What if you could get your students to daydream about learning?

Rumor has it that in the late afternoon, after the students have all retreated to upper campus, you might catch a glimpse of a lone professor strolling under the leafy canopy, daydreaming of students who ponder their learning just for the fun of it. Although this might be an ever-so-slight exaggeration (it’s not THAT leafy), this vision of liberal arts nirvana isn’t just a fool’s paradise. When testing the effect of the first-year survey item, “I find myself thinking about what I’m learning in my classes even when I’m not in class or studying,” we regularly find that students who strongly agree with this statement also earn better grades (no matter their incoming ACT scores), say that they would definitely choose to come to Augustana again, and strongly agree that they can think of specific experiences that helped them clarify their life or career goals.

It appears that students who think about their learning when they don’t have to aren’t just a professor’s dream come true; this behavior is one indicator of a very successful student. Of course, I can already hear you blurting out the obvious, only semi-rhetorical, albeit entirely reasonable, next question.

“But we don’t have any control over that trait, do we?”

I can understand why you might ask that question, especially in that way. Sometimes it feels like all we do is implore students to embrace learning and truly engage the stuff we are trying to teach them. And sadly, all too often it can feel like those passionate pleas just bounce off the classroom’s back wall, reminding us of our inadequacies as the slap-back echo of our own voice hits us in the face.

But if there were some things that you could do, whether you are working with students in the classroom or outside the classroom, that might actually turn students into more intellectually curious, contemplative thinkers, would you do it? Sign me up!

We’ve just finished analyzing last year’s first-year student data and it looks like two items that we’ve recently introduced to the survey might point us toward some ways that could increase the degree to which students think about what they learn in class when it isn’t required. The first item that we found to be predictive of students’ thinking about their learning when they don’t have to asks students the degree to which they agree or disagree with this statement:

“My instructors recommended specific experiences outside of class (such as a lecture, forum, public meeting, demonstration, or other event) on campus or in the community that would complement or enhance my learning in class.”

Even after accounting for students’ sex, race, incoming ACT score, and socioeconomic status, as students reported these kinds of recommendations coming from their instructors more frequently, they also reported that they found themselves thinking about the things they learned in class even when they weren’t in class or studying.

In addition, we found a similar relationship between students’ thinking about learning and the degree to which they agreed with this statement:

“Symposium Day activities influenced the way that I now think about real world issues.”

It strikes me that these two items fit together perfectly.  On Tuesday (that would be tomorrow!), We hold our first Symposium Day of the year. In addition to four fantastic featured speakers, a variety of faculty, staff, and students will present a variety of thought-provoking presentations that tackle one or more aspects of the deliberately broad theme for the day, “Crossroads.” Some crossroads are physical, some are ideological, and some are about values and standing up for a set of principles even when it might not be the most popular thing to do. No matter the angle you take, everyone one of us faces these sorts of choices every day. If we’re paying attention, these moments can bring powerful meaning into our lives.

So if you want your students to be more likely to think about what they are learning when they don’t have to, take advantage of the upcoming Symposium Day and encourage them to soak up the atmosphere and the opportunity to choose what they want to learn. Maybe find a few sessions that sound particularly intriguing or controversial and suggest that your students practice hearing out an idea that they might not initially agree with.

Who knows? By the end of tomorrow that rumored incident of meandering thinkers might include a healthy dose of students, too.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Not Much to Say . . . Except, “Wow!”

Although President Bahls announced it at last week’s faculty meeting, it’s possible that the news about our latest first-to-second year retention rates hasn’t quite made it out to everyone who reads this blog. So just in case you haven’t heard, let me share with you a little number that still has me shaking my head a little bit.

  • 1st-2nd year retention rate of Augustana’s 2015 freshman class – 88.9%

Wow.  Just, wow.

So why am I so blown away by this number?

In the fall of 2010, we recorded a retention rate of 87.8%. At the time this was the highest retention rate we’d seen in 25 years of tracking the persistence of first-year students to the second year. For almost a quarter of a century, Augustana’s retention rate had bounced around somewhere between 82 and 87 percent. So in context, 87.8% was an awfully high number and more than a few of us (particularly me) didn’t think we’d be able to do much better than that.

