In the State of the University Address this fall, President M. Roy Wilson shared some welcome news with us about our retention and graduation rates.The good news for Wayne State, is that our four-year graduation rate is the highest it’s been in 15 years*. In fact, our five-year and six-year graduation rates continue to improve as well, with the six-year graduation rate increasing by eight percentage points over the past three years to 34%.
One reason for this forward momentum is that our retention rates continue to increase. More of our students persist from their second to third years and third to fourth years. The freshman cohort retention rate into the third year is the highest in at least 17 years; the freshman cohort retention rate into the fourth year is the highest in 16 years. This is tremendous and very good news for the Wayne State collective community.
While we measure our student success by graduation and retention rates, these improvements are the outcome of student learning, of student effort, of our care for students. It’s the faculty member who challenges students by asking big questions, taking learning to a deeper level; it’s the academic advisor who asks hard questions to help a student discover their academic goals; it’s the tweet from the Registrar’s Office to a student that says “contact me about graduating” – it’s all of these things and more that propels this university forward. So while we measure success in numbers, the open, honest conversations that are taking place about finances, getting to class, learning the course material, applying course material to real-world experiences, career, major interests and what makes sense for an individual student, show students that we are here to support them on their academic journey. Ultimately it is the consequence of our students’ relationships with us — relationships that support their deepening knowledge and skill attainment on their path to degree.
However, there is much more work to do. President Wilson indicated that all WSU undergraduate students should have a clear pathway to graduation in four years. However, four-year graduation rates are not the norm for our students. Every summer, during orientation, we survey our new students. We ask them how long they expect it will take to graduate. Fully 74% of our the incoming students surveyed expect to finish in four years; only 13% of them actually do. Doing a better job of helping students complete their program in a more timely manner — without sacrificing student learning or academic rigor — is a challenge we must confront in many ways. I’ll be discussing strategies for doing this over the coming months and I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you about your ideas.
Take a moment to reflect on your own contributions to student success. Then, dig in. Continue the conversations. We still have work to do.
*All data is based on entering cohorts of first-time in college, full-time students.
Since 2011, WSU has made systematic investments in student success. While the phrase “Student Success” is tied in many people’s minds with our retention and graduation rates, we mean much more than increasing those numbers. During my three years on the job, after wonderful conversations with many of you, it’s become clear to me that student success at Wayne State University means many things:
- Progressive development of knowledge and intellectual skills in our students
- Substantive engagement with contemporary and enduring questions
- Anchoring of student learning in involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges
- Application of knowledge and skills in new settings and to complex problems,
- Progressing to timely graduation.
In short, retention and graduation rates are the outcome of student learning. With student learning at the forefront, we have made great strides over the past few years in engaging with students, faculty and staff to enhance our learning outcomes across the institution. Whether by college readiness programs, by first-year seminars, by proactive departmental advising, to curricular enhancements, we continuously renew and deepen our commitment to student learning. Ed Venit, lead researcher on the Education Advisory Board’s Student Success Collaborative indicates that “…institutions direct most of their student-success resources to freshmen.” At Wayne State, this is partially true. Starting with Orientation, we work to help students start on track and stay on track. Many learning communities target academic support and integration into campus life for first-year students. We also have programs to assist students toward the end of their career like the Berman “Crossing the Finish Line” scholarship.
In analyzing big data from nearly 60 higher education institutions, Venit and his team of researchers divided students (nationally) into three categories:
- Students who ended their first year with a GPA lower than 2.0
- Students who ended their first year with a GPA higher than 3.0
- Students who ended their first year between 2.0 and 3.0
The researchers observed that students in this third group, which he calls “The Murky Middle,” make up half of the total number of college dropouts. This can be a surprise to many people who might assume that students who drop out all perform poorly academically right away (i.e. below 2.0). “It’s called the murky middle because in that group of students [students with a first-year G.P.A. between 2.0 and 3.0], a certain number are going to leave and a certain number are going to stay, and they look about identical to each other,” Venit said. “They are making progress against their major. They aren’t tripping any alarms. They aren’t showing up on anyone’s radar as being particularly at-risk. But some of them aren’t going to come back.” Understanding this group of students also matters because it is often a big group. At WSU, 30% of our first-year students end up in this murky middle — with cumulative GPA’s between 2.0 and 3.0.
However, what’s most interesting is that small academic gains for these students can have a big impact in how likely they are to graduate. In particular, Venit’s research shows that an increase in GPA of just 0.4 by the end of the first year for these students can result in an increase of as much as 17% in the student’s likelihood of graduating. A firm academic foundation in the first year will pay off in greater learning, greater academic progress, greater retention, and ultimately higher graduation rates. If this result applied to us at WSU, a modest gain in first-year GPA could lead to an overall increase of as much as 5.2 percentage points in our graduation rate, which was 34% for the most recent cohort (who began at WSU in 2008).
