanks for your time.
Philip Galloway M.A.

By Philip, Prince of Songkla University in Phuket (13th July 2019)

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