But three years ago while we were in the midst of developing the Augustana 2020 strategic plan, someone asked me to estimate (AKA guess with data) what might be the best possible retention rate that Augustana could achieve given our student profile and educational resources. After crunching some numbers, I suggested that if the stars aligned we might be able to hit a retention rate of 90% in a given year. In all honesty, I wasn’t convinced that we’d ever break 88% since I’ve never seen the stars align outside of a Disney cartoon. Even in my most optimistic moments, I certainly didn’t think we’d crack 88% until we got all of the programming described in Augustana 2020 up and running and had worked out the kinks. If you had forced me to guess before the start of the fall term what our retention rate would be this year, I would have probably said something just short of 87%.

But we blew past 87%. We blew past 88%. We almost cracked 89%. Wow.

The part that is most surprising to me is that we have just started to get all of our programs aimed at first-year student success up and running. Folks have been working extremely hard, but I don’t think anyone would say that we have all hit our stride yet.

And as if all that weren’t enough, it appears that our retention efforts might just be spilling over to our second year students. Our retention rate for 2nd-3rd students this fall hit 94.4% – the highest for those students since we began tracking that number six years ago.

Now it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t acknowledge that this might be an anomaly; next year we could be lamenting a retention rate that is back within our familiar range. But maybe, just maybe, we might be on to something and all of the work that so many people have been doing over the last two years is starting to pay off.

Will we actually get to 90%?  I don’t know.  But the next time someone asks me to give them a ceiling prediction for what the Augustana community is capable of doing, I’m going to think twice before I tell anyone what I think we can’t do.

Congratulations to everyone who has worked so hard on behalf of our students.  It’s humbling to be on the same team with all of you.

Make it a good day,

Mark

What do we know about successful first-year Augustana students?

Good morning! I hope you took some time over the three-day weekend to relax and refuel. Before you know it, we’ll be watching the leaves turn, wondering where the warm weather went, and counting down the days til the end of fall term.

Although it seems like school has just started, some of our first-year students already feel like they might be in deeper water than they can handle. And even though you can tell them that the trimester current moves faster than the gentle drift of semesters, it doesn’t get real until the first wave hits them in the face. So week three is the perfect time to hammer home the behaviors that make first-year Augustana students successful.

Now that we have more than five years of data from first-year students that track their behaviors, experiences, and growth, we can start to make some pretty confident assertions about what successful students do. Based on repeated analyses that identify statistically significant relationships between specific student behaviors and outcomes like GPA, a sense of fitting in, and an increased sense of direction and purpose, successful first-year students do these three things.

  • Successful first-year students build a healthy network of friends, guides, mentors, and resources.

This doesn’t mean that successful students have a larger network of friends, guides, and mentors than less successful students. The key factor is the healthy nature of that network. This means that a successful student’s friend network brings out the best in each person and stretches every member of that network to make their community a better place. Likewise, successful students find at least one guide or mentor who both believes in them and challenges them to grow, mature, and think in more complex terms. Finally, successful students seek out the campus resources that they might need before they actually need them, and use them to get better instead of waiting until trouble bubbles up.

  • Successful first-year students dedicate themselves to study smart.

Successful Augustana students have dedicated themselves to four rules that define the way they study. Data from Augustana students repeatedly indicates that these behaviors impact everyone regardless of their pre-college academic preparation or ability.

  1. Religiously use a planner. Although important, it’s not just to keep track of what things need to get done. Really, it’s about organizing and logging when to do each thing on that list.
  2. Study during the day. Just like an 8 to 5 job, get up early and make every minute of the day count – especially the time between classes. The impact of this behavior on stress, sleep, and the quality of academic work turns out to be sort of amazing.
  3. Don’t study in the dorm room. Even though first year students might be used to studying in their rooms when they were in high school, the residence hall environment is pretty different from home in terms of visitor frequency, noise, and potential distractions. Similar to what happens to students who do most of their studying at night instead of during the day, studying in one’s dorm room invites a level of inefficiency that often make studying take longer and be less effective.
  4. Build a like-minded study group. Sometimes it is necessary to study alone, but other times it’s much more beneficial to study with a group. Successful students find like-minded students (not unlike the characteristics of a healthy network of friends) to study with when a group session might be particularly helpful.

If you want your students or your advisees to make the most of their first term at Augustana, tell them to grab hold of those four points and don’t let go.

  • Successful Augustana students take charge of their own growth.