The article acknowledged that some critics are not sold on the data and say institutions shouldn’t jump to re-organize our efforts immediately. Alan Seidman, executive director of the Center for the Study of College Student Retention, says that “the real problem affecting student retention…has to do with curriculum.” Further, he says, “if a … course requires writing and mathematics skills that a student doesn’t have, then the student will not pass.” Although Seidman takes issue with Venit’s research, their perspectives don’t seem that far apart to me. Seidman makes a clear case that if we are going to see the increases in student learning that will result in a higher GPA and ultimately higher graduation rates, we are going to have to meet students where they are and meet their true learning needs.
I also think that this research shows us an important point about the meaning of our student retention data. We monitor student retention with care because if a student doesn’t return in subsequent years, she or he will not graduate. However, this research shows us that retention must be coupled with academic achievement in order to lead to graduation.
While we don’t know with certainty that we would achieve results identical to those in Venit’s research, the national study makes one thing clear to me — if we invest in student learning and student academic achievement, increases in graduation rates will follow. With our collective efforts to help students engage in their learning we can move the dial and increase the number of students who persist, and ultimately, complete their bachelor’s degree at Wayne State. According to Venit, “Just a small nudge – one-on-one tutoring, time management counseling – could keep a student on track to graduate.”
The conclusion can be made, then, that indeed all students need to be supported in the pursuit of their academic and learning goals. And, while an institution can have programs in place to assist a larger number of students at one time, we all need to play a role in the success of our students. Whether one-on-one during office hours or an advising session or in a group peer assisted learning seminar or the classroom, our students need each one of us to guide and encourage them to achieve excellence.
How do you contribute to student learning and ultimately student success?
Student success is achievable through the efforts of us all – faculty, staff and students. Our goal is to enhance student learning at WSU by locally implementing national best practices in success and learning that positively impact our retention and graduation rates. I’ve highlighted a few campus offices and national research initiatives below. I believe theses resources will aid in a campus-wide dialogue about how we can work together to provide undergraduate students with the best and most supported learning environment at a premier urban, public research university.
The Office for Teaching and Learning (OTL)
We support all members of the Wayne State University teaching and learning community. To help you get started, we offer one to one consultations tailored to meet your needs. Be it course design, syllabus construction, teaching strategies, or using instructional technologies, our team of experienced faculty development consultants offer practical insight and information that will benefit your students’ learning experiences.
Academic Success Center
Direct students to our supplemental instruction sessions, study skills counseling or workshops to complement classroom work. We work with faculty in a variety of ways and our coordinator for peer assisted learning can establish/grow a supplemental instruction session for a course.
Student Disability Services
Our specialists work with students to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities on campus. We also work with faculty to provide exam accommodations for students who present proper documentation both to our office and the faculty member. We encourage incorporating universal design of instruction elements within the classroom in order to enhance all students’ learning.
Counseling and Psychological Services
Enrolled students can come by the office for free counseling services. Clinical staff members are available for consultation services on how to respond to students’ emotional and psychological needs as well as for outreach activities. In the instance you are concerned about a student’s behavior and don’t know what to do, you can complete a CARE report, which goes directly to the Dean of Student’s Office to be reviewed. Our staff members will work together to care for any student.
University Counselors, Academic Service Officers and faculty members all play a role in advising undergraduate students; that is, having an open dialogue with students regarding their academic and course plan in order to graduate in a timely manner. Over the past three years, WSU has hired 38 academic advisors in order to increase student access to professional staff members who guide and monitor student progress toward degree attainment.
Students have access to advisors by visiting or calling their department or school/college to arrange an appointment or through a newer online scheduling tool. We recommend that students meet with an advisor within their field of study at least once each semester in order to plan appropriately and stay on track to graduation.
A 2014 Noel-Levitz study of freshmen attitudes indicates that by the midpoint of their first year in college, students build academic confidence and then begin to question career opportunities and salaries. Let students know, especially first-year students, that Career Services is ready to meet with them and begin to help them answer these questions.
A Guide to High-Impact Practices
Certain types of undergraduate college experiences provide superior learning opportunities linked to greater retention and graduation rates for students. These high-impact practices include a number of educational experiences — learning communities; undergraduate research; writing-intensive courses; collaborative assignments and projects; service/community-based learning; diversity/global learning; common intellectual experiences; first-year seminars and experiences; internships; and capstone courses and projects. At Wayne State, we believe that success is about achieving a level of preparation in terms of knowledge, capabilities and personal qualities that enable students to thrive and contribute in a fast-changing economy and in turbulent, high-demanding global, societal and often personal contexts.
