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What do first-year students need? Digital badges for academic support to enhance student retention

Dana-Kristin Mah (University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany)
Dirk Ifenthaler (Curtin University, Bentley, Australia)

Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education

ISSN: 2050-7003

Publication date: 1 July 2019



The purpose of this paper is to analyse data on first-year students’ needs regarding academic support services and reasons for their intention to leave the institution prior to degree completion. On the basis of the findings, a digital badge outline is proposed which could contribute to improved communication of academic requirements in order to help students to better adapt to higher education demands. Digital badges might also serve as an indicator for students’ needing additional academic support services.


An online-questionnaire was conducted with 730 first-year students at a German university. Participants’ responses to open-ended questions were coded and categorised. On the basis on these findings, an outline for a digital badge programme is proposed.


Participants seek the most institutional support regarding research skills and organisational aspects. Main reasons for participants’ intention to withdraw from the institution include difficulties with their programme choice.

Practical implications

These findings may enable higher education institutions to provide targeted support services that meet first-year students’ needs. On the basis of the findings, higher education institutions can create digital badge programmes, which may improve communication of academic requirements and may also serve as a platform for a staff-student conversation about expectations and demands for a successful first-year experience. Besides, further research and discussion may address using digital badges for learning analytics algorithms to even better identify students’ strengths and needs for targeted academic support services and enhanced student success in higher education.


Little is known about first-year students’ needs for institutional support and reasons for thinking about dropout in Germany. Understanding the student perspective is crucial for enhancing student retention. Digital badges are an emerging educational technology in higher education and they have the potential to target academic requirements, which may guide first-year students and help them to better adjust to universities’ demands.



Mah, D.-K. and Ifenthaler, D. (2019), "What do first-year students need? Digital badges for academic support to enhance student retention", Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 86-96.



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