It’s hard to get through a single day without seeing or hearing an invitation or exhortation to get involved in a student club, activity, organization, or event. And we’ve all seen the student email signature that lists membership in more groups than there is time in the day. But the most successful Augustana students aren’t the ones who are involved in a lot of stuff. Instead, the most successful students are the ones who focus on experiences that specifically impact their growth in learning more about themselves and learning more about how they can better relate to others. This bit of advice can get lost if we don’t emphasize it to our students – don’t just get involved in stuff, get involved in the right stuff.

In addition to choosing the right combination of involvement in activities, organizations, and events, successful first year Augustana students connect with CORE right away. They recognize the importance of the relationship between the things they do right now and the person they want to be when they graduate. All the services that CORE provides help students embrace and develop a sense of purpose and fuel an increasing sense of momentum in that direction. As simple as it might sound, students who start building a resume or a grad school portfolio during their first year are more likely to have a job or graduate school place at graduation – regardless of their college GPA. This isn’t magic or assembly line educating – it’s just that these students start considering and articulating the connection between what they are doing now and where they want to be four years from now.

So if you want to drop some knowledge on your students that is virtually guaranteed to make a difference, hit them with these three golden nuggets.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Three highlights from the 2016 Student Readiness Survey Results

As most of you know by now, we developed the Student Readiness Survey a few years ago to give us more nuanced information about key traits and dispositions that impact the nature of our student’s transition to college. Instead of basing our conclusions about readiness for college on indicators of a student’s academic preparation or intellectual strength, we wanted to zero in on the dispositions and traits that make a student successful in every aspect of the residential college experience. The results of this instrument have become a key piece of first-year advising and have turned out to be statistically predictive of numerous important developmental and learning outcomes.

The 36 statements on the survey describe a trait or a disposition. For each item, the respondent chooses from a response set that ranges from “never like me” to “always like me.” As an example, one item states, “I like to cooperate with others.” The response that a student selects gives us a glimpse into the way that he or she perceives him or herself regarding an important interpersonal skill that will undoubtedly shape the transition to residential college life.

As you might suspect, most of our student’s responses tend toward the kind of traits and dispositions that we’d like to see (i.e., if we look at the item about cooperation I listed above, scoring “never like me” =1 and “always like me” = 5 produces an average across all incoming students of 4.26). However, There are some dips in scores on a few items that might be telling.

There are six groups of items that are organized into categories, or as a stats geek would call them, scales. The scales attempt to capture:

  • Academic Confidence
  • Academic Habits
  • Comfort with Social Interaction
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Persistence and Grit
  • Stress Management

Interestingly, a gap seems to appear in the average scale scores that put these six scales into two groups. The scores for Academic Confidence, Persistence and Grit, and Interpersonal Skills each average between a 4.11 and 4.25. By contrast, Academic Habits, Stress Management, and Comfort with Social Interaction each average between 3.76 and 3.85. Even at its narrowest (i.e., 3.85 to 4.11), this gap is statistically significant, suggesting that this gap might be more than random chance. I’m not sure I have any answers – or even hypotheses – as to why this might be, but it seems to me that there might be something more fundamental going on here.

In addition, the three individual items with the lowest overall average scores all sit in the Academic Habits category.

  • When I am confused by an assignment, I seek help right away. (3.48)
  • I highlight key points when I read assigned materials. (3.39)
  • I start homework assignments early enough to avoid having to rush to complete them. (3.38)

Each of these items try to capture an element of academic habits that would indicate self-efficacy and the wherewithal to take assertive action in response to a challenge. These items seem to me to fit into a larger conversation about the degree to which we need to move many students from thinking that education “happens to them” to thinking that “they make their learning happen.”

In your conversation with students this week, just as they are starting to feel the first wave of readings and homework fully wash over them, it might make sense to consider the degree to which your students still need to shift from thinking that education happens to them to actively making their learning happen. Sometimes it turns out that we have to tell our students how to do what we want them to do just as much as we have to tell them what we want them to turn in. I am realizing how much I have forgotten about that difference as I am teaching an FYI 100 section for the first time.

So hang in there with your students, even when they give you that glazed look of overwhelminghood (I know it’s not a word, but you get the idea).

Make it a good day,

Mark

Something tells me this is gonna be a great year!

Good morning everyone!

Welcome to campus – no matter if you can’t remember being anywhere else in late August or if you are the first person in your family to start your fall on a college campus! No matter how you got here, how long you’ve been here, or how soon you’ll be diving into your next great adventure, I’m really glad each of you are here right now.

