Photos of graduating students are seen on lockers during a graduation ceremony.
Photos of graduating students are seen on lockers during a graduation ceremony. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

May 10, 2021

5 factors that contribute to students finishing high school

An inclusive school climate is essential, write Ronna Mosher, Amber Hartwell and Barbara Brown, Werklund School of Education, in Conversation Canada

This past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted learning for more than 1.6 billion students in over 190 countries. With movement between bricks-and-mortar schools and online learning becoming the “new normal,” young people, families, educators and the public are seeking assurance that students are receiving the best education possible.

They are also concerned about students disengaging from school amid these changes and want to know what schools can do to encourage students to finish high school.

With pivots in how students are learning still possible in the race between COVID-19 vaccines and variants, it’s important to look beyond concerns about how students attend school to what helps them learn and engage with school. Not surprisingly, success leads to more success.

Read more: High school dropouts cost countries a staggering amount of money

Our research team in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary reviewed more than 130 studies that looked for factors related to student engagement, achievement and eventual school completion.

We searched databases for studies from the past decade that referred to school success, student achievement and high school completion or graduation. We’ve summarized our research into five key ideas. We’ve also used this research to provide questions to help school communities talk about what students need now and in a post-pandemic future — and to consider what matters most, whether students are learning online or in-person.

Students in Montréal at Marymount Academy International, November 17, 2020


Explicit inclusivity

A commitment to inclusivity and diversity helps equip all students to participate equitably in society. Part of supporting diversity means students have a chance to develop identities and relationships that positively promote academic expectations through positive relationships and relevant curriculum. Having school leaders and teachers who develop the critical capacity to challenge stereotypes is important in policy and practice: education scholar Carl James, for example, has highlighted how stereotypes operate in the social construction of Black males as “at risk” students.

Read more: Celebrating diversity isn't enough: Schools need anti-racist curriculum

An inclusive school climate is essential for engaging those historically marginalized by mainstream schooling, including Indigenous learnersBlack and racialized students, LGBTQ+ students and students with disabilities or behavioural, communication, intellectual, learning or physical challenges.

In an inclusive school climate, schools find ways to allow refugee students to voice their authentic experiences. Schools also give students opportunities to explore socio-political issues that develop critical thinking and thoughtful citizenship, and seamlessly accommodate and support individual learning needs.

Read more: Every child matters: What principals need to effectively lead inclusive schools

They use resources that authentically represent students from different backgrounds and create classroom experiences that connect students to each other and their communities. They focus on restorative rather than punitive discipline and examine structures and practices for biases.

Strong relationships

Students benefit from teachers who balance high expectations with empathy and flexibility. When students describe what contributes to finishing school, strong relationships with teachers and other students is at the top of many of their lists.

A study of Indigenous students in Saskatchewan by education scholars Bonnie Stelmach, Margaret Kovach and Larry Steeves showed that what helps students learn is when teachers listen, use humour, foster dialogue and show interest in them.

Peer and community relationships matter. A study of high-achieving Black female students by education scholars Rowena Linton and Lorna McLean found that the students faced racism, including low expectations from teachers at school, and mobilized “community resources and support available to them, including peer relations, as an effective strategy to acquire academic success.”

But strong peer and community relationships and students’ own resourcefulness should not be expected to compensate for students facing racism or biases from teachers. Teachers should affirm students’ strengths and understand and respond to obstacles in student learning.

Read more: How to curb anti-Black racism in Canadian schools

Strong relationships do more than make school a nice place to be. Students benefit from accepting peers who collaborate in learning and interpersonal problem-solving. Relationships encourage regular attendance and cycles of connection, participation and success. They build students’ social and civic capacities. Strong relationships that include family and community connections are fundamental to student success.

Students cross the street at Tomken Road Middle School in Mississauga, Ont., on April 1, 2021.

Students cross the street at Tomken Road Middle School in Mississauga, Ont., on April 1, 2021.


Comprehensive learning opportunities

Instruction that promotes complex thinking over memorization is associated with strong class participation, achievement and students setting hopeful, aspirational goals for their educational futures.

Collaborative, interdisciplinaryactive and problem-based learning have been found to improve student attendance, course completion and graduation rates.

Read more: STEM learning should engage students' minds, hands and hearts

A comprehensive instructional environment for student success also includes explicit instruction, support for individual needs, culturally affirming tasks and culturally responsive curriculum materials.

It also includes regular assessment to help guide teachers’ instruction and students’ learning strategies. When teachers regularly assess students, this helps them guide student learning.

Tracking and transitions

Student success occurs over time. Some research from the United States suggests there are predictors of whether students are on a path to finishing high school by Grade 6. Achievement in language arts and math are important, but overall teacher-assigned grades and patterns of attendance are also key indicators of students’ ultimate success in school. Schools need to monitor attendance and achievement across time and avoid simple responses like holding students back a grade.

When students aren’t learning as well as expected, schools need to create integrated approaches of support and intervention. They should should involve families, other professionals and community resources, and monitor the impact of supports on students’ progress.

Transitions between grades, types of learning and schools need special attention as changes in social groups, support systems and new environments and expectations can be challenging for any student.

Flexible systems

Having flexibility matters in terms of whether students complete their studies. Systems that allow students to recover credits if they fall behind keeps students moving forward.

How high schools schedule classes can help align course offerings with student needs and interests. It can also create small interdisciplinary groups working together, and encourages supportive relationships and flexible access to instruction. Investments in technology that promote connections to community and complex forms of learning and communication are more effective than those that ask students to practise and demonstrate isolated skills.

Questions for parents

If you think about your child’s school:

  • What evidence is there of students feeling recognized and connected, and empathetic responsiveness to students’ qualities and circumstances?

  • What makes your school inclusive? How are differences and similarities across economics, race, gender and culture incorporated into learning? How are mental-health concerns and learning difficulties supported?

  • How are students’ interests and needs included in the design of their learning? How is complex thinking challenged and supported? How do students access support?

  • What preventative and responsive systems are in place for patterns of attendance and achievement? How are students supported during times of transition?

  • What decisions and structures might be impeding or enhancing students’ opportunities to learn?

The factors that support opportunities for student engagement are interconnected and reinforcing. Careful collaborative attention and reflection by all members of a school community make them possible and contribute to students completing school.

Ronna Mosher is an assistant professor in the Werklund School of Education.

Amber Hartwell is a Doctor of Education candidate at the University of Calgary.

Barbara Brown is an associate dean at the University of Calgary.