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Oct 8 / Monica Brockmeyer

The “Murky Middle” and the importance of student learning

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:

  1. Progressive development of knowledge and intellectual skills in our students
  2. Substantive engagement with contemporary and enduring questions
  3. Anchoring of student learning in involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges
  4. Application of knowledge and skills in new settings and to complex problems,
  5. 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:

  1. Students who ended their first year with a GPA lower than 2.0
  2. Students who ended their first year with a GPA higher than 3.0
  3. 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?



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  1. Rita Casey / Oct 14 2014

    Great article on the Middle group of students. I’ve seen a lot of students who were at this level, but didn’t stand out like those at the top or at the bottom of the class.

    One such student said to me in my first year here: “I’m used to hiding out in classes, not at the bottom, and definitely not a star, but then, it’s easy to slip away. . . why are you paying me attention?”

    I have never forgotten that – he and others like him deserve just as much attention as anyone. I didn’t want him to “slip away”, which he could easily have done.

    Thanks for reminding me, again, how important every student is!

  2. Amy Cooper / Oct 8 2014

    Great post! Students need all kinds of varied support to be successful; from learning community connection, to advising, to faculty relationships–EVERYONE at WSU plays a crucial role in student success. Making resources available to every student, and raising student awareness of those opportunities is the start. Just because a student is doing “fine” doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t benefit from additional support. The priority focus for the newly launched Capital Campaign is timely: Engage. Create. Discover. Inspire.

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