Somehow you’ve stumbled onto a blog called “Delicious Ambiguity” written by me, Mark Salisbury. (Ok, so I emailed you the link and you clicked on it thinking it might be important). I’m the Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Augustana College or, as some students have taken to calling me (a supreme compliment, IMHO) the Chief Nerd. I started writing this blog in 2011 as a column in the Faculty Newsletter. The goal then was to share snippets of Augustana data with everyone and hopefully encourage each of us to take a moment to ponder the implications of that data. Most of the time, it’s been statistical data (hence the name Chief Nerd), but sometimes it’s data that comes from interviews or focus groups. No matter the source, I try to explore data points that can help all of us – faculty, staff, and students alike – maximize our experience at Augustana. In case you’re wondering, if you ever think to yourself, “Why doesn’t Mark write about that?” send me an email or comment at the bottom of a blog post. If we’ve got the relevant data, I’ll try to write about it.

With every new group of students, be they traditional freshmen or non-traditional transfers, we gather a set of data points that help us better understand the breadth and depth of the diversity contained within that group. Tracking these data points is one way to remind all of us that cultivating a diverse and vibrant community is about exponentially more than just tracking skin color or biological sex.

Today I’d like to share two data tidbits from our incoming class that seem worth pondering.

First, 31.8% of our new students indicate that neither of their parents earned a four-year college degree. Certainly a substantial proportion of these students come from families where they are the first to go to any kind of college. Equally important, this is not a new phenomenon; this proportion has stayed near 30% since we began asking this question of incoming students in 2012 and, as best we can tell, Augustana has already enrolled a substantial proportion of “first generation” college students. While we can certainly parse the nuances of this student category, our reality remains that many students may not grasp the unstated but oft-assumed implications of our liberal arts college culture, both in terms of the intentions behind various policies or the behaviors that many of us enact every day without a second thought. Moreover, many of these students likely harbor an additional layer of internal anxiety about whether or not they truly “belong” in college at all, let alone a private institution like Augustana.

Second, Augustana’s growing enthusiasm for interfaith understanding in recent years couldn’t have come at a better time. Our incoming class is peppered with students from every kind of western and non-western faith. We have new students who self-identify as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, non-denomination, and a whopping 6% of students who categorized themselves as “other.” Oh, and to top it off, 16.7% of our incoming students identify as “no religious background” or “atheist.” I don’t know if this is a one-year phenomenon or if we’ve crossed a tipping point of some sort, but this year that group of students is larger than our incoming proportion of Lutheran students (14.4%).

These two data points hold important implications for the assumptions we make about individual students. All of us probably have some growing to do as we think about the way that we interact with each student. I certainly do. I’ve already made the mistake of assuming that someone I had just met came to Augustana from another country. Based on this faulty assumption, I made a comment that I wish I could take back because it might have been interpreted to reiterate the sense that I am a part of the “natural” in-group and they are still a member of a “probationary” out-group. I owe that person an apology, one that I intend to deliver soon.

I don’t say any of that to hold myself up as some grand example, but rather to suggest that adapting to this increasingly prevalent and multifaceted diversity is a process during which we are each likely to stumble. But in stumbling, depending on how we respond to it, we might just be able to communicate more clearly that we genuinely want to make Augustana a welcoming and inclusive place for everyone – no matter where they are from, who they are, or what they want to become.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Triangulating our assessment of quantitative literacy

Whether we like it or not, the ability to convey, interpret, and evaluate data affects every part of our personal and professional lives. So it’s not a surprise to find quantitative literacy among Augustana’s nine student learning outcomes. Yet, of all those outcomes, quantitative literacy may be the most difficult to pin down. First of all, this concept is relatively new when compared to other learning outcomes like intercultural competence or critical thinking. Second, there isn’t nearly the range measurement mechanisms – surveys or otherwise – that capture this concept effectively. And third, quantitative literacy is the kind of skill that is particularly susceptible to social desirability bias (i.e., the tendency to believe that you are better at a desirable intellectual skill than you actually are).

Despite the obstacles I noted above, the Assessment for Improvement Committee (AIC) felt like this was an outcome ripe for the assessing. First, we’ve never really measured quantitative literacy among Augustana students before (it wasn’t addressed in the Wabash National Study when we participated between 2008 and 2012). Second, it isn’t clear that we know how each student develops this skill, as we have defined it in our own college documents, beyond what a student might learn in a “Q” course required by the core curriculum. As a result, it’s entirely possible that we have established a learning outcome for all students that our required curriculum isn’t designed to achieve. Uh oh.

