Customizing Data Requests to Boost Retention
This article is the third in a three-part series about how to make data requests to boost recruitment and retention. Part one introduced approaches to accessing and using data, including ways to foster communication with faculty about data and its potential for guiding action. It profiled the various data sources often already available to administrators and mentioned the opportunity to submit custom data requests to institutional research (IR). Part two focused on custom data requests for optimizing recruitment efforts. In this final part, I offer examples of custom data requests that provide information about current students and their persistence. I discuss implications of results and potential action items. These requests are intended to provide models for creating your own data requests and to stimulate your thinking on opportunities and pitfalls.
Failure in the introductory course
Who failed the introductory course? Could we have predicted this using data we have about these students (status as conditional admit, ACT scores overall or in relevant areas, GPA, etc.)?
The answers to this question can help you address retention at several levels. If you determine that enough students have difficulty with the intro course, you may want to create enhanced sections that have more contact time. Or perhaps students with certain academic characteristics should take the introductory course after they have had other courses that may help prepare them. If you learn the characteristics that indicate which students might have a problem, you can generate annotated rolls that inform faculty so that they can be especially attentive at the outset of the course when study patterns are being established and initial graded items returned. For example, a student with a low ACT score in reading or English may have difficulty in a world languages course. Extra attention and support at the outset can make a positive difference.
Persistence after the introductory course
Of the students who took our required intro or gen ed course, how many continued to the next course? Show the number and percentage overall. Show this also by instructor. Of those who do continue, which are most successful in the subsequent course? Show by instructor of subsequent and intro course.
If you are trying to build numbers in the major, then persistence after the intro course is important information. You will want to know whether most of your majors began with the intro course or started at a higher level because of placement or test scores. This information will help you know how to grow your numbers.
I will be candid. This can be a highly sensitive request. So before you start, consider the potential benefits and risks. Can you learn important information and put it into action with a high potential for gain? Also, how might this project go wrong or be misunderstood? If there is a touchy climate in your unit, you may want to stay away from this request, or you can simply ask for persistence overall across all intro sections and provide that information to faculty as part of a larger conversation on your unit’s recruitment strategies.
If you want to consider making such a request, let’s consider the variables for a data request that breaks results down by instructor. The nature of the students in each section may vary, whether systematically or randomly. Certain time slots may attract more nontraditional students. Athletes or students with certain majors may be registered at one time and not another. Some faculty members may have established a reputation for being more engaging or fun or having lower or higher expectations and may therefore attract certain types of students. It could be that advisors in certain departments encourage their advisees to choose one instructor over another.
Further, the result of this data request may be sensitive depending on how you and the faculty interpret the outcomes. Grades in the subsequent course may not provide enough information to establish a success in the introductory course. There is more you need to know. Are learning outcomes being met, and do they correlate with grades in both the intro and the subsequent course? What preparation did students have before they started the introductory course? Acquire a sense of what is happening in classrooms in your unit. What is the learning experience like? This last item is valuable when the data comes in. It may correlate with your sense of classroom learning. Ideally, you’ll have taken steps to establish with your faculty the characteristics of effective teaching and learning as evidenced by a rubric for classroom observations of teaching and a subsequent conference with each faculty member. Finally, you need the following three-part condition to be met: a sense that your faculty want to know these results, that they trust in dialogue with you and with each other about the results, and that they would like to take action to see their results improve. All these caveats may discourage such a request. At least we have avoided a potential blunder.
Persistence of majors
What is the number of declared majors and minors compared to the graduation rate and time to graduation of majors and minors?
The number of majors and minors declared may already be readily available to you. Sometimes we see the numbers of majors and think we’re in good shape. But there is more to explore. What is the ratio of majors to minors? Do some of your programs have mostly majors and no minors, whereas other programs have a ratio that looks quite different? Why is this? See whether you and your faculty can answer these questions. As you compare the numbers of majors and minors to the graduation rate in these programs, you will want to consider the overall graduation rate and time to graduation for your university and your college. Given a particular average time to graduate for your students, are you seeing an appropriate proportion of currently declared majors graduate per year? If the number graduating per year is lower that you would expect, you may have an attrition issue that needs addressing. Why might you be losing majors? It could be that advising or scheduling needs to be tweaked to achieve a better outcome.
This series on using data to boost recruitment and retention should help you become more facile in asking good questions that help you improve outcomes for your programs and department.
Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.