When a B Isn’t Good Enough

The traditional definition of at-risk students is wrong, and we need to do more to help students caught in an institutional blind spot, write Angela Baldasare, Melissa Vito and Vincent J. Del Casino Jr.

November 15, 2016
 
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Is English 101 really just English 101? What about that first lab? Is a B or C in either of those lower-division courses a bellwether of a student’s likelihood to graduate? Until recently, we didn’t think so, but more and more, the data are telling us yes. In fact, insights from our advanced analytics have helped us identify a new segment of at-risk students hiding in plain sight.

It wasn’t until recently that the University of Arizona discovered this problem. As we combed through volumes of academic data and metrics with our partner, Civitas Learning, it became evident that students who seemed poised to graduate were actually leaving at higher rates than we could have foreseen. Why were good students -- students with solid grades in their lower-division foundational courses -- leaving after their first, second or even third year? And what could we do to help them stay and graduate from UA?

There’s a reason it’s hard to identify which students fall into this group; they simply don’t exhibit the traditional warning signs as defined by the retention experts. These students persist into the higher years but never graduate despite the fact that they’re strong students. They persist past their first two years and over 40 percent have GPAs above 3.0 -- so how does one diagnose them as at risk when all metrics indicate that they’re succeeding? Now we’re taking a deeper look at the data from the entire curriculum to find clues about what these students really need and even redefine our notion of what “at risk” really means.

Lower-division foundational courses are a natural starting point for us. These are the courses where basic mastery -- of a skill like writing or the scientific process -- begins, and mastery of these basics increases in necessity over the years. Writing, for instance, becomes more, not less, important over students’ academic careers. A 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement at UA indicated that the number of pages of writing assigned in the academic year to freshmen is 55, compared to 76 pages for seniors. As a freshman or sophomore, falling behind even by a few fractions can hurt you later on.

To wit, when a freshman gets a C in English 101, it doesn’t seem like a big deal -- why would it? She’s not at risk; she still has a 3.0, after all. But this student has unintentionally stepped into an institutional blind spot, because she’s a strong student by all measures. Our data analysis now shows that this student may persist until she hits a wall, usually during her major and upper-division courses, which is oftentimes difficult to overcome.

Let’s fast forward two years, then, when that same freshman is a junior enrolled in demanding upper-level classes. Her problem, a lack of writing command, has compounded into a series of C’s or D’s on research papers. A seemingly strong student is now at risk to persist, and her academic life becomes much less clear. We all thought she was on track to graduate, but now what? From that point, she may change her major, transfer to another institution or even exit college altogether. In the past, we would never have considered wraparound support services for students who earned a C in an intro writing course or a B in an intro lab course, but today we understand that we have to be ready and have to think about a deeper level of academic support across the entire life cycle of an undergrad.

Nationally, institutions like ours have developed many approaches to addressing the classic challenges of student success, developing an infrastructure of broad institutional interventions like centralized tutoring, highly specialized support staff, supplemental classes and more. Likewise, professors and advisers have become more attuned to responding to the one-on-one needs of students who may find themselves in trouble. There’s no doubt that this high/low approach has made an impact and our students have measurably benefited from it. But to assist students caught in the middle, those that by all measurement are already “succeeding,” we have to develop a more comprehensive institutional approach that works at the intersections of curricular innovation and wider student support.

Today, we at UA are adding a new layer to the institutional and one-to-one approaches already in place. In our courses, we are pushing to ensure that mastery matters more than a final grade by developing metrics and models that are vital to student learning. This, we believe, will lead to increases in graduation rates. We are working hand in hand with college faculty members, administrators and curriculum committees, arming those partners with the data necessary to develop revisions and supplementary support for the courses identified as critical to graduation rather than term-over-term persistence. We are modeling new classroom practices through the expansion of student-centered active classrooms and adaptive learning to better meet the diverse needs of our students.

When mastery is what matters most, the customary objections to at-risk student intervention matter less. Grade inflation by the instructor and performance for grade by the student become irrelevant. A foundational course surrounded by the support that a student often finds in lower-division courses is not an additional burden to the student, but an essential experience. Although the approach is added pressure on the faculty and staff, it has to be leavened with the resources that help both the instructor and the students succeed.

This is a true universitywide partnership to help a population of students who have found themselves unintentionally stuck in the middle. We must be data informed, not data driven, in supporting our students, because when our data are mapped with a human touch, we can help students unlock their potential in ways even they couldn’t have imagined.

Bio

Angela Baldasare is assistant provost for institutional research. Melissa Vito is senior vice president for student affairs and enrollment management and senior vice provost for academic initiatives and student success. Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. is provost of digital learning and student engagement and associate vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at the University of Arizona.

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