Predicting Success

8 ways to improve faculty engagement with early warning systems.

GUEST COLUMN | by Colin Koproske

CREDIT West Virginia UniversityWhile academic advisors (both faculty and professional) are absolutely critical in any institution’s student retention strategy, we shouldn’t ignore the role classroom contact can play in identifying at-risk students. Assuming a 15-credit-hour course load over the course of a 15-week semester, the average student is spending 225 hours in front of instructors each term, and often only one or two hours in a formal advising appointment. Instructors also have access to two powerful—but underutilized—predictors of student success: both classroom attendance and midterm grades have been shown in scientific studies to be highly predictive of final GPA.

Every instructor wants their students to succeed—with the right tools, they’ll be able to direct campus resources to the students who need them most.

Knowing this, three out of four colleges and universities have invested in Early Warning Systems, which allow faculty to flag early grades, attendance patterns, and student behavior in the classroom for advisor attention. However, many struggle to scale the use of these systems beyond early adopters to reach faculty who might be unaware or perceive them as just another bureaucratic requirement on top of a mountain of extra responsibilities.

Here are the eight lessons we’ve uncovered about how to get Early Warning Systems right, excerpted from a recent EAB report, The Evolving Role of Faculty in Student Success.

1. Make it simple. Instead of providing a long list of student support offices to refer a student to, create a single referral point or office. When faculty members don’t know exactly how to remedy a student issue, they respond well to hearing “we’ll take it from here.” 

2. Make it all-inclusive. Combine the ability to log attendance problems, academic performance problems, and behavioral or non-academic problems into one system.

3. Make it flexible. Rather than mandating one early exam date and grade threshold, West Virginia University allows instructors to determine when (between weeks 3-6) to submit a formative assessment, and what constitutes “on track” or “off track” for their students. Faculty also have the option to select what resources to recommend to a student, if they so choose. 

4. Ensure privacy. Faculty often worry about who will get to see the often-sensitive information they submit about students. It’s important to communicate to faculty that FERPA and HIPPA compliance generally entails that these systems be secure and that medical and mental health counseling notes remain private. 

5. Keep it positive. Faculty want to know that early alerts won’t feel like a punishment to students, which can often contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Design your response strategy so that students are given positive action steps and opportunities for help, not just an “at risk” notification.

6. Hold faculty accountable. At the institutions with the highest compliance rates, the provost (not a central student success office staffer) sends a message out prior to each term to faculty teaching first-year students, emphasizing the importance of early alerts. Department chairs, and in some cases, deans, will follow up with individual instructors that haven’t submitted reports.

7. Close the loop. Ensure that faculty members are notified when the early warning office or advisor has received and read an alert they’ve submitted, and kept in the loop as student problems are addressed and resolved. Without end user feedback, system utilization tends to drop precipitously over time.

8. Illustrate the impact. Many faculty members want to see evidence that early alerts drive demonstrable results before investing their time in submitting them. At Indiana University Northwest, the administration accompanies its communication about their Early Warning System with data showing the grade improvements after students were flagged and took advantage of academic resources.

And finally, we often focus on tenured faculty in rolling out new processes and systems to build buy-in and good will, but these faculty members often aren’t the ones teaching the introductory or ‘gatekeeper’ courses that reveal academic risk early on. So, while Early Warning Systems should be widely available for faculty to use, target them at courses and student groups that you know are at higher risk—and don’t neglect adjuncts, graduate students, and teaching assistants that might be present in or teaching many of these courses.

These design principles have been shown to help build initial support (and even excitement) among the faculty, encourage robust participation, and sustain momentum over time even as “initiative fatigue” sets in. Every instructor wants their students to succeed—with the right tools, they’ll be able to direct campus resources to the students who need them most.

Colin Koproske is a practice manager at the Education Advisory Board (EAB), a best practices firm.


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