Retention, part deux: Freshman survey data to the rescue!

In last week’s Delicious Ambiguity post we dove into the deep end of the data pool regarding retention and the complexity of the problem. Our institutional data shows that the factors shaping our student’s decisions to withdraw or persist are influenced by characteristics that students bring with them to college as well as experiences that they have during their first year. Moreover, it’s clear that addressing this issue requires “all hands on deck” if we are to make any demonstrable progress.

But knowing that information by itself leaves us far short of actually knowing what to do differently. For us to improve our retention rates we need to know which student experiences matter most in shaping their decision to persist. We need to identify specific experiences over which we have substantial and concrete influence. Information about more general experiences, even if they are specific to one aspect of the college experience, is not enough. For example, both of the items below predict our students’ general sense of belonging on campus.

  • “My day to day experiences in my residence hall have helped me feel like I fit in at Augustana.”
  • “I know that my Community Adviser (CA) cares about how I am doing at Augustana.”

Although both findings might appear interesting, the item addressing our CA’s impact on students’ sense of well-being is more specifically prescriptive, providing tangible guidance for designing the role of CAs as well as the way that we select, train, and assess their efforts.

Similarly, if we can collect and link granular experience data to bigger picture retention data, we will be more likely to glean specific direction from our data analyses that ultimately helps us improve retention. This was our big aspiration when we altered our freshman survey’s design last year, gathering more specific experience data about academic acclimation and social integration midway through the first year. After analyzing last year’s responses, I’m excited to share several specifically actionable findings that appear to increase the likelihood of persistence.

After last week’s examination of some retention trends involving race, gender, socioeconomic status (SES), and pre-college preparation, we applied those findings to run some statistical models that combined data from our institutional data, our student readiness survey, and our mid-year freshman survey. All of the findings I share below hold true after taking into account race, gender, SES, pre-college preparation (ACT). We then added items from the freshman data that might influence retention above and beyond those four pre-college characteristics. In the end, two items produced statistically significant effects.

The first item producing a statistically significant positive effect on retention addressed a very specific aspect of the LSFY/Honors experience.

  • My LSFY/Honors instructor helped me develop at least one specific way to be a more successful college student.

Just as so many other researchers have found previously, students often need guidance in figuring out how to successfully navigate college. This means so much more than just knowing how to react to trouble in a class or with a roommate. Instead, this means knowing how to take control of the experience in order to make the most of it in preparation for life next month, next term, or next year.  Our finding suggests that LSFY and Honors instructors who taught students at least one specific way to proactively engage college as a student actually contributed directly to student persistence. And this finding held regardless of incoming ACT score, suggesting that this kind of learning is valuable for all students no matter their pre-college academic preparation.  As LSFY continually explores ways to make that course more effective, this finding seems well worth incorporating into that discussion.

The second item that produced a statistically significant effect addressed a more general sense of social integration.

  • I feel like I belong on campus.

Although this is interesting, we needed to dig further to come up with more concrete guidance toward future improvement. After peeling back another layer of the onion, we found that very kind of guidance.

This time, in addition to accounting for race, gender, SES, and ACT score, we decided to add comfort with social interaction to the mix. Interestingly, in the end comfort with social interaction still produced a statistically significant positive effect, suggesting that despite everything that we might do to influence students’ sense of belonging, more reserved students are likely to still feel less of a sense of belonging than more outgoing students at the midpoint of the first year. However, this effect appears to vanish by the end of the first year, supporting the contention that more reserved students may simply need more time to find their niche on campus.

Under these analytic conditions, we found granular experience guidance for faculty, both as instructors and as advisers, and for student affairs professionals that appear to influence student’s sense of belonging. The two items addressing faculty interactions with students were:

  • My first year adviser made me feel like I could succeed at Augustana.
  • How often have your instructors pointed out something you did well on an assignment or in class?

Again, these findings held even after accounting for incoming ACT score. In other words, regardless of a student’s academic “ability,” faculty communicating to students that they can succeed and pointing to something that they have done well appears to contribute to a student’s sense of belonging on campus. This doesn’t mean that faculty should pull punches or tell students that they are doing well when they are not. Instead, this suggests to me the faculty play a critical role in contributing to student’s belief that they can succeed and then finding positive reinforcement to show them the way.

We found two items predicting a sense of belonging on campus that provide some concrete guidance for working with students outside of class.

  • Fall Connection provided the start I needed to succeed academically at Augustana.
  • I know that my Community Adviser cares about how I am doing at Augustana.

Although the item addressing Fall Connection (now called Welcome Week) seems fairly general, I think it further emphasizes the importance of the changes introduced this year to increase the emphasis on academic preparation. Based on last year’s data (prior to this elevated academic emphasis), this aspect of Fall Connection mattered significantly. In addition, I am particularly intrigued by the nature of the CAs impact on students’ sense of belonging. This kind of guidance provides pretty clear direction in designing the nature of CAs conversations with students.

