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Identifying factors that influence course success rates

July 29, 2022

Tracey Baham, Ph.D

Assistant Vice President, Institutional Strategy & Effectiveness, Mississippi State University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

My office is charged with completing research projects to support decision making. One of these projects is to identify predictors of student success, particularly as it relates to retention and graduation rates.

We have found in our research that academic performance in the first year is among the primary predictors of student success. According to our work, what happens at college explains nearly 90% of why a student persists, as opposed to pre-college attributes such as high school preparation or family income. This news is encouraging to the university as we design interventions during the first year to increase the likelihood of academic progression.

I used this capstone project to determine what factors contribute to a student’s academic performance in a course. To complete this study, my office collected over 80 variables that could contribute to a student’s success rate in a course. Using an exploratory factor analysis, these variables grouped into four factors, which were named Faculty, Course, Student Identity, and Student Success factors. The following table provides samples of variables within these factors.


  • Tenured / tenure-track
  • Terminal degree
  • Full-time status


  • Student evaluation of teaching
  • Course enrollment
  • Course success rate

Student identity

  • First-generation status
  • Expected family contributions

Student success

  • Pre-college preparation
  • Semester load
  • Student involvement

These factors were compiled into a grade tracker dashboard that provides scores for every section of every course for the past five years. Department heads could use the tool when assigning faculty to a course. Advisors could check the tool to determine which courses students should take based on their Student Identity factors. The Center for Teaching and Learning can engage faculty in pedagogical interventions that can improve the course. Outcomes assessment professionals could facilitate assignment design discussions with program faculty to improve measuring student learning.

EAB has completed numerous studies surrounding student success, many of which I referenced before completing the factor analysis (Hardwiring Student Success, Timely Degree Completion, Student Success Playbook, and Defining the Faculty Role in Student Success). These studies reaffirmed our data that our university can intervene in ways to enhance student success. Several of these reports inspired new variables that were incorporated into the study.

I also collaborated with Dr. Michele Atkins, Assistant Provost for Accreditation and Research, from Union University, who was an excellent resource and cheerleader for this project. I am confident that she and I will remain colleagues as we continue to develop and implement strategic initiatives at our respective institutions. It has been a pleasure working with her, as well as so many other fellows along this journey who encouraged me and provided constructive feedback along the way.

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Tracey Baham and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in spring 2022

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