Keep in mind that there are online tools to help plan your academic year. The academic and registration calendar for 2014-15, and the two subsequent years, is available and lists important dates and deadlines for the campus community. The Office of the Registrar site hosts a number of other resources that guide faculty through administrative processes like how to submit grades for Early Academic Assessment (EAA) and run a degree audit.
We encourage the WSU community to utilize the support services available on campus. We’re looking forward to the 146th academic year at Wayne State. Welcome back.
Meet Christy Nolan
Recently our Student Success office interviewed Christy Nolan about his involvement in Learning Communities and what they mean to students.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I am the Director of Campus Recreation. I have a passion for student development and enjoy those teachable vignettes when students have an “aha” moment and then really take off in their initiative, accountability, and possibilities. My doctorate is in Education, specifically Higher Ed Administration. My area of expertise is in experiential learning and student engagement with peers and faculty.
Describe your learning community.
The Freshmen Quests Learning Community is a two-phased LC. Phase I (August) consists of a three-day, two-night canoeing and camping trip led by upperclassmen. We travel on the AuSauble River from Roscommon to Mio, MI. The freshmen see upperclassmen, just a little older than them, taking on real responsibility and leading all aspects of a 44-mile back-country adventure. Faculty and staff are alongside the freshmen every step of the trip and serve in the role of expert in a specific content area, but more importantly, the faculty serve as mentors and friends to the freshmen. The goals of Phase I are for the freshmen to have fun, to make friends, realize that faculty and staff are genuinely vested in their success, and learn all the information that cannot possibly be fit into orientation.
Phase II (September-December) consists of a two-credit course in the fall term. The course focuses on critical thinking, writing at the college level, leadership ability, communication style, and the assessment of one’s personality style. Academic and social aspects of college are presented as intertwining and not separate entities. This enables the freshmen to better account for their academic obligations in college and studying shifts to a social activity with friends instead of something that is avoided or viewed as a burden. The goals of Phase II is for freshmen to understand their abilities, know and make use of resources on campus, and for the freshmen to learn to be accountable for their college journey. There are many resources and mentors available to the freshmen, however, the freshmen must be an active participant in their success.
Why did you initiate this learning community?
The LC was initiated specifically to address retention at the institution. It was discovered that the LC can fulfill a variety of roles for the department and the institution. For my department, it functions as a three-day interview for students. We learn who works well under pressure and adapts to change and uncertain surroundings. The LC also functions as a window for other departments to look through and understand the student development opportunities that take place within recreation programs and facilities.
What are your learning outcomes and how do you measure them?
Assessment of the LC is accomplished with both quantitative and qualitative methods. First, every participant completes an online survey that is created in partnership with Campus Labs. Secondary and more in depth assessment is conducted through 1 on 1 interviews with participants. The qualitative results may be viewed in my dissertation. I am currently collaborating on publishing the collective result of those methods.
What I’ve found in sifting through the data (both quantitative and qualitative) is that when students believe there is an event that is significant in their lives (not just a single moment), then they are open and more receptive to the advice and information we provide during the trip. When faculty, upperclassmen and new students all participate in this trip, and it is perceived by the student as a significant life event, the student is receptive to the information and is likely to act on the resources we provide. This leads to academic persistence and retention (see Figure 1).
What advice would you give to faculty members who are interested in starting an LC?
The advice I have for those who have never considered an LC start up? Retention and quality of the students’ experience is everyone’s responsibility on this campus. An LC is an avenue to be more connected to your students, and perhaps, understand some barriers to their success. Faculty are the key to LC success. The more actual faculty are engaged with students, the more robust the student experience and performance becomes.
Can you share any student and/or faculty “aha” moments or breakthroughs you’ve seen in your learning community?
The moment/s that stand out for me come when students report just how powerful of an experience their participation in the LC can be. Students report that participation in this LC is a life changing event. They report that they make connections that last a lifetime. Additional learning outcomes show that students report significant self-discovery and learn that regardless of the diversity present on campus, most students have the same concerns about attending college for the first time.
If you’d like to engage with Christy Nolan regarding his research and learning community program, please leave a comment below or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On any given new student orientation day, you will find current students, faculty, staff and advisors bustling around campus assisting new students (and families) through the transition to Wayne State. And above the bustling crowd, you will hear an exuberant “Woo-hoo!” from WSU’s learning community coordinator, Amy Cooper.
A learning community (LC) is a group of students, faculty and peer mentors who learn together, leading to discovery of themselves as learners as well as of the world around them. Learning communities can be organized around a course, a program, or theme. Peer mentors are key to the success of learning communities — they help create environments where students and peer mentors can work together to ask questions, solve problems and learn from each other, as well as to get to know each other and have fun.
“When talking to faculty interested in creating a learning community, the first thing I tell them is that no two LCs look alike”, says Amy. “We all have a common end in mind – to enhance student learning and increase our retention rate and student success among all students. But how we get there varies by course, teaching style and learning style.”