All of these findings together simply confirm that we all play a significant role in shaping our students’ decision to persist at Augustana College. I hope we can find ways to further convert these findings into concrete action. As with so many other aspects of college students’ experience, it’s not what they do; it’s how they experience what they do.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Let’s talk retention (a.k.a., how to start a fight on campus)

Ok, so that headline might sound a little dramatic. Yet even on the most collegial of campuses, a serious conversation about retention rates – especially if that number has gone in the wrong direction over the last year or two – can quickly devolve into wave of finger pointing and rekindle a litany of old grudges.

We’ve all heard the off-handed comments. “If admissions would just recruit better,” “If faculty would just teach better,” “If student affairs would just help students fit in better,” “If financial aid would just award more money.” Lucky for me, all of these assertions are testable claims. And since we have the data . . . (cue maniacal laughter).

Yet using our data to find a culprit would fly in the face of everything that we are supposed to be about. We say that our students learn because of the holistic nature of the Augustana experience. And analyzing our student data by individual characteristics implies that our students are somehow one-dimensional robots. Most importantly, if we want to improve, then we have to assess with the specific intent of starting a conversation – not ending it. That means that we have to approach this question with the assumption that we are all critical contributors to retaining students.

This year’s first-to-second year retention rate isn’t great.  At 82.9%, it’s the lowest it’s been in five years. In the context of the Augustana 2020′s target retention rate of 90%, there is certainly reason for raised eyebrows. To understand what is going on underneath that overall number, it’s worth looking at our data in a way that mirrors the students’ interaction with Augustana up until they decide to stay or leave. So let’s organize these trends into two categories: students’ pre-college demographic traits and the students’ first year experiences.

Scholars of retention research generally point to five pre-college demographic traits that most powerfully impact retention: gender, race, socioeconomic status, academic preparation, and first generation status. Below is five-year trend data across these categories.

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Overall 87.8% 87.6% 84.4% 84.9% 82.9%
Female 91.2% 89.6% 85.7% 90.1% 82.7%
Male 83.6% 85.0% 82.8% 78.6% 83.2%
White 88.1% 89.0% 84.4% 85.8% 84.2%
Multicultural 87.0% 82.6% 85.6% 81.3% 78.4%
Pell grant recipient 78.4% 83.3% 84.0% 81.3% 80.8%
Only qualified for loans 88.7% 87.4% 83.5% 83.3% 81.2%
Did not qualify for need aid 90.6% 90.6% 86.2% 89.5% 86.7%
First generation data not collected until 2012 83.0% 80.8%
ACT <= 22 77.8% 82.1% 83.3% 75.0% 78.6%
ACT 23-25 90.5% 89.5% 84.3% 87.7% 84.9%
ACT 26-27 92.4% 88.2% 83.0% 90.4% 83.8%
ACT >=28 91.0% 90.9% 89.0% 87.0% 82.2%
Test Optional 76.7% 75.0% 75.8% 81.3% 84.8%
ACT top three quartiles 91.0% 89.9% 85.3% 88.3% 83.9%

As you can see, our own data suggests a more complicated picture. Although nationally women persist at higher rates than men, our data flipped last year when persistence among men actually eclipsed persistence among women. Our retention rate for multicultural students (our euphemism for non-white students) has trended steadily downward, a fact made more pressing by a steady increase in the number of multicultural students. Although we haven’t tracked first-generation status for more than a few years, this retention rate has also dropped while the number of first generation students has increased. While our retention rate of Pell Grant recipients (those students with the highest need) has increased slightly, the retention rates of students who only qualified for loans has dropped steadily. At the same time, the retention rate of students from the highest socioeconomic status has dropped a bit.

Finally, academic preparation retention rates paint an interesting picture. The national data would suggest that our worst retention rates should be among those students who come from the lowest ACT quartile. At Augustana, those students’ retention rates are also lower and haven’t changed much. By contrast, the retention rates of students from each of the other three quartiles, although they are still higher than the lowest quartile, dropped substantially between 2012 and 2013. Interestingly, the retention rate of the students who applied test-optional has gone up almost 8 points over the past five years.

But students’ likelihood of persisting to their second year is not etched in stone before they start college. Another way to look at some of these trends is to examine the characteristics of the students who leave against those traits that might indicate an experience that differs from the mainstream in some important way – especially if we know that this difference in experience might affect the calculus by which the student determines whether it is worth the time, money, and emotional investment to stay. So as you look through this table, remember that these percentages are the proportion of departed students who fit each category.

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
cumulative GPA was below 2.5 57.3% 50.5% 47.3% 43.4% 39.3%
Male 60.0% 51.6% 47.3% 63.6% 45.8%
Female 40.0% 48.4% 52.7% 36.4% 54.2%
White 68.0% 73.1% 78.2% 71.7% 69.2%
Multicultural 9.3% 21.5% 16.4% 28.3% 30.8%
Pell grant recipient 29.3% 32.3% 25.5% 31.3% 31.8%
Only qualified for loans 36.0% 38.7% 47.3% 46.5% 42.1%
Did not qualify for need aid 34.7% 29.0% 27.3% 22.2% 26.2%
First Generation 24.2% 30.8%
ACT <=22 32.0% 28.0% 20.9% 30.3% 25.2%
ACT 23-25 21.3% 23.7% 28.2% 23.2% 26.2%
ACT 26-27 12.0% 19.4% 20.9% 11.1% 15.9%
ACT >=28 21.3% 19.4% 18.2% 24.2% 24.3%

Much of this data corroborates what we saw in the examination of retention rates by pre-college characteristics in the case of gender, race, socioeconomic status, first generation status, and academic preparation. However, one new trend adds some interesting nuance to the impact of the first year experience on retention. If we look at the proportion of departing students who are also in academic difficulty when they left, there is a clear differences of almost 20 percentage points among those who had less than a 2.5 GPA when they left. In other words, far fewer of our departing students are in a position where their grades might be the primary reason for their departure. This suggests to me that, if they aren’t departing because of grades, then there are other key elements of the first year experience that would be primary contributors to the decision to depart.