In all fairness, we do have one bit of data – imperfect as it is. A few years ago, we borrowed an idea from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and inserted a question into our senior survey that asked students to respond to the statement, “I am confident in my ability to interpret numerical and statistical quantities,” giving them five response options that ranged from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

Since we began asking this question, about 75% of seniors have indicated that they “agree” or “strongly agree” with that statement. Unfortunately, our confidence in that number began to wain as we looked more closely at those responses. For that number to be credible, we would expect to see that students from majors that have no quantitative focus were less confident in their quantitative abilities than students from majors that employed extensive quantitative methods. However, we found the opposite to often be the case. It turned out that students who had learned something about how complicated quantitative methods can be were less confident in their quantitative literacy skills than those students who had no exposure to such complexities, almost as if knowing more about the nuances and trade-offs that can make statistics such a maddeningly imperfect exercise had a humbling effect. In the end it appeared that in the case of quantitative literacy, ignorance might indeed be bliss (a funny story about naming another bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect).

So last year the AIC decided to conduct a more rigorous study of our students’ quantitative literacy skills. To make this happen, we first had to build an assessment instrument that matched our definition of quantitative literacy. Kimberly Dyer, our measurement ninja, spent weeks pouring over the research on quantitative literacy and the survey instruments that had already been created to find something that fit our definition of this learning outcome. Finally, she ended up combining the best of several surveys to build something that matched our conception of quantitative literacy and included questions that addressed interpreting data, understanding visual presentations of data, calculating simple equations (remember story problems from grade school?), applying findings from data, and evaluating the assumptions underlying a quantitative claim. We then solicited faculty volunteers who would be willing to take time out of their upper-level classes to give their students this survey. In the end, we were able to get surveys from about 100 students.

As you might suspect, the results of this assessment project provided a bit more sobering picture of our students quantitative literacy skills. These are the proportions of questions within each of the aforementioned quantitative literacy categories that students who had completed at least one Q course got right.

  • Interpreting data  –  41%
  • Understanding visual presentations of data  –  41%
  • calculating simple equations  –  45%
  • applying findings from data  –  52%
  • evaluating assumptions underlying a quantitative claim  –  51%

Interestingly, students who had completed two Q classes didn’t fare any better.  It wasn’t until students had taken 3 or more Q classes that the proportion of correct answers improved significantly.

  • Interpreting data  –  58%
  • Understanding visual presentations of data  –  59%
  • calculating simple equations  –  57%
  • applying findings from data  –  65%
  • evaluating assumptions underlying a quantitative claim  –  59%

There are all kinds of reasons that we should interpret these results with some caution – a relatively small sample of student participants, the difficulty of the questions in the survey, or the uneven distribution of the student participants across majors (the proportion of STEM and social science majors that took this survey was higher than the proportion of STEM and social science majors overall). But interpreting with caution doesn’t mean that we discount these results entirely. In fact, since prior research on students’ self-reporting of learning outcomes attainment indicates that students often overestimate their abilities on complex skills and dispositions, the 75% of students who agree or strongly agree is probably substantially higher than the proportion of graduates who are actually quantitatively literate. Furthermore, since the proportion of students who took this survey was skewed toward majors where quantitative literacy is a more prominent part of that major, these findings are more likely to overestimate the average student’s quantitative literacy than underestimate it. Triangulating these data with prior research suggests that our second set of findings might paint a more accurate picture of our graduates.

So how should we respond to these findings? To start, we probably ought to address the fact that there isn’t a clear pathway between what students are generally expected to learn in a “Q” course and what the college outcome spells out as our definition of quantitative literacy. That gap alone creates the condition in which we leave students’ likelihood of meeting our definition of quantitative literacy up to chance. So our first question might be to explore how we might ensure that all students get the chance to achieve this outcome; especially those students who major in disciplines that don’t normally include quantitative literacy skills.

The range of quantitative literacy, or illiteracy as the case might be, is a gnarly problem. It’s not something that we can dump onto an individual experience and expect that box to be checked. It’s hard work, but if we are serious about the learning outcomes that we’ve set for our students and ourselves, then we can’t be satisfied with leaving this outcome to chance.

Make it a good day,

Mark

A Motherload of Data!

It’s probably a bit of a reach to claim that the Institutional Effectiveness and Mission Fulfillment report (begrudgingly called the IEMF) is the cutting edge of data reporting, but it is true that this annual report is something that a lot of people work pretty hard on for several months at the end of each academic year. Unlike the college’s dashboard – a single page of data points that is supposed to cut the quantitative quick, the IEMF is a motherload of data and a treasure trove of information about Augustana College.

