Title: “An exploration of the factors that contribute to the formation of peer relationships in the first-year of university study and their impact on student retention”.

Ethics Approval Number: 2011/101

Researchers: Ellyse Paton, Tamara Dickson, Libby Stone, Aishah Mattar, Nadia Sundrampillai-Sly, Rachel Thevarajoo, Alana Liddell

Supervisor: Max Sully

Summary of Project

Background Research

Recent sources have drawn attention to the high increase of student drop-out rates in undergraduate studies globally (McLaughlin, 2010; Macgregor, 2007). An extensive amount of research has detailed the possible reasons accounting for student attrition (Tinto, 1987; Willcoxson, Cotter, & Joy, 2011) including the support that peer relationships influence students’ adjustment and retention at university (Swenson, Nodstrom & Hiester, 2008; Fass & Tubman, 2002). However the literature regarding the specific factors of these peer relationships is scarce. Although, there is research regarding the influence of peer relationships on retention of university students, there is little groundwork exploring the factors influencing the formation and development of these peer relationships, or the perceived influences of peer relationships on the retention of different student subsets. The aim of this study was to explore the topic of peer relationships and their perceived influence on student retention amongst different student subsets.


The participants were 21 first-year psychology students, comprising three student cohorts: school leavers, gap year students and mature-age students. Participants completed an in-depth interview that had two sections. The first section consisted of demographic questions. In the second section questions focused on peer relationships and their perceived influence on student experience and commitment to complete their studies. Lastly, there were some open-ended questions regarding students’ suggestions for strategies the university could adopt to help foster and initiate peer relationships.


  • An electronic advertisement was posted on the Murdoch University Psychology Subject Pool website, and printed advertisements were placed around campus as well as flyers handed out to students at Murdoch University
  • The interview took between 45-60 minutes to complete

Main Findings

  1. School leavers perceived peer relationships to be most influential on their commitment to their studies, compared to gap year students and mature age students;
  2. Tutorial interactions was an important factor fostering peer relationships of all student cohorts;
  3. Mature-age students perceived themselves to have many different experiences and needs compared to younger students, this cohort often felt somewhat discouraged by the lack of inclusion of their cohort in the design of social events, including orientation, and felt that lectures were sometimes tailored for younger students.


While this study contributes to a greater understanding of peer relationships and student retention, further research is recommended. More specifically, a range of peer relationship models should be employed to explore the nature of these peer relationships. Also further research into the student subsets that exist within the student bodies at university would be beneficial, as limited research exists on the variety of student subsets experiences.

It is critical that universities take responsibility for student retention and adopt strategies to foster peer relationships to address retention, whilst also considering the variations between the needs of student cohorts.


Fass, M.E. & Tubman, J.G. (2002). The influence of parental and peer attachment on college students academic achievement. Psychology in the Schools, 39, 561-573.
Macgregor, K. (2007). Student dropout rates alarming. University World News. Retrieved from
McLaughlin, M. (2010). One in three students have considered dropping out over finance. Evening News. Retrieved from
Swenson, L.M., Nordstrom, A., & Hiester, M. (2008). The role of peer relationships in the adjustment of college. Journal of College Student Development, 49, 551-561.
Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving College. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wilcoxson, L. Cotter, J., and Joy, S. (2011). Beyond the first-year experience: the impact on attrition of student experiences throughout undergraduate degree studies in six diverse universities. Studies in Higher Education, 36, 1-22.