A new initiative at Kansas University will use a software program to flag first-year students who are struggling in class and will then attempt to connect them with resources to help them succeed.
Chris Haufler is a KU professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who has been serving as a special assistant to the provost and was tasked by KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little to lead an effort to raise KU’s retention and graduation rates.
If a student is flagged, they’ll get a call from KU’s student advising office. An adviser will seek to determine any issues and will seek to get students connected to a variety of on-campus support networks that already exist, including tutoring, writing help or other support as necessary.
A flag could come after a certain number of missed courses, assignments not turned in or a failed pop quiz.
“We leave it up to the professors in the course to establish what the threshold will be,” Haufler said.
KU will contract with Starfish Retention Solutions, based in Arlington, Va., to provide the software.
Jill Jess, a KU spokeswoman, said that KU was still in the process of finalizing its contract, and she could not provide an estimate as to how much the program would cost. She also did not have a time frame for when the contract would be finalized.
KU ran a pilot program using its own internal software earlier in the semester.
“We learned that it works,” Haufler said.
The course was a very large one, and KU wound up with more students than it had the capacity to work with. The instructor was a psychologist, and being a good researcher, he suggested that KU run a sort of nonscientific trial and intervene with half of the flagged students and not with the other half, Haufler said. The students who did better, Haufler said, were the ones who were told that their instructor had flagged them as struggling in the course.
“In most of the cases, they either didn’t realize that was the case or they said, ‘Yeah, I know, I’ve been sleeping in too long,’” Haufler said.
In a much smaller set of the cases, students would say something to the effect of “get off my back” and didn’t change at all, he said.
Starfish’s software is designed to interact with Blackboard, the course management software used at KU. A company representative said he couldn’t comment because the deal with KU wasn’t yet finalized.
Haufler said that even though the software had other capabilities, such as tracking how often students swiped their cards to enter residence halls or attended athletic events, KU was interested in using it only in the classroom.
The software is in use at other universities, too. East Carolina University has been using it for about a year, said Jayne Geissler, ECU’s executive director for retention programs and undergraduate education. At her universities, professors can make two kinds of flags: one for a student who is excelling and another for a student who is struggling academically.
Last fall, the university tried it out with 20 professors. They got about 30,000 flags, about half of which were good and half of which were bad.
If a student is flagged as excelling, an email is automatically sent to the student informing them of the action. Students reported they liked that, she said.
“This is a generation that’s used to being applauded and recognized,” she said.
Students who got flagged when they were struggling received another kind of email, a “nastygram,” Geissler called it. It gave them the option of pursuing tutoring or other assistance.
She reported that students found those to be helpful, too; 71 percent of the students who received the “nastygram” found them to be beneficial in a follow-up survey.
The program was met with some resistance from a few faculty members. Shouldn’t students know they’re struggling if they get a test back with an F on it, some professors wanted to know.
“Have you ever raised a teenager?” Geissler said she felt like asking them. “The first time you tell them something, do they say ‘OK,’ and do it?”