We aren’t going to answer the question of what is negatively impacting retention today. Even if we were to pinpoint a significant factor in a particular year, because the nature of each class differs, evidence from one year might be entirely useless the next. My point today is simply to highlight the degree to which all of us impact retention together.

I’d like to think that on some level we know that finger pointing is foolish. Yet in an environment where we are simultaneously immersed in our own silos and entirely dependent on the efforts of others (e.g., faculty don’t have a job if admissions doesn’t recruit anyone), it doesn’t seem all too surprising that such behavior (especially if budgets are under threat) might surface despite the best of intentions. So maybe if you hear someone grouse about retention rates and “rounding up the usual suspects,” you’ll remind them that we are in this together. If we fail to improve, it won’t be because someone didn’t do their job – it will be because we all didn’t pull together.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

 

 

The gnarly problem of effective feedback

All too often we talk about feedback as if it’s something that either happens or doesn’t. Students get feedback or they don’t. Faculty give feedback or they don’t. Moreover, all too often I think it’s easy for people like me to unintentionally imply that if students would just get the right feedback at the right time, they would respond to it like budding valedictorians.

However, the concept we are really talking about is much more complicated than just simple information given in response to information. At its fullest, effective feedback encompasses a recursive sequence of precisely timed instructor actions intertwined with positive student responses that produces a change in both the quality of the student effort AND the quality of the student work. Yet despite our best efforts, we know that we have only partial control over this process (since the student controls how he or she responds to feedback) even as we agonize over our contribution to it. So it doesn’t help when if feels like what we hope for and what we get are two very different things.

In this context it’s no wonder that raising the issue of effective feedback can cut close to the quick. All of us do the work we do because we care about our students. To those who burn the midnight oil to come up with just the right comments for students, suggesting that we could improve the quality of the feedback we provide to students could easily come off as unfair criticism. To those who think that there isn’t much point in extended feedback because students today rarely care, raising the issue of faculty feedback seems like preaching to the (wrong) choir.

I, for one, have not always been precise enough in my own language about the issue of effective feedback. So I ought to start by offering my own sincere mea culpa. The conversations we’ve had on campus over the last month about gathering more comprehensive data on our students’ progress early in the term have helped me think much more carefully about the concept of feedback and the ways that we might approach our exploration of it if we are to get better at what we do. With that in mind, I’d like to share some recent data from our freshmen regarding feedback and suggest that we explore more deeply what it might mean.

For the last several years we’ve asked freshmen to respond to the statement, “I had access to my grades or other feedback early enough in the term to adjust my study habits or seek help as necessary.” The five response options ranged from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

Two events combined to start our consideration of a question like this. First, changes in federal financial aid law steepened the ramifications for dropping classes, making it critical that students know their status in a course prior to the drop date. In addition, we had been hearing from a number of people who work with struggling students that many of those students hadn’t realized they were struggling until very late in the term. Recognizing the pervasiveness of willful blindness among many of those same struggling students, it took us a while to phrase this question in a way that at least allowed for the difference between students who simply never looked at their grades or other relevant feedback versus students who never received a graded assignment until the second half of the term.

Here is the distribution of responses from last year’s mid-year freshman survey.

I had access to my grades or other feedback early enough in the term to adjust my study habits or seek additional academic help.

strongly disagree 62 16%
disagree 111 30%
neutral 75 20%
agree 104 28%
strongly agree 24 6%

What should we take from this? Clearly, this isn’t the distribution of responses that we’d all like to see. At the same time, the meaning of this set of responses isn’t so easily interpreted. So here are some suppositions that I think are probably worth exploring further.

Maybe students are, in fact, regularly ignoring specific improvement-focused feedback that they get from their instructors. Maybe they assume that since the assignment is already graded, any comments from the instructor are not applicable to improving future work. Given the “No Child Left Behind” world in which our students grew up, it seems likely that they would need substantial re-educating on the way that they use feedback if the feedback we provide is specifically designed to guide and improve future work.

On the other hand, maybe students are getting lots of feedback, but it isn’t the kind of feedback that would spur them to recalibrate their level of effort or apply the instructor’s guidance to improve future work. Maybe the feedback they get is largely summative (i.e., little more than a grade with basic descriptive words like “good” and “unclear”) and they aren’t able (for whatever reason) to convert that information into concrete actions that they can take to improve their work.

Maybe students really aren’t getting much feedback at all until the second half of the term. If they are taking courses that are organized around a midterm exam, a final paper, and a final exam, then there would be no substantive feedback to provide early in the term. Given the inclination of some (i.e., many) students to rationalize their behaviors in the absence of hard evidence, this combination of factors could spell disaster.

Finally, maybe students are getting feedback that is so thoroughly developmental in nature that it is difficult for the student to benchmark their effort along a predictive trajectory.  In other words, maybe the student knows exactly what they need to do in order to improve a particular paper, but they don’t understand that partial improvement won’t necessarily translate into the grade that they wanted or believed they might receive based on the kindness and empowering nature of the instructor’s comments.

The truth is that all of these scenarios are reasonable and in no way suggest abject failure on the part of the instructor. And it is highly likely that all students experience some combination of these four scenarios through the academic year.

Whatever the reason, our own data suggests that there is something gumming up the works when it comes to creating a fluid and effective feedback loop in which students’ effort and performance is demonstrably influenced by the application of the feedback provided to them.

What should we do next? I’d humbly suggest that we dig deeper. To do that, we need to know more about the kind of feedback students receive, the way that they use or don’t use feedback, the ways that students learn to use feedback more effectively, and the ways that instructors can provide feedback more efficiently.  In other words, we need the big picture. Maybe the new mid-term reporting system will help us with that.  But even if it doesn’t, we still would do ourselves some good to look more closely at 1) the result that we intend from the feedback we give, and 2) the degree to which the feedback we give aligns with that intent.

If history is any predictor of our potential, I think we are more than capable of tackling the gnarly problem of effective feedback.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Studying at the CSL: Benefits that might exceed preparing for class

When Augustana faculty, staff, and administrators were discussing the possibility of a single building that combined student life offices, a dining hall, multiple academic services, and the Tredway Library under one roof, one of the suggested advantages to such a design was grounded in the potential for proximity and efficiency. The proximity argument asserted that students would take advantage of more opportunities and services because these offices were conveniently located together. The efficiency argument claimed that students who already intended to use many of these services would be able to do so more quickly and easily.

Unfortunately, we will never be able to produce iron-clad proof that the Center for Student Life (CSL) has lived up to its billing. That would require building an identical Augustana College campus on which we did NOT build a CSL connected to a Tredway Library so that we could compare student behaviors under both conditions (how’s that for a fund-raising challenge!). However, now that we have a year of Gävle gatherings and “all-you-care-to-eat” dining under our collective belts, we ought to be able to examine our student data to see if use of the CSL is contributing to student growth and success.

So let’s start with the aforementioned rationales for attaching the CSL to the Tredway Library.

  • The proximity of academic and student life offices and facilities would collectively boost student use of academic services and involvement in student groups.
  • The convenience of locating all these facilities and services in one place would help students engage the totality of the Augustana experience more efficiently.

In last year’s freshman surveys, we asked several questions that we can analyze together to test these assertions. The question central to today’s analysis asked, “How often did you study – by yourself or in small groups – in any part of the CSL/Tredway library building?” Although this question focuses on academic pursuits, if the prior assertions hold true responses to this question ought to correlate positively with increased use of academic resources, increased involvement in student groups, and growth on some important developmental or learning outcome of the freshman year.

It turns out that the Center for Student Life appears to be functioning exactly as we hoped it would. Even after accounting for differences in gender, race, incoming academic ability, and socio-economic status, the frequency of students’ studying in the CSL or Tredway Library predicted a stronger response to the statement “I took advantage of academic support resources (faculty office hours, reading and writing center, tutors, study groups, etc.) when I could benefit from their help.” Likewise, the frequency of studying in the CSL or Tredway Library building predicted stronger agreement to the statement “I am participating in at least one student group/organization that interests me.”

Finally, students’ frequency of studying in the CSL/Tredway Library significantly predicted their agreement with the statement, “During the year I got better at balancing my academics with my out-of-class activities.” By comparison, students’ frequency of studying in their dorm room produced no such relationship.

So what does all of this mean? In short, the Center for Student Life seems to be cultivating the kind of student behavior patterns that improve multiple aspects of their engagement as well as a key aspect of their development. The more time students spend studying in the CSL/Tredway Library, the more likely they are to use the academic resources they need when they need them, find and join student groups that fit their interests, and improve their ability to balance all the in-class and out-of-class elements of the Augustana experience that we believe are important for learning. These findings suggest that we ought to take a hard look at students’ propensity to study in their dorm rooms (75% of last year’s freshmen spent at least half of their study time in their dorm rooms) and the ways that we guide them to make more effective use of space and place.

Moreover, this is the kind of guidance that students need to hear over and over. In many cases our students are coming from life experiences where they didn’t leave their homes – or even their rooms – to study. In addition, they may not know much about the importance of establishing effective behavior patterns or conditions most conducive to learning.  We know that a fundamental difference between high school and college success lies in the shift to a more assertive approach to learning, and the idea that one would find a distinct location to study is a longstanding example of such an approach to college.

Based on our freshman data, the benefits of the CSL seem pretty clear. This isn’t to say that the CSL is perfect or that there aren’t other things that we could do to improve the building or the way that we use it. But in terms of its effect on increasing the quality of our students’ experience and helping Augustana meet its educational mission, the CSL seems to be off to a good start.

But the building isn’t so effective that it will magically suck students into some sort of learning vortex. If they don’t use it, then it’s of little use. So I hope that you will strongly encourage your students to put themselves in a position to reap benefits of the CSL and the Tredway Library.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

It’s Nice When a Plan Comes Together

As we claw our way toward the finish line at the end of another spring term, it isn’t hard to look around and see proof of our passion for our students’ development.  But one disadvantage of working in the unusually autonomous environment of a small college is that we don’t often get the chance to step back and enjoy the totality of our collective efforts. So in my last post of the 2013-14 academic year, I hope this data I share below will give you a chance to revel in our success and take some real pride in what we have accomplished together.

A few weeks ago, Gallup released the summary report of its first large-scale study of college graduates (they hope to make this an annual study).  The project, titled the Gallup-Purdue Index, explored the relationship between undergraduate experiences and the nature of college graduates’ engagement at work and overall well-being.  You can read some of the reviews of these findings in The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed (or the actual report) here. Essentially, after surveying over 30,000 individuals across the country, Gallup found what we have known for a very long time: the quality of student-faculty interaction is fundamentally important to a college graduate’s long-term quality of life.

Interestingly, the various questions on which the Gallup findings are based look awfully familiar.  That is because we’ve been asking many of the same questions for years now, and using that data to inform our work and our perpetual effort to improve.  So I thought it would be nice to take a moment to step back, compare the responses from our students to those questions with the responses from the Gallup study participants, and smile.

Below I list each of the Gallup data points followed by a couple of similar Augustana data points.

Gallup-Purdue Index

  • I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning.
    • 63% strongly agree

Augustana Senior Survey

  • My one-on-one interactions with faculty have had a positive influence on my intellectual growth and interest in ideas.
    • 54% strongly agree + 37% agree
  • I really worked hard to meet my instructors’ expectations.
    • 45% very often + 39% often

Gallup-Purdue Index

  • My professors at [College] cared about me as a person.
    • 27% strongly agree

Augustana Senior Survey

  • Faculty in my major cared about my development as a whole person.
    • 52% strongly agree + 34% agree
  • My major advisor genuinely seemed to care about my development as a whole person.
    • 50% strongly agree + 28% agree
  • The faculty with whom I have had contact were interested in helping students grow in more than just academic areas.
    • 41% strongly agree + 48% agree

Gallup-Purdue Index

  • I had a mentor who encourage me to pursue my goals and dreams.
    • 22% strongly agree

Augustana Senior Survey

  • Faculty in my major knew how to help me prepare to achieve my post-graduate plans.
    • 37% strongly agree + 38% agree
  • How often did you major advisor ask you about your career goals and aspirations?
    • 84% very often, often, or sometimes
  • I am certain that my post-graduate plans are a good fit for who I am right now and where I want my life to go.
    • 41% strongly agree + 36% agree

Gallup-Purdue Index

  • I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete.
    • 32% strongly agree

Augustana Senior Survey

  • 100 % Participation in Senior Inquiry
  • My senior inquiry project challenged me to produce my best possible intellectual work.
    • 44% strongly agree + 34% agree
  • During my senior inquiry project I learned a lot about myself (work habits, handle setbacks, manage a larger project, etc.) in addition to the topic of my paper/project.
    • 42% strongly agree + 38% agree

Gallup-Purdue Index

  • I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom.
    • 29% strongly agree

Augustana Senior Survey

  • 60% Participation in an Internship
  • My out-of-class experiences have helped me connect what I learned in the classroom with real-life events.
    • 22% strongly agree + 54% agree
    • 65% of seniors work on campus

Gallup-Purdue Index

  • I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College].
    • 20% strongly agree

Augustana Senior Survey

  • How many student groups or clubs did you find that fit your interests?
    • 32% many + 48% some

Gallup-Purdue Index

  • I feel emotionally attached to [College].
    • 18% strongly agree

Augustana Senior Survey

  • I felt a strong sense of belonging on campus.
    • 24% strongly agree + 43% agree
  • If you could relive your college decision, would you choose Augustana again?
    • 40% definitely yes + 33% probably yes

While the senior survey data we highlighted in this table came from the 2013 senior class, these responses aren’t any different from the 2012 class or the class that will graduate in this weekend.  So take a moment, even in the midst of all the last minute craziness and stress the comes with finishing out the last term of an academic year, and pat a colleague on the back today.  Because we do this together.  And we have every right to be proud of ourselves, each other, and the work that we do.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Trying out some first year learning outcomes

This year we tried something new with our freshman survey. Instead of administering the entire survey in the spring term, we split it into two pieces; one part administered in the middle of the year and one part administered at the end of the year, concentrating our questions in the mid-year survey on academic and social acclimation and focusing the end-of-the-year survey on learning and development. This allowed us to get much better data from struggling students, who often are no longer enrolled in the spring. It also allowed us to link the conceptual emphases of each part of the survey with what students were more likely to be experiencing at the time when they took the survey.

