On Student Success and Early Alerts

By Timothy O’Donnell, Associate Provost, Academic Engagement and Student Success

If you knew that a student was seeking to drop out or transfer, what would you do about it? Who would you call if a member of your class exhibited disruptive behaviors? What would you do if a student stopped coming to class? Would you say nothing? How would you reach out to a student who is performing poorly on assignments or not participating in the class discussions?

As faculty with a range of experiences and backgrounds, I imagine that we all have different answers to these questions—answers which are themselves dependent on the given in any particular situation. Some might pick up the phone and make a call to a colleague across campus that is positioned to provide assistance. Others might send an email to an advisor. Still others might gently pull the student aside after class for a private conversation. There is no singularly correct answer to such challenging, but all too common, situations. In all cases, a healthy dose of professional judgment is usually the best resource we have in finding the right tack to help students successfully navigate college.

However we respond, “nothing” is the one thing that we cannot do.

We all know that the days when college was a “sink or swim” enterprise for the privileged few are long gone. The democratization of public higher education in the United States over the past few decades has made the “student success agenda” a national imperative. As a result, colleges and universities across the country have invested heavily in efforts to retain and support the persistence to graduation of an increasingly diverse, and often underprepared, influx of undergraduates. And there is good reason for doing so. When a student “stops out” of college, the costs—individually, institutionally, and societally—are enormous. Fortunately, early interventions—interventions designed to match students with appropriate advice, support, and resources—have proven successful, both here and around the country.

As members of the UMW teaching faculty, we all share in the responsibility of speaking up, reaching out, and putting students in touch with those who are best positioned to enhance their chances for success. At its core, that’s what Starfish—our current retention management system—is all about; connecting students to those in the University who can make a difference.

Looking backward to when we first adopted Starfish a few years ago, we know that several of us have found it a valuable tool for setting up office hours and giving students opportunities to schedule appointments. We also know that some of us have used it as a resource for recording and maintaining paperless advising notes; a way to document what was discussed in our advising appointments. And, perhaps, going forward some of us will send out a “kudo”—a way to give a “thumbs up,” or a digital “like” for a student’s contributions in our classes (something that many of us already do with our friends on Facebook).

But, the one thing that we should all think seriously about doing—whether with Starfish’s early alert capabilities, the Registrar’s mid-term deficiency reports, or any one of a number of other methods—is raise flags when warranted. One advantage to the Starfish flag system is that you can use it whenever you feel a flag is warranted; you don’t have to wait until mid-semester. By then it’s likely too late.

Speaking up, stepping in, sharing concerns—these are our responsibilities as teachers. When we do this, we create opportunities to work together to enhance our students’ chances for success. It takes a faculty.

And so, as we (re)launch Starfish this fall, there is much that we will learn together about what works and what doesn’t work for us here at UMW. Starfish’s robust reporting capabilities will give us tremendous insight into the system’s efficacy and suitability for our circumstances. Like with any new system, I expect that we will encounter a few glitches along the way. We will work hard to address such issues when they arise and the Office of Academic and Career Services will continue to enhance support available through its website and provide hands on training to any who request it. And, we’ve tried to make it easy to access, with an entry point in the toolbar at the top of the UMW homepage. With two years left on our contract, we have little more than a year to figure out if Starfish is the retention management system we want to help us make a difference with in the future. I am planning to use it in my classes; perhaps you will too!





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