In past years we have posted the IEMF on the Institutional Research web page and hoped that people would look at it because, you know . . . nerd click-bait! Not since the first year that we produced this report have we hosted a public gathering to invite comment from anyone who might have an observation about the data and how it is conveyed. One thing I will not soon forget from that meeting was the degree to which data becomes political as soon as it becomes public, and therefore how important it is to convey precisely and anticipate how data presentations might be interpreted from different points of view.

With that in mind, I want to share with you the 2016 version of the IEMF. It is organized into nine sections that each cover different aspects of what and how we do what we do. For example, in the section titled Persistence, Graduation, and Attrition (p. 1) you might be interested in the distribution of reasons that students give for withdrawing and how those reasons might have changed over the last three years. Or, in the section titled Our Practices (p. 20) you might be interested in the rising costs to recruit a single student over the last three years. There are a lot of tidbits throughout the document that provide a glimpse into Augustana College – areas of strength, opportunities for growth, and how we compare to similar liberal liberal arts colleges around the country.

Click on the link below and swim in a river of data to your heart’s content.

2016_IEMF_Report

Certainly, the IEMF isn’t a perfect snapshot. Even though it has improved considerably from it’s first iteration several years ago, there are plenty of places where we wish our data were a little better or a little more precisely able to show who we are and what we do. Most importantly, this document isn’t intended to be a braggart’s bible. On the contrary, the IEMF is designed to be an honest presentation of Augustana College and of us. We aren’t perfect. And we know that. But we are trying to be as good as we can be with the resources we have. And in more than a few instances, we are doing pretty well.

Before I forget, a special and sincere “thank you” goes out to everyone who played a role in hunting down this data and putting the document together: Kimberly Dyer, Keri Rursch, Cindy Schroeder, Quan Vi, Erin Digney, Angie Williams, Katey Bignall, Kelly Hall, Randy Roy, Lisa Sears, Matt Walsh, Sheri Curran, Robert Scott, Jeff Thompson, Dom Sullivan, Katrina Friedrich, Bonnie Hewitt, Scott Dean, Shawn Beattie, and Kent Barnds.

So have a look. If you have any questions or critiques or suggestions, please send them to me. I’m genuinely looking for ways to improve this document.

For starters . . . anyone got any catchy ideas for a better name?

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Even more details regarding term-to-term retention

The more we dig into our retention data, the more interesting it gets. Earlier this term, I shared with you some of our findings regarding term-to-term retention rates. These data seem to suggest that we are slowly improving our within-year retention rates.

As always, the overall numbers only tell us so much. To make the most of the data we collect, we need to dig deeper and look at within-year retention rates for subpopulations of students that have historically left at a higher rate than their peers. Interestingly, this data might also tell us something about when these students are most vulnerable to departing and, as a result, when we might increase our focus on supporting their success.

The table below presents 2014-15 within-year retention rates of the five subpopulations of students that significantly deviated from the overall term-to-term retention rates. The percentages that are more than one point below the overall number are in red.

Student Demographic Group Fall to Winter Winter to Spring Fall to Spring
Overall 96.6% 97.6% 94.3%
Males 94.4% 95.9% 90.5%
Multicultural Students 98.7% 93.9% 92.7%
Gov’t Subsidized Loan Qualifiers 94.8% 97.6% 92.5%
Non IL/IA Residents 96.0% 90.0% 90.0%
First-Generation Students 95.3% 96.7% 92.3%

The first thing I’d like to highlight is a pair of subpopulations that aren’t on this list. Analyses of older data would no doubt highlight the lagging retention rates of students who came to Augustana with lower ACT scores or who applied test-optional (i.e., without submitting a standardized test score). However, in the 2014-15 cohort these subpopulations retained from fall to winter (96.9% and 97.9%, respectively) and from winter to spring (96.8% and 97.9%, respectively) at rates similar to the overall population. The winter-to-spring numbers are particularly encouraging because that is when first-year students can be suspended for academic performance. Although it would be premature to declare that this improvement results directly from our increased student support efforts, these numbers suggest that we may indeed be on the right track.

