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Department and School Programs That Increase Student Retention, Success, and Engagement

Curriculum Planning and Development Students

Department and School Programs That Increase Student Retention, Success, and Engagement

Student Retention, Success, and Engagement

In recent issues of Academic Leader, we discussed the importance of increasing student retention and included descriptions of several campus-level retention programs or interventions that work. While it is wise to start the process of improving student retention and success using proven strategies, it is equally wise to solicit and promote ideas from local faculty. This approach has several associated positives that include fostering faculty buy-in for a venture that is seen by some as one of investing scarce resources in those who “can’t,” taking advantage of those closest to the student culture, providing opportunities for faculty to develop a scholarship agenda in teaching, and potentially enhancing the visibility of the faculty and institution by developing the next best or high-impact practice (HIP).

In this issue, we present programs developed or adapted at the department and/or school level that have been effective in improving student retention and success and in promoting student persistence and institutional engagement. Two of these were home-grown (IUPUI) innovations, while the third was adapted from a national initiative and locally refined over the years. One program is for first-time, full-time, fall first-year students and therefore qualifies as targeting the retention rate. A second program (employing the HIP of collaborative learning) affects a large general chemistry course with primarily first-year student enrollment through significantly improved student retention and student success. The final program fills the void between freshman support structures and junior/senior capstone experiences by serving primarily second-year students; it results in long-term persistence, represents a recognized HIP through undergraduate research, and supports institutional engagement goals.


The Freshmen Work Program (FWP)

Based on the results of surveys indicating that IUPUI students worked more hours outside the university than their counterparts at other similar urban universities, the chair of biology hypothesized that on-campus work related to the students’ major might actually have a positive impact on student retention and success. In 2000, the chair approached Enrollment Services with the idea and was awarded with a modest sum to pilot the FWP. The results were encouraging and led to two more years of funding. In 2003, a major initiative (Commitment to Excellence; CTE) funded by a special tuition increase to improve student retention was launched, and data from the three-year pilot study were used to leverage base funding of $100,000 a year for the FWP.

The FWP provides employment to full-time first-year students (initially at $9.00/hour) for 10–12 hours per week in research laboratories, in laboratory class preparation and clean-up, and in specialized facilities such as animal quarters and greenhouses. Funding was primarily from CTE, but through federal work-study, the department contributed additional dollars. All students worked under the supervision of staff or faculty attuned to the students’ schedules and willing to make adjustments during exam periods. The assessment of the effectiveness of the FWP was done simply by comparing the retention of the students in the program with the campus average, and it routinely was 10–15 percent higher. Because students became part of groups with similar interests, many of the group members (advanced undergraduates, graduate students, technicians, postdocs, and faculty) functioned as mentors for the first-year students. These relationships led to first-year students’ attending lab meetings with senior scientists and in some cases developing long-term relationships (through grant funding and capstone projects) with the laboratory, which resulted in collaborative conference presentations and publications.


Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL): Active Learning Model with Strong Student Success

The concept of PLTL is simple: engage recent students of the course as peers to assist current students by acting as guides, coaches, or facilitators to lead small student groups toward more effective problem-solving strategies. The peers are not content experts but are able to offer meaningful problem-solving strategies and approaches for deeper understanding of the course material. The PLTL small groups (typically fewer than 10 students) are assigned carefully constructed group work, and PLTL replaces the traditional recitation sections taught by content experts (faculty or teaching assistants). The peer leaders are trained in small-group facilitation skills, pedagogical techniques, and strategies for learning and are provided with additional content instruction and reinforcement. Required weekly 1.5-hour development sessions prepare the leaders (funded as PLTL scholars at $700 per section). The model and data represent first-semester results of a two-semester sequence. Optimally, PLTL courses are those with a high level of problem-solving challenge or complexity encountered in STEM areas, but these criteria can apply to foreign languages, social sciences, or other fields with lower student success rates.

            The Paradigm. The students and a peer leader meet once a week for two hours in a highly structured workshop session. In these sections, attendees discuss principles and concepts, explore problem-solving strategies, and clarify and apply relevant lecