Use of Campus-Level Evidence of Student Learning

The university’s longitudinal, cohort studies incorporate results from multiple assessments to guide decision making. In 2007, SCSU initiated a comprehensive First-Year Experience (FYE) Program intended to promote student engagement, improve students’ academic competencies, and boost retention rates. The FYE Program included, for all incoming freshmen, a revamped New Student Orientation, mandatory academic learning communities, increased academic support work, and increased opportunities for campus involvement. While all students participated in these components, only 50% of students were enrolled in a first-year experience seminar; this provided an opportunity for the university to measure the impact of an FYE seminar on student success. The two groups of students were comparable in terms of their demographic profiles. Yet, the seminar participants demonstrated significantly higher rates of retention, higher GPAs, and more credits earned than students who did not participate in a seminar. Moreover, these effects were still evident after three years. This study identified a psychological-educational factor that is amenable to change—future orientation—as an important factor for explaining the difference in outcomes between the seminar and non-seminar students. Future orientation is the ability to conceive of one’s own development and take actions in the here-and-now to achieve one’s hoped-for future. Moreover, future orientation was key in predicting the probability of students staying at the university. As an institution, we have learned much about the profile of students who remain at our university; these findings continue this knowledge serves as a valuable guide not only our recruitment and enrollment processes, but also for what we do in the classroom and how best to support students’ engagement in the co-curriculum. [see A Comparison Study].

To study FYE impact, a longitudinal, cohort dataset was built that contained the results of multiple assessments. The students were followed from New Student Orientation through graduation from the university, or subsequent enrollment in other colleges and universities. This year, the 10th longitudinal, cohort study was launched with all the students in the incoming class of 2016. Each individual cohort dataset contains about 1,300 variables reflecting the results from performance-based assessments, rubrics, surveys, and demographic information. The datasets contain data from courses, programs, departments, and university initiatives. The data are analyzed to observe trends, patterns, and anomalies for multiple student bodies.

The longitudinal, cohort datasets are mined for actionable data when the university sets up taskforces and committees. For example, the Student Success Taskforce asked the Office of Assessment and Planning 19 research questions, which were answered by analyzing the merged datasets. Thus, there is not a need to scramble to find relevant data for decision making.

Taskforces issue reports that cite the assessment information that was used to guide decision making. In this way, taskforces provide evidence of the necessity for changes in their announcements of new policy decisions and recommendations. For example, the report of the first Transfer Student Taskforce (2012):

  • Defined the taskforce’s goals and objectives.
  • Provided an environmental scan via collection of transfer student data, benchmarked best practices, and assessed trends and survey information.
  • Identified and summarized current transfer student services.
  • Made recommendations for assessment/return on investment of initiatives.
  • Recommended new services and interventions

In 2016, the Undergraduate Curriculum Forum established a Transfer Student Committee. The committee evaluated changes made since the original taskforce, including the re-administration of the 2012 Transfer Student Survey.

The longitudinal, cohort studies attracted the attention of IBM. IBM asked to study SCSU because it was the first institution in the world to use IBM’s Watson Analytics, a cognitive data discovery service available on the cloud, to analyze data at the institutional level to find the “difference that makes a difference” when it comes to retention and graduation. IBM Use Case about SCSU.

Analyses of the longitudinal, cohort datasets lead to changes in policies and practices that improve student learning. For example, the two-year strategic planning process SCSU undertook in 2013-15 included perspectives from a wide range of stakeholder groups. An array of primary and secondary data was collected and considered. Examples of these data include the recently completed Student Success Taskforce Report; assessment data related to student learning outcomes; and other measures of student success and engagement. Further, primary data collected from students included those from the Southern Experience Survey, which was developed on our campus to capture important data related to student success. Each of the subcommittees used a variety of data and assessment results to inform their recommendations which were then considered by the entire steering committee (which had access to all of the data). The data-driven strategic planning process culminated in the Steering Committee’s development of goals, objectives, and recommendations.

Data-driven processes have continued to inform instructors’ work with their students in the First-Year Experience Program (FYE). The Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement (BCSSE) is administered to all students attending New Student Orientation. Prior to the beginning of the Fall semester, instructors of the FYE seminar (Inquiry 101) receive individual BCSSE reports for each of their students. In this way, the instructors begin to know their students before they arrive on campus. During the semester, a locally-developed survey called the First-Year Experience Self-Assessment: Academic Habits of Mind and College Success is administered to all the freshmen. Inquiry 101 instructors receive a report that presents the responses of the students in their section in comparison to those in the rest of the freshmen class. User-friendly section reports offer guidance to instructors in terms of the academic advising and instruction they provide their first-year students. The FYE program director used BCSSE, NSSE, and the FYE Self-Assessment to identify specific first-year student needs that were not being met. In response, she enhanced the instructor-led academic advising component and a peer mentoring component of the Inquiry 101 course. The FYE Program now keeps students and their faculty-advisors together for the entire first year in order to encourage stronger student-faculty relationships in which students view faculty as a resource for advice and academic guidance until they declare a major.