Over the last couple of months I’ve shared some of the findings from the mid-year survey -findings that can help us improve our support of students’ acclimation to college life. In this post I’d like to share some early learning and development findings from the end-of-the-first-year survey. The two items below are a few of the new items we added to the end-of-the-first-year survey as potential outcomes of the first year. You’ll notice in the phrasing of the questions that we approached these outcomes developmentally. In other words, we don’t conceive of freshman year outcomes as absolute thresholds that have to be met at the end of the first year. Instead, we think of the first year as a part of a larger process in which students move at different speeds and at different times. In the end, we are trying to get a sense of the degree to which freshmen believe that they have made progress toward one skill and one disposition that undergird a successful college experience.

During the year I got better at balancing my academics with my out-of-class activities.
Strongly disagree 8 5%
Disagree 10 6%
Neutral 35 21%
Agree 84 51%
Strongly agree 29 17%
Over the past academic year, I have developed a better sense of who I am and where I want my life to go.
Strongly disagree 2 1%
Disagree 15 9%
Neutral 41 25%
Agree 71 43%
Strongly agree 37 22%

In both cases, there appears to be reason to smile and reason to frown.  On one hand, about two-thirds of the freshmen respondents agree or strongly agree with these statements. While one could quibble about whether some of these students were already fully capable of balancing their academic and out-of-class responsibilities or already had a strong sense of self, direction, and purpose, I think it is fair to suggest that students are more likely responding to the phrasing about their own perceptions of personal growth.

On the other hand, about a third of our students indicated neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree to these questions. While there are probably more than few potential explanations that are outside of our control, I suspect that future analysis, once all of our data is cleaned and recoded for analytic purposes (that is fancy talk for “turned into numbers that statistical geeks like to use to play in the statistics sandbox”), will help us understand some of the experiences that positively and negatively predict students’ responses to these items.

Then comes the really hard work.  What do we do with that knowledge?  I hope we will do what we are learning to do more often: change our practices and/or policies to improve our students development and learning.  So stay tuned as we unpack all of our new data. And PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE if you have any freshmen in your classes, implore them to complete the freshmen survey that has been emailed to them several times over the last few weeks.

Make it a good day,

Mark

We’re all working our tails off!

This upcoming week includes the annual spring Board of Trustees meetings, so everyone of us up in Founders Hall are scurrying up and down and back and forth putting together data reports and prepping for two days of meetings. And since it’s week nine of the spring term, I know that most of you are in the same high push mode just to get through to the end of the month.

So even though I don’t have as much time to dedicate to this week’s post as I’d like, I thought I’d show you a couple of numbers that might surprise a few folks. It turns out that we – faculty, staff, and administrators – aren’t the only ones who are working our tails off.

In the last couple of years we’ve talked about the potential developmental benefits of student employment on campus. Yet even I was surprised by the proportion of our seniors who work a job, either on-campus or off-campus, during their senior year.

It turns out that 86% of our 2012-13 seniors worked a job for pay either on-campus of off-campus during their senior year.  And with most of this years’ seniors (514) responses recorded, 89% of our 2013-14 seniors worked either on-campus or off-campus. I suspect that these numbers are higher than what most faculty and staff would have guessed.

In both cases, most of those students work 10 hours or less per week.  However, there is a substantial proportion of our students who are working 20 hours or more each week.

Of course there are trade-offs within this reality. Our students may be learning many valuable skills through their work experience. However, this obligation takes time away from their ability to be involved on campus or put additional time into their academic pursuits.

Either way, unless Augustana wins a couple of state lotteries and puts it all into a fund for financial aid, this is going to be a reality for most of our students for the foreseeable future. We can either grouse about it or find ways to take advantage of it for the educational benefit of our students.

Hang in there and enjoy the wonderful spring weather.

Make it a good day.

Mark

One reason why a sense of belonging on campus matters

Over the past two years we’ve been asking seniors to give us a ballpark comparison of their participation rates in on-campus events during their junior and senior years.  We inserted this question into our senior survey for a couple of reasons.  First, we thought it would be useful to get a sense of whether our seniors maintained a similar level of campus engagement once they move off campus.  Since we describe ourselves as a four-year residential liberal arts college, it seemed appropriate to ask whether our seniors’ participation patterns met the spirit of such a claim even if, technically, the basic reality might not be quite so. Second, given the possibility that living off campus might set circumstances in motion that could decrease campus participation among seniors, we thought it would be useful to know if any particular experiences increased the likelihood that seniors continued to stay involved on campus despite living elsewhere.

Even though surveying this year’s seniors isn’t finished yet, the response to this question in each of the last two years suggests a clear change in campus engagement between the junior and senior year.  Here’s the distribution of responses for both classes of seniors.

“How often did you participate in on-campus events during your senior year?”

2012-13 Seniors

  • 4% – More than when I lived on campus
  • 54% – About the same as when I lived on campus
  • 41% – Less than when I lived on campus

2013-14 Seniors (with about 80% of the seniors’ responses submitted so far)

  •  4% – More than when I lived on campus
  • 46% – About the same as when I lived on campus
  • 49% – Less than when I lived on campus

Of course, there are a variety of opinions on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. There may be some value in seniors stretching their legs and starting the transition to independent life after college while they are still seniors. Similarly, there are more than a few opinions about whether we should try to build more residences on campus and require seniors to live in them. But as long as seniors continue to move off campus for their last year at Augustana, it seems to me that the question we ought to ask is (assuming that we would like to have our seniors involved in on campus events during their senior year – a foregone conclusion, I hope): what do we know about the factors that predict more campus involvement among our seniors? And how can we ensure these factors are equally experienced across our entire student community?

