At a time when everyone involved with higher education is calling for increased accountability and transparency, the Academic Success Center at Texas A&M University is providing both. After its first fully operational semester, the center is providing performance data demonstrating positive results and some insights into what the student participants thought about their experience.
“We provide support to all Aggies who want to enhance their academic performance,” says James Kracht, assistant provost for undergraduate studies and the center’s executive director. “But we give special attention to students on academic probation or at risk of not graduating, graduating in more than four years, graduating with a GPA that falls short of what is required for graduate or professional school, or incurring too much debt.”
The majority of students who participated in the center’s first semester were referred by their college or department. “In other words, these students were directly referred to us and we were asked to track their participation,” explains Joel McGee, the center’s co-director. “Participation by the required students is considered mandatory by the office that referred them to us. Recommended students are encouraged to participate, but it is not mandatory.”
And, students who want to improve their academic performance for any reason also have the opportunity to participate. This past semester, almost250 students self-referred by simply walking in the door.
The center, a collaboration between the Divisions of Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, is based on the principle of early intervention and support. It is also based on attending to the needs of the whole student. “Research indicates that students who are fully engaged with the university and learn how to make and keep their commitments do better academically,” Kracht states.
Because every Aggie is different, the center’s programming is designed to identify and address needs on an individualized basis. Key components in the program are:
- Initial Orientation: All students were invited to attend a brief orientation, “Academic Fresh Start”, at the beginning of the spring semester, 2013. This orientation, offered five different times at the beginning of the semester, was designed to help students understand the variety of resources available through the center and to provide an opportunity for students to register for workshops and/or academic coaching.
- Workshops: Several series of eight “Commit to Success” workshops scheduled over four-week periods provide the core of the intensive time management and study skills program.
- Academic Coaching: Scholastic performance specialists (academic coaches) meet with students on a regular basis to develop and monitor an action plan for each student. Students are often referred to academic support services, such as supplemental instruction, and to student services, such as the Student Counseling Service.
- Monitoring: Academic coaches monitor the progress of individuals, help them realize their action plans, and share their progress with their academic advisors and deans who have access to student progress status through an online database.
Thanks to the database managed by McGee, the center was able to provide statistics on just how successful the Success Center was.
First, the numbers: a total of 1,157 students participated in at least one of the center’s programs or services. “We had 658 students who met with an academic coach and 884 who participated in one of our workshops or courses,” McGee explains. “The total participation number of 1,157 is the unduplicated number, because quite a few students participated in coaching and workshops.”
“For example, students required to participate had a 30 percent GPR improvement if they completed their action plans,” McGee points out. “If you look at the chart at the upper left of the dashboard, you can see some improvement with initial or incomplete participation, but far better results for the students who completed the program.
“In fact, on the chart to the right of that one, titled “Cumulative GPR Improvement Spring 2013 -All Referred Students,” more than 80 percent of those who made a commitment and stuck with it ended the semester with a higher cumulative GPR, while those who had no contact or who didn’t stick to their initial commitment were much less likely to improve,” concludes McGee.
In a survey designed by the center and sent to the “required” student pool who participated in at least some level of the program, a majority ““ 95 percent ““ said they would recommend the center to other students. When asked how their experience at the center compared with their expectations, 69 percent responded that it was “slightly to much more” positive than they expected.
One respondent summed it up well: “I came into the program believing I would be treated like another kid with bad grades, but the experience turned out to be much more personal; they showed a real understanding as to why I was struggling in college.”
“We are all totally committed to helping students achieve their highest academic potential, and hope to make an even bigger impact in the coming semesters,” said Lyle Slack, co-director. “To that end, we are engaged in a marketing effort to make all students, staff, and faculty aware of our services. We have attended and presented at all the New Student Conferences; we want the Success Center to be part of the culture of freshman learning communities.”
That’s a fitting response to many of the survey comments, including: “I think you need to advertise that you are available to all students” and “Keep getting the word out! I think a lot of students may fear that an academic coach will treat them condescendingly . . . instead of realizing that they want to see you succeed and boost your self-confidence.”
The center has an active Twitter and Facebook presence where the staff post engaging content, study tips and other strategies for success. When the university posted study tips generated by the Success Center prior to spring semester finals on its Facebook page, they garnered 1,202 “likes” and 530 shares.
With heightened awareness and a large incoming freshman class, the directors anticipate an increased demand for the center’s services. Accordingly, they are expanding the number of classes and “Commit to Success” workshops as well as piloting some group coaching sessions.
Slack adds, “Our academic coaches are also undergoing intensive training and development through August, and we’re beginning to develop and post workshop material online, subject to rigorous national review to ensure the highest possible quality.”
“One thing we know for certain; we’ll have the data to demonstrate if our efforts have been successful,” said McGee, “and that data will be available for everyone to see.”