Using Ecological Systems Theory to Understand Impediments to Undergraduate Student Success and Retention

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Over the last thirty years, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory has had a profound impact on the field of developmental psychology. It is a large, overarching theory addressing the whole context of human development. This paper provides a brief overview of the key developmental aspects and mechanisms of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory and explores preliminary ideas for utilizing the theory to understand impediments to student success as measured by academic eligibility, retention and graduation. Research on undergraduate student success reveals that students who do not persist cite multiple interacting factors as the cause. These factors range from familial relations to financial insecurity to lack of motivation and attention disorders (Retention Study Group, 2004). Ecological Systems Theory focuses on multiple interacting factors across settings that contribute to the development of an individual. Applying this theory to undergraduate student success can thus shed some light on how these factors interact to determine student success or failure to succeed. There has been a notable inability for institutions to translate what is understood about failure to persist into effective programs of intervention (Tinto, 2006-2007). Often universities responded to failure to persist or to succeed with academic intervention programs focusing predominately on study skills. Brofenbrenner’s theory may help explain why such interventions are generally unsuccessful and provide a better understanding of why students do not persist.


Keywords: Retention, Persistence, Student Success, Undergraduate, Graduation, Academic Intervention
Stream: University Teaching and Learning
Presentation Type: 30 minute Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Cynthia Demetriou

Retention Coordinator, Undergraduate Education
College of Arts and Sciences, University of North Carolina

Chapel Hill, NC, USA

Cynthia Demetriou is the Retention Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She oversees the system of academic probation and intervention for undergraduate students. She has an Ed.M. from Harvard University and a B.A. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Education.

Amy Schmitz-Sciborski

Clinical Psychologist, Counseling and Wellness Services, University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, USA

Amy Schmitz-Sciborski received her Bachelor of Science in Social Work from Syracuse University and her PhD in clinical psychology the California School of Professional Psychology, San Diego. She specializes in group and individual psychotherapy for a college population. She is a co-author of "Bounce Back", a retention program for students on academic probation.

Ref: U09P0155