Nationally, learning communities are known to be a particularly effective high-impact practice (Kuh, 2008) at colleges and universities. High-impact practices — due to the levels of engagement and learning that they promote — support student learning, student success, and retention that lasts long after the end of the duration of the high-impact experience. The success of a learning community is multifaceted and depends on factors such as engagement, teaching pedagogy, learning styles, learning outcomes/goals and support. But the foundation for the success is in the quality of the relationships they support — relationships among students, between students and peer mentors and between students and faculty.
When learning and community “come together in effective ways, they represent the most effective pedagogical concept that have been developed in the last twenty years. Further, they (LCs) create a framework where faculty, staff and students can learn together, which is known to be the most powerful concept in education” (Shapiro, 1999).
Based on national best practices, Wayne State learning communities have the following student learning objectives across various programs:
- Develop critical thinking skills
- Improve ability to apply knowledge and solve problems
- Make appropriate use of student services
- Develop ability to collaborate with others
- Experience a successful transition to the university and successfully identify and pursue their goals
Wayne State has continued to invest in this collaborative program over the past seven years because learning communities have proven to increase our student retention rate. Since 2006, students in our learning communities have been retained from their first to second year at a rate that averages 8.5% higher than students who have not joined learning communities during their first year.
We know that learning communities are a best-practice when it comes to student success. And we know that students are looking for supportive ways to engage at a large, research university so they have a successful experience.
Scaling the learning communities program is an objective outlined in the 2011-approved Retention Report, as well as noted in the current WSU Strategic Plan, and we are interested in continuing this success. We have a great framework from which to start, with more than 40 learning communities this coming academic year; and we can do much more to diversify our program offerings to meet the needs of all WSU students. For those interested in creating a learning community or working with students in a learning community, contact Amy Cooper at email@example.com or 313-577-2254. A call for 2015-16 Learning Community proposals will be out later this fall. You can always visit the learning communities website to review proposal documents, assessment requirements and a list of all current communities.
If you’re interested in learning more about learning communities, I recommend two great books: Creating Learning Communities: A Practical Guide to Winning Support, Organizing for Change, and Implementing Programs, by Shapiro and Levine and Sustaining Learning Communities by Laufgraben and Shapiro. I have two copies of each book to give away, so if you want one let me know in the comments below. Just tell us a few sentences about your goals, thoughts, questions or challenges with respect to learning communities. I’ll randomly select two recipients for each book from the comments that are posted by the end of Monday, August 25.
Kuh, George D., High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter, Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008.
Laufgraben, Jodi Levine, and Nancy S. Shapiro. Sustaining and improving learning communities. John Wiley & Sons, 2004.
Shapiro, Nancy S., and Jodi H. Levine. Creating Learning Communities: A Practical Guide to Winning Support, Organizing for Change, and Implementing Programs. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 350 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104, 1999.
Welcome to the Student Success Blog! Since 2011, the Undergraduate Student Success Initiative (USSI) has been promoting student learning and success, with the expectation that we will build on our previous progress to improve our retention and graduation rates. However, Student Success means so much more than retention rates, GPAs and graduation rates.
At Wayne State University our mission is to create and advance knowledge. Therefore, the first element of student success is STUDENT LEARNING. As an institution of excellence and opportunity, our goal must be that students learn a great deal while they are here with us. Secondly, we know that colleges and universities — particularly urban research universities like Wayne State — are uniquely positioned to engage with the most pressing questions and provide the knowledge, understanding, and skills necessary for the 21st century. As a result, the second element of success is LEARNING THAT MATTERS — matters for the students, for our communities, our workforces, and the world. Finally, the advantages that accrue to degree completion are well documented, and so the third element is LEARNING THAT LEADS TO A TIMELY DEGREE.
There’s no silver bullet leading to these results. Instead, the evidence shows that student success is the result of multiple re-enforcing investments in our students, faculty, other members of the WSU community, and campus.
The USSI commits to improvements in six major areas:
- Curriculum, particularly General Education
- Undergraduate Academic Advising
- Undergraduate Teaching and Learning
- College Readiness
- First-year experiences and High Impact Practices
- Financial Support and Financial Literacy
In addition to these six areas, the Office of Student Success in the Provost’s office is partnering with schools, colleges, departments, and many other units across campus on a variety of initiatives and programs to support student success. In this blog, I’ll be highlighting activities that are under way that promote learning and success across the campus and updating you on the implementation of the USSI. I’ll introduce you to faculty leaders who are bringing best practices to the classrooms and challenging our students to greatness. I’ll share data about our progress. But more than that, I’ll be looking forward to hearing from the whole campus community about the issues, challenges, and opportunities we face and what each of us can do to promote and support student learning, success, and retention.