With the data we now have at our disposal, we can begin to peel back this onion a little bit. The guiding question for this analysis ultimately turned on whether or not the obligations of participation in formally organized activities (sports teams, music ensembles, student groups, etc.) explained all of the difference between seniors who stayed involved on campus and those who did not, or if there were other informal experiences that influenced on-campus participation above and beyond those obligations.

It turns out that the degree to which seniors said that they felt a strong sense of belonging on campus correlated significantly (in a statistical sense) with participation in on-campus events compared to the junior year, even after taking into account membership in athletics, music, Greek groups, or student clubs.

At first glance you might argue that this is self-evident.  And I wouldn’t argue with you one bit.  However, I’d add that, in the context of the way in which we currently organize our students’ college experience, this finding makes even more clear the importance of helping students feel like they belong on our campus.  We already know that this sense of belonging varies across student types and groups. For example, students in the Greek system on average feel a significantly stronger sense of belonging than non-Greek students. Similarly, some of our data suggests that students in some of the smaller STEM majors also feel a lower sense of belonging on campus. Based on these variations, once seniors move off campus, it is reasonable to suggest that the culture of our campus might be shaped in part by the type of seniors who choose to stay involved in campus events during their last year.  This, in turn, could perpetuate a similar variable sense of belonging across student types, and make it more likely that we cultivate a student culture that privileges some types of students more than others.

I’m not saying that we are desperately off-kilter or need some sort of radical readjustment in our student culture.  I’m only hoping to point out that a feeling of belonging is more than just an abstract feeling.  It has real consequences in student behaviors that in turn produce a demonstrable student culture with identifiable characteristics.  Finally, this finding also means that we shouldn’t consider ourselves powerless to change it.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Do we privilege extroverts?

Over the past couple of decades, researchers have uncovered all sorts of ways in which certain types of students experience college differently.  Racial and ethnic minority, international, LGBTQ, first-generation, lower SES, and even politically conservative students encounter marginalizing experiences that can undercut the quality of their education.  Interestingly, researchers examining systemic differences in the ways that students experience college have spent the vast majority of their energy parsing students by demographic traits.  Far fewer studies explore whether certain personality traits might disadvantage specific groups of students.  Today I want to describe some new findings from our own Augustana data regarding more introverted students.  I think these findings are worth considering seriously if we are going to ensure that all students are given an equal opportunity to feel like they belong on campus.

Two items in the mid-year freshman survey address key aspects of academic and social acclimation.  One question asks, “How many of your professors did you talk to outside of class about how to best succeed in their course?”  The other question asks students if they have “begun participating in at least one student organization that interests them.” We know acclimation is important because students who don’t acclimate to Augustana tend to feel like they don’t fit in and then are much more likely to struggle, leave, or both.  And we know about the connection between acclimation and a sense of belonging because we also ask freshmen in the mid-year survey about the degree to which they feel like they belong on campus.  In addition to a host of research findings that lay out the positive relationship between acclimation, fit, and student success, our analysis has produced similar findings in each of the last several years.

But now that we have been able to link the Student Readiness Survey (data collected in the summer prior to enrollment) with the mid-year freshman survey (data collected at the end of winter term), we can add a potentially important personal disposition to the mix. This measure is a three-item scale called Comfort with Social Interaction that asks students to indicate their level of comfort meeting new people and interacting in a large, unfamiliar social setting.  So the goal of this analysis was to see if, even after accounting for acclimating behaviors (talking to professors and joining student organizations), this personal disposition continued to impact students’ sense of belonging on campus.

First, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale produced a statistically significant positive effect (in a statistical sense) on the number of professors that freshmen talked to outside of class.  In other words, students who were less comfortable with social interaction were significantly less likely to talk to their professors than those students with high Comfort with Social Interaction scores.  This finding held even after controlling for gender (because we know that female students tend to seek out professors more often than their male counterparts).

Second, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale also produced a statistically significant positive effect on the likelihood that a student had begun participating in a student organization that interested them.  Put another way, students with lower Comfort with Social Interaction scores were significantly less likely to have begun participating in a student organization that interested them.

Finally, we investigated whether the Comfort with Social Interaction score might influence a freshman’s sense of belonging on campus even after taking into account whether or not he or she had joined a student organization.  Sure enough, even after accounting for joining a student organization, the Comfort with Social Interaction produced a statistically significant positive effect.  In fact, our analysis found that the degree of discomfort with social interaction (i.e. a low score on the above scale) could ultimately produce a larger negative impact on a sense of belonging on campus than simply not belonging to a student group.

