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How do we help students stay engaged, enrolled, and on track toward a degree? These are questions every institution grapples with as they seek to improve equity and student success on campus. The Western Land-grant Cluster in Powered by Publics is currently exploring steps institutions can take to improve the student experience.

Retaining students starts in gateway, general education courses – which not only provide foundational knowledge for subsequent classes, but also set the tone of the overall educational experience on campus. Even if students are succeeding academically, they can still feel disconnected from the university community. This means that at some institutions as much as half of students stopping out are actually in good academic standing.

Overhauling gateway courses with an eye toward cultivating student belonging can help. Syllabi, for example, can set expectations for students and instructors before a course begins. A good syllabus is warm and inviting, reinforcing to students that they belong in the course and at the university. The syllabus also provides an opportunity to make clear to students that academic challenges are universal and that the instructor and institution are there to help ensure every student succeeds. As institutions work to increase student belonging in entry-level courses, peer-led focus groups offer one path for institutions to better gauge students’ sense of belonging. The APLU co-led Student Experience Project recently released a host of resources to help faculty cultivate students’ sense of belonging from day one and support for institutions to help more instructors on campus learn about resources to bolster student belonging.

Yet even students who know about resources available for help can feel ashamed using them. Words such as academic probation can add to students’ sense that they’re outliers and struggling academically. To address this, some institutions have shifted to using framing such as academic warnings or making clear whether students are still in “good academic standing.”

Using communications framed with a growth mindset is key to helping students feel that academic setbacks are normal and that the institution stands ready to help them address challenges they’re facing. Instructors speaking about academic hurdles in their own educational journey or even challenges they’ve faced with mental health can help students can help students understand that they belong on campus and have tools to help them succeed.

Then there’s the challenge of re-engaging students who are no longer in good academic standing. Institutions have taken a variety of approaches to better serve these students and get them back on track toward a degree:

  • New Mexico State University’s Aggies Back on Track program employs graduate students who can proactively reach out to students facing suspension and conduct outreach to suspended students with an explanation of how to return from a suspension and resources to help them do so.
  • Montana State University has a “Second Wind” program allowing suspended students to bypass the reinstatement process so long as they take a course on growth mindset and how to succeed academically. All told, the program has helped roughly half of students facing suspension return.
  • Oklahoma State University has been looking at administrative processes relating to suspension and reinstatement to find areas in which students may be getting lost, focusing especially on first-year students. The university provided additional time for suspended students to appeal their suspension, extending the window beyond the usual short time between the spring and summer terms. OSU is providing additional advising support to help these students reengage during the summer and recover academically in time for the fall.
Tags: syllabus, growth mindset, communications, Belonging, general education, Retention, faculty

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