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,