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3 strategies to engage faculty in your student success initiatives

March 10, 2017

I can’t tell you how many times a provost has asked me, “But what do I do about my faculty?” as they are thinking about rolling out a new student success initiative. Frankly, it’s a fair question.

Despite all the investments we’ve made in student success over the past few years, few campuses have fully engaged their faculty when reorganizing to better support students. Indeed, faculty are perhaps second only to students in how conspicuously overlooked they are in the student success story.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and we are beginning to see a change. (Mostly) gone are the days of curmudgeonly instructors who brag about how their courses are intentionally designed to weed out weaker students. Formerly adversarial faculty senates now realize the importance of preserving enrollment through persistence initiatives and ultimately improving the institution’s graduation rate. Faculty have come to understand that retention is about much more than academic performance, and have shown promising signs that they are willing to contribute in new ways.

Faculty have tremendous potential for helping elevate student success rates. As instructors, faculty members have more face-to-face contact with students than almost anyone else on campus. This puts them in an ideal position to sense student troubles earlier than anyone else. Faculty also own the curriculum in their departments and colleges, meaning that they have the freedom to make academic policy improvements in the interest of streamlining path to degree. And, although many do so reluctantly, faculty play a role in academic advising at the majority of institutions, bringing their unique expertise to important mentoring conversations.

That said, our research shows faculty potential will never be realized unless university leadership is willing to meet them where they are, with empathy for their concerns and competing priorities. This isn’t easy.

To help provosts and their teams bridge the gap, EAB has spent considerable time in the last few years examining this challenge, culminating in our recent study Defining the Faculty Role in Student Success. This study introduced a series of best practices to engage faculty across their various roles as decision makers and individual contributors to student success.

Of particular interest to student success leaders are best practices for garnering faculty engagement with the growing array of student success technologies. Most success technology is designed for use by central administrators and professional advisors. Faculty are neither, and most will reflexively resist adopting anything that they feel is being forced on them without consideration for their unique needs and daily realities.

In response to this challenge, we’ve gone deep into our library to pull case studies highlighting progressive schools that have been successful in working with their faculty to drive adoption of new student success technologies.

These practices make up three major areas of focus:

1. Elevating the quality of faculty advising and enabling all-star faculty advisors to expand their role.

Most faculty will do academic advising when asked, but few consider it a top priority. While the role of professional advisors is expanding beyond registration and major guidance to include a host of student success responsibilities, it’s unlikely that we will see a similar shift among faculty advisors.

That said, our research shows that faculty attitudes on the subject are varied, and that a small subset of faculty are quite willing to take on larger roles as student success specialists. Progressive institutions are identifying these faculty members, equipping them with the same technology and training used by professional advisors, and asking them to lead the student success outreach to students in their major. The next step will be to figure out how to incentivize and reward this activity, perhaps through service credit, course release, or bonus pay.

2. Driving maximum adoption of in-class early alert systems.

As noted above, instructors are often in the best position to spot signs of student risk. Unfortunately, it can be quite challenging to get instructors to participate in early warning or early alert technologies.

The most successful schools have driven adoption by engaging faculty directly in the design of how the systems are used. Most commonly, this means asking the instructors to define what constitutes risk in their own course and then setting the schedule for reporting. In this way, the instructor fits the system around the nature of the course, not the other way around.

Other schools have found success by targeting early alert systems to a limited number of high-stakes courses (introductory writing and math, for example) and by sending regular prompts reminding instructors to log in and submit any students of concern.

3. Incentivizing and empowering departments to improve the success rates of students in their major.

EAB has identified a handful of institutions that reward departments for improving their success rates, typically with an increase to faculty lines or discretionary budget. Often the changes leading to these success rates come from a focus on the curriculum, particularly through redesigning high DFW courses and outdated policies around major requirements.

Other departments are using data to codify new degree maps to provide better and more standardized advising guidance. And others are reaching out to low-performing students with proactive offers of academic support. These changes are often driven by past course performance data.

If your IR office is overwhelmed and can’t provide data to your departments, you might consider getting the faculty started by using this toolkit to examine their course and major data in their Institutional Reports.

The faculty are ready to help and have much to contribute to the student success enterprise, and there are a myriad of ways that they can do so. It is now incumbent upon us to bring them into the fold.

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