In looking at the table above, the highlighted demographic groups are probably not a surprise to those who are familiar with retention research. However, this table gives us  a glimpse into when certain groups are more vulnerable to departure. For example, male students’ retention rates are consistently lower than the campus average. By contrast, multicultural students were retained at a higher rate from fall to winter. But from winter to spring, our early success evaporated completely. Winter term might also play a role for non IL/IA residents who retain at rates similar to their peers from fall to winter but from winter to spring depart at a higher rate than the rest of the cohort.

Since this is only one year of data, I wouldn’t suggest making any emphatic claims based on it. But I do think that these findings should challenge us to think more deeply about the kind of support different types of student might need and when they might benefit most from it.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Improving Advising in the Major: Biology Drives our Overall Increase

Last week I shared a comparison of the overall major advising data from seniors in 2014 and 2015. Although not all of the differences between the two years of data met the threshold for statistical significance, taken together it seemed pretty likely that these improved numbers weren’t just a function of chance. As you might expect by now, another aspect of this finding piqued my curiosity. Is this change a result of a relatively small campus-wide improvement or are the increases in the overall numbers a result of a particular department’s efforts to improve?

Since the distribution of our seniors’ major choices leans heavily toward a few departments (about half of our students major in Biology, Business, Psychology, or Education), it didn’t take too long to isolate the source of our jump in major advising scores. Advising scores in Business, Psychology, and Education didn’t change much between 2014 and 2015. But in Biology? Something pretty impressive happened.

Below is a comparison of the increases on each advising question overall and the increases on each advising question for Biology and Pre-Med majors.  In particular, notice the column marked “Diff.”

Senior Survey Questions             Overall    Biology/PreMed
2014 2015  Diff 2014 2015  Diff
Cared about my development 4.11 4.22 +.11 3.70 4.02 +.32
Helped me select courses 3.93 4.05 +.12 3.49 3.90 +.41
Asked about career goals 3.62 3.73 +.11 3.39 3.81 +.42
Connected with campus resources 3.35 3.47 +.12 3.11 3.36 +.25
Asked me to think about links btwn curr., co-curr., and post-grad plans 3.41 3.57 +.16 3.04 3.48 +.44
Helped make the most of college 3.85 3.97 +.12 3.36 3.80 +.44
How often you talked to your adviser 3.62 3.51 -.11 3.09 3.27 +.18

It’s pretty hard to miss the size of the increased scores for Biology and Pre-Med majors between 2014 and 2015. In every case, these increased scores are three or four times larger than the increases in overall scores.  In a word: Impressive!

So what happened?

Advising is a longstanding challenge for Biology and Pre-Med faculty. For decades this department has struggled to adequately advise a seemingly endless flow of majors. Last spring, Biology and Pre-Med graduated almost 150 students and at the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year there were 373 declared majors in either program. Moreover, that number probably underestimates the actual number of majors they have to work with since many students declare their major after the 10th day of the term (when this data snapshot was archived).

Yet the faculty in the Biology and Pre-Med department decided to tackle this challenge anyway. Despite the overwhelming numbers, maybe there was a way to get a little bit better by making even more of the limited time each adviser spent with each student. Each faculty adviser examined senior survey data from their own advisees and picked their own point of emphasis for the next year. Several of the Biology and Pre-Med faculty shared with me the kinds of things that they identified for themselves. Without fail, each faculty member decided to make sure that they talked about CORE in every meeting, be it the resources available in CORE for post-graduate preparation or just the value of making a visit to the CORE office and establishing a relationship. Several others talked about making sure that they pressed their advisees to describe the connections between the classes they were taking and the co-curricular activities in which they were involved, pushing their students to be intentional with everything they chose to do in college. Finally, more than one person noted that even though advising had always been important to them, they realized how easy it was to let one or more of the the usual faculty stresses color their mood during advising meetings, (e.g., succumbing to the stress of an upcoming meeting or a prior conversation). They found ways to get themselves into a frame of mind that improved the quality of their interaction with students.

None of these changes seem all that significant by themselves.  Yet together, it appears that the collective effort of the Biology and Pre-Med faculty – even in the face of a continued heavy stream of students, made a powerful difference in the way that students’ rated their advising experience in the major.

Improvement isn’t as daunting as it might sometimes seem. In many cases, it just takes an emphasis on identifying small changes and implementing them relentlessly. So three cheers for Biology and Pre-Med. You’ve demonstrated that even under pretty tough circumstances, we can improve something by focusing on it and making it happen.

Make it a good day,

Mark

We’ve gotten better at advising, and we can (almost) prove it!

