Augustana has always had a good support system for students. From the Academic Advisement Office to the Centre for Personal Counselling and numerous Student Services programs, Augustana students have many resources available to help them with living away from home and the troubles they might face in their undergraduate degree.
Sometimes, despite the proliferation of posters, brochures, electronic notices, and professorial advice, a student just doesn’t know where to turn. Sometimes they don’t even realize help is available. Sometimes they don’t even know they are in trouble, or they are simply unable to reach out. Sometimes, a student far from home who is struggling with studies, finances, romance, and life just needs someone looking out for them.
Welcome to Augustana’s Early Feedback System.
“Every school has a number of students required to withdraw at the end of an academic year,” says Dr. Harry Prest, English professor and Associate Dean for Academic Programs. “Meeting with these students in appeals, we came to the conclusion that many of the concerns that impacted their studies began very early in the academic year.”
Student Academic Services Supervisor Alexis Anderson agrees. “In appeal meetings, students would tell us sad stories about their circumstances,” she says. “If they had told us before, somebody could have helped them.”
“For a number of years, we saw a correlation between students in academic trouble by the end of the first term and their being required to withdraw at the end of the second term,” says Prest. “A high percentage of these are first-year students, usually in trouble by late September. If we can find these students who are in trouble early enough and give them options that might help them with their predicaments, they are more likely to have a satisfactory academic year.”
Many new Augustana students are away from home for the first time.
Students who are new to Augustana face a lot of adjustments. Many are away from home for the first time. They aren’t used to dealing with budgeting and proper nutrition on their own. Many haven’t learned how to direct their own studies after having relied on schoolteachers and parents to enforce homework rules. They are adjusting to the freedom of living in residence – or on their own – and they have to learn these skills, along with all the material covered in their courses. If they run in to trouble, they may not know about resources available to help support them and get them back on track.
“We introduced a pilot project for first-year courses in Fall 2012,” explains Prest. “Augustana wanted to monitor students’ engagement, particularly in those first few critical weeks of classes. We wanted to check attendance, assignment completion, and exam results.”
The campus set up a reporting system tied to the internal student directory. This Early Feedback System invited instructors to send positive or negative feedback to students about their performance, with a copy of each report sent to the student’s Academic Advisor.
“What we are looking for are students who are struggling in – or disengaged from – more than one course,” says Prest. “We are interested in patterns of behaviour that might suggest a cause for concern.”
When a professor’s concern comes in to the Academic Advisement Office, the student’s advisor emails to ask how the student is doing. The advisor invites him or her to come in to touch base. If they receive comments from more than one class, the advisors check in with the student’s other instructors.
“By checking in, we get a better idea of what is going on for the student,” says Anderson. “One professor might know that a student is really sick, or hasn’t seen the student all semester. If a student receives several comments and won’t respond to the advisor’s suggestions to come in, withdraw from the course, or speak to their professors, their advisor discusses the student with the EFS Team.”
In the pilot year, the Early Feedback System saw two major developments: its expansion to students in all years of study and the formation of the EFS Team.
Once instructors began using the EFS, they did not limit their feedback to first-year students. Advisors were surprised to be notified about senior-level students, but realized that if they hadn’t experienced difficulties in their first year, senior students might be unfamiliar with the resources available as well. Since the same kinds of supports are extended to all students at risk, the EFS has been deliberately expanded in its second year to include students in all courses.
The pilot year’s second initiative involved monthly meetings of the EFS Team. Chaired by the Student Academic Services Supervisor and including representatives from the Centre for Personal Counselling, Protective Services, Residence and Student Services, the EFS Team looks at students at risk and decides on the best strategies to reach out to them.
“We ask if the student has been eating,” says Anderson. “Are they in trouble with the law, or in conflict with their roommate? Have they been to see a counsellor? We can help identify emotional or health issues, family crises, or learning disabilities that indicate a need for more support. At these meetings, we are trying to determine if they are getting the support they need, and if there are any ways we can reach out to them. This is the group of people who can put things on the table and discuss it.”
“In our first semester, we discovered four or five students with serious mental health concerns that many of us wouldn’t have known about,” Anderson continues. “That wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but we started to appreciate all of the issues that our students were dealing with outside of academics. If they have financial or personal problems, those can greatly affect what they are doing in the classroom.”
After only a year, the Academic Advisement Office is seeing benefits from the program. “We have had students come back to us and thank us,” says Anderson. “There have been cases of deep depression, students unable to cope or come out of their rooms and grateful for the intervention. I have had students in my office who shared their relief that we reached out to help. They were glad we noticed them struggling.”
This system is one of the ways we follow through to show people how we care, how we don’t let students fall through the cracks.
“One of the main things we talk about at Augustana is our caring, supportive community,” says Anderson. “This system is one of the ways we follow through to show people how we care, how we don’t let students fall through the cracks. If the student is struggling, we will notice and we will do something. We are following through on something we claim. It could be the first time a student has ever needed – let alone received – this kind of support.”
“We create a circle of care for every student that needs it,” agrees Prest. “More than anything, the student needs to know that it’s there. There are a number of people concerned, who are prepared and able to help them.”
Even though the program is only in its second year, the Early Feedback System already has reasons to celebrate. Besides the thanks from students who received timely interventions, there are two statistical outcomes that Dr. Prest and Alexis Anderson can consider in evaluating whether the program is a success.
The first metric is the number of “Students at Academic Risk” emails. A precursor to the Early Feedback System, these messages are sent to students with averages below the required minimum – 2.0 in most programs – in their Fall term. “These messages are the number one indicator that a student will be required to withdraw at the end of the year,” says Prest. “It is hard to recover academically from an average below 2.0 on a full course load. Plus, unresolved problems can continue to impact a student’s winter term courses.”
In the year before the pilot EFS program, the Academic Advisement Office sent 108 emails. In the first year of the program, they sent 99. This year, they sent 85. A ten per cent drop each year in the number of “Students at Academic Risk” emails is gratifying.
The second benchmark established was the number of students actually required to withdraw at the end of the academic year. Since the pilot year of the project focused on the at-risk first-year students who inspired the action in the first place, rather than the overall number, the EFS Team concentrated on the percentage of first-year students among those required to withdraw. In 2011/12, first-year students made up a staggering 62% of those required to withdraw. In the very first year of the project, that number dropped to 36%.
According to both metrics, the program has been a success, with areas identified for improvement.
“For this to be fully successful, it needs buy-in from all those teaching at Augustana,” says Prest. “In our second year of this program, we are seeing a much greater participation rate of teaching faculty, so we are better able to stage these interventions when necessary.”
“I think we’re getting better as we go,” says Anderson. “In the Team we have more knowledge, more experience. We are on the cutting edge of this approach. The more knowledgeable each of us in the Team become, the more effective we can be in reaching out to students.”
Academic Advisors are also engaging in suicide prevention and the U of A’s Community Helpers Program. They are preparing themselves to recognize issues and to offer support while referring students to the appropriate service.