BCSSE data also led to the creation of the university’s First-Generation Student Living-Learning Community. A high proportion of students who come to SCSU are first-generation college students. To respond to this reality, in 2014, the FYE Program in partnership with the Director of New Student and Sophomore Programs, the Director of Student Involvement, and Director of Residence Life created a First-Generation Student Living-Learning Community. Almost all of the faculty, administrators, staff, and student leaders involved in teaching, mentoring, and overseeing the students in this Living-Learning Community (LLC) are themselves the first in their families to graduate from college.

Another data-driven process was the Student Success Taskforce. The taskforce was established to strengthen students’ retention and graduation rates, to provide more strategic and proactive student advising, and to remove common obstacles to degree completion. The work of the taskforce exemplified the assessment and use of quantitative measures of student success. The faculty and staff members of the Student Success Taskforce asked the Office of Assessment and Planning to analyze data in order to answer research questions related to students’ learning, development, persistence, and graduation. The Office of Assessment and Planning’s data reports informed the taskforce’s recommendations and the university’s subsequent decisions to create and staff the Academic Success Center and the Office of New Student and Sophomore Programs, and to hire an Associate Director of Academic and Career Advising Coordinator.

One outcome of the work of the taskforce was the reorganization of the Division of Student Affairs. The purpose of this reorganization was to provide a more comprehensive and intentional student support/services program. As part of this re-organization, a new Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs position was created to concentrate on academic success and access.

Perhaps the most visible and markedly successful initiative at SCSU that emerged from analyzing data related to student success has been the creation of the Academic Success Center, which opened in the fall of 2015. The Center was placed physically in the middle of the campus in the newly renovated Buley Library. This location is not simply symbolic, the heart of the campus, but also provides greater access to all students. The center is staffed with a new Director, Associate Director, and a full-time graduate intern. The focal point for the center during the first year has been to coordinate and enhance tutorial services, study skill enrichments programs, academic coaching and structured learning assistance. In the first semester, the center was able to offer tutoring in 16 different disciplines, increase the number of tutors from nine to 63, and increase the number of workshops from five to 30. Ultimately the center recorded over 3000 visits in the first semester as compared to 500 visits to tutors the previous year.

The Student Success Taskforce report and the Transfer Student Taskforce report also informed monthly cross-divisional meetings of Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and Enrollment Management leadership initiated by VP for Student Affairs. These cross-divisional meetings informed several reallocation and faculty appointment decisions in Academic Affairs. The roles of these faculty appointees, which report to the AVP for Academic Affairs, are intended to address specific data-supported recommendations in these two reports by leveraging resources and relationships between Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and Enrollment Management in order to improve student retention, time to degree, and graduation.

The Academic Transfer Coordinator position emerged from the Transfer Student Taskforce analysis of data provided by the Office of Assessment and Planning. In this ombudsman role for transfer students, the coordinator addresses the three issues the data suggests are the largest impediments to transfer students’ success: reviewing first-year transfer students’ LEP waiver requests, resolving their placement and credit transfer issues, and facilitating their transition to a major advisor.

Southern has improved its student services assessment activities during the past five years including data-based planning and decision-making. To supplement these existing efforts, the SCSU and You: Working Together team launched a customer service feedback survey in January 2015 to better understand student service delivery effectiveness for such key student services areas as Admissions, Financial Aid, Registrar, Academic and Career Advising, Graduate Studies and Student Accounts. The data are being used to monitor the satisfaction of consumers and the impact of the aforementioned changes on the overall experience of students. The survey data and feedback from the orientation have been used to plan next steps to build staff capacity, particularly in customer service and cross-departmental knowledge. 

Almost a quarter of the sophomores and juniors agreed that financial difficulties may compel them to leave the university, according to the Southern Experience Survey, a survey that emerged from the work of the Student Success Taskforce. This data point contributed to the decision to create the Coordinator of Student Financial Literacy and Advising position. Currently, four different evaluation instruments measure the effectiveness of this new position: the college calculator survey, the evaluation of financial literacy presentation effectiveness, the individual Financial Literacy Advisor pre-meeting survey, and the Financial Literacy Advisor post-meeting evaluation. Results are used to evaluate the impact of financial literacy advising on student retention. In March 2017, SCSU was notified that it ranked among the top 50 Financial Literacy Programs in the country. In the letter of congratulation, LendEDU wrote, “Financial literacy amongst college students is as important as ever, and your school has become a leader in the field” (Click here to see the report).