With all of the focus on reaccreditation, budget concerns, employee engagement, and the consideration of a different academic calendar, it seems like we’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on things that aren’t going well or aren’t quite good enough. However, in the midst of these conversations I think we might do ourselves some good to remember that we are in the midst of doing some things very well. So before we plunge ourselves into another brooding conversation about calendar, workload disparity, or budget issues, I thought we could all use a step back from the precipice and a solid pat on the back.

You’d have to have been trapped under something thick and heavy to have missed all of the talk in recent years about the need to improve advising. We’ve added positions, increased the depth and breadth of training, and aspired to adopt an almost idyllic conception of deeply holistic advising. This has stretched many of us outside of our comfort zones and required that we apply a much more intentional framework to something that “in the old days” was supposed to be a relaxing and more open-ended conversation between scholar and student.

With this in mind, I thought it might be fun to start the spring term by sharing a comparison of 2014 and 2015 senior survey advising data.

Our senior survey asks seven questions about major advising. These questions are embedded into a section focused on our seniors’ experience in their major so that we can be sure that the student’s responses refer to their advising experience in each of their majors (especially since so many students have more than one major and therefore more than one major adviser). The first six questions focus on aspects of an intentional and developmental advising experience. The last question provides us with a way to put those efforts into the nitty gritty context of efficiency. In an ideal world, our student responses would show a trend toward higher scores on the first six questions, while average scores for the seventh question would remain relatively flat or even declining somewhat.

Here is a list of the senior survey advising questions and the corresponding response options.

  • My major adviser genuinely seemed to care about my development as a whole person. (strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree)
  • My major adviser helped me select courses that best met my educational and person goals. (strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree)
  • How often did your major adviser ask you about your career goals? (never, rarely, sometimes, often, very often)
  • My major adviser connected me with other campus resources and opportunities (OSL, CORE, the Counseling Center, etc.) that helped me succeed in college. (strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree)
  • How often did your major adviser ask you to think about the connections between your academic plans, co-curricular activities, and your career or post-graduate plans? (never, rarely, sometimes, often, very often)
  • My major adviser helped me plan to make the most of my college career. (strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree)
  • About how often did you talk with your primary major adviser? (never, less than once per term, 1-2 times per term, 2-3 times per term, we communicated regularly through each term)

A comparison of overall numbers from seniors graduating in 2014 and 2015 seems to suggest a reason for optimism.

Senior Survey Question 2014 2015
Genuinely cared about my development 4.11 4.22
Helped me select the right courses 3.93 4.05
How often asked about career goals 3.62 3.73
Connected me with campus resources 3.35 3.47
How often asked to think about links between curricular, co-curricular, and post-grad plans 3.41 3.57
Helped me make the most of my college career 3.85 3.97
How often did you and your adviser talk 3.62 3.51

As you can tell, the change between 2014 and 2015 on each of these items aligns with what we would hope to see. We appear to be improving the quality of the student advising experience without taking more time to do so. Certainly this doesn’t mean that every single case reflects this overall picture, but taken together this data seems to suggest that our efforts to improve are working.

I suspect that more than a few of you are wondering whether or not these changes are statistically significant. Without throwing another table of data at you, here is what I found. The change in “how often advisers asked students to think about the links between curricular, co-curricular, and post-grad plans” (.16) solidly crossed the threshold of statistical significance. The change in “genuinely cared about my development” (.11) was not statistically significant. The change in each of the other five items (from .12 to .15) turned out to be “marginally significant,” meaning, in essence, that the difference between the two average scores is worth noting even if it doesn’t meet the gold standard for statistical significant.

The reason I would argue that these changes, when taken together, are worth noting is a function of looking at all of these changes together. The probability that all seven of these items would move in our intended direction randomly is less than 1% (.0078 to be exact). In other words, it’s likely that something is going on that would push all of these items in the directions we had hoped. Given the scope of our advising emphasis recently, these findings seem to me to suggest that we are indeed on the right track.

I know that there are plenty of reasons to pull the “correlation doesn’t equal causation” handbrake. But I’m not arguing that this data is inescapable proof. Rather, I’m arguing that these findings make a pretty strong case for the possibility that our efforts are producing results.

So before we get ourselves tied into knots about hard questions and tough choices over the next 10 weeks, maybe take a moment to remember that we can tackle issues that might at first seem overwhelming. It might not be easy, but where is the fun in “easy”?

Make it a good day,

Mark