Both of these findings seem to hold important implications independently.  The impact of a student’s comfort with social interaction on the number of professors he or she talked to outside of class is important because it suggests that simply inviting students to faculty office hours may not be enough, especially if the students who might benefit most from such interactions are also more introverted.  This may well mean that those students need some incentive to initiate such an interaction and “break the ice.”  Although we often infer that students who don’t come to office hours are less engaged in the course, this may well be a mistaken conclusion.  In addition, this finding might even translate to the nature of student participation in class discussion.

Indeed, there seem to be multiple instances in our interactions with freshmen where we seem to pathologize introversion.  In talking about these findings with some of the Student Affairs administrators, they reflected on how often residence hall staff or peer mentors might worry about students who they don’t see as often hanging out in common areas.  While it is possible that these students may be struggling, it is also true that they may simply prefer environments with fewer people.  Pressing these students to participate in activities that aren’t comfortable for them may well simply contribute to a sense of isolation and marginalization.  It may even be that our goals for freshman orientation don’t fully take into account the needs of our more introverted students at a time when they probably need us to show that we welcome them into our community too.

Taken together, these findings make me wonder if we have unintentionally created a culture at Augustana that privileges extroverts and makes it more difficult for introverts to find a niche.  I’ve had several conversations in the last year or two with faculty from disciplines that stereotypically enroll “less socially adept” individuals about their own senior survey data that hints at a lack of a “space” for those students on our campus.

I’m no where close to having some sort of smoking gun proof of such a cultural squeeze that pervasively excludes introverted students.  However, I think this is an issue that is worth considering more seriously.  So I would ask you, based on your own observations or experience might we privilege extroverts?  What do we do to make sure that more introverted students have the support necessary to acclimate – even if it takes them longer to do so?  How might we make our community more welcoming to all students regardless of their comfort with social interactions?

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

What Millennials Regret about College

A couple of months ago, The Pew Research Center published The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.  The primary finding of this study was pretty straightforward: Yes, a college degree predicts a substantially higher average income than those without a college degree.  Moreover, the gap in average salary between those with and without a college degree has widened, suggesting that a college degree is even more critical to individual economic success than it was for previous generations.

Although these findings add another powerful piece of evidence to rebut those who might argue that a college degree is no longer worth it, this study also asked respondents to reflect on several key within-college decisions and consider whether they should have done some things differently.  I thought I’d share on of these findings that I think might inform our work as we help our current students prepare for life after graduation.

The Pew survey asked, “Thinking back to when you were a college student, do you think that any of the following things would have better prepared you to get the kind of job you wanted, or not?”  The response options included choosing a different major, gaining more work experience, starting to look for work sooner, and studying harder.

By a substantial margin, respondents chose “gaining more work experience” more than any other option.  50% of the individuals surveyed indicated gaining more work experience, while 38% selected studying harder. Choosing a different major was selected least often (29% of respondents).  More interesting still, respondents categorized as millennials (those born after 1980 who were age 25 to 32 in 2013 when the survey was conducted) were much more likely to regret not gaining more work experience than older respondents.

I find this result interesting because millennial students are the ones who are most likely to have been met with a college engagement and involvement philosophy during their first year.  Although the theories of student engagement and involvement are several generations old, the popularity of the National Survey of Student Engagement and the NSSE juggernaut has helped turn student engagement and involvement into a pervasive theme across all types of higher education institutions.  Yet the proportion of individuals who indicated that gaining more work experience during college would have better prepared them to get the kind of job they wanted suggests to me that at least some proportion of those individuals recognize that they should have given up some of the time they spent doing other things in college in order to gain more work experience.  This work experience would have most likely been located off campus.  As such, this finding seems to throw a wrench into the engagement and involvement mantra.

With that said, it is true that increasing involvement and engagement in student organizations or other educationally purposeful activities was never included as an option on the survey.  So it’s entirely possible that these responses would have differed if that option had been included.  Interestingly, this omission does seem to indicate the degree to which at least one higher education research center thinks that student involvement and engagement might prepare students to succeed in their future employment.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t care about student engagement and involvement.  On the contrary, the evidence clearly indicates that these behaviors are crucial for student learning and success.  However, I think that it would do us good to revisit the way that we design many of the activities in which student participate.  For student activities and organizations – do the experiences coordinated by these organizations encompass aspects of accountability, long and short-term planning, problem-solving with consequences if the problem is not fixed (or if the solution produces negative unintended consequences), and image management?  Likewise, for on-campus student employment – are students asked to engage in complex work that requires them to think, plan, design, implement, and adapt?

Some of the explanation for the millennials’ response to this question may well result from the harsh economic conditions into which these student graduated in the last several years. However, I am not sure that this reality explains all or even part of their response. For there is a long list of institutional examples where involvement initiatives have focused on making sure that students feel satisfied in the present or feel like they fit in right now – a construct that focuses less on effectively preparing students for their future and more an making sure that they will like things at their present institutions enough to stay.

Of course, there are a lot of big-picture things we can do to impact whether the wealth of activities in which our students participate actually prepare them to succeed in the future. But one of the best things about the work we get to do is that we get to influence our students one by one.  So I hope you’ll find a way this week to help a student stretch him or herself and choose experiences that will best prepare them to succeed in the future, no matter if they aren’t quite as much fun in the present.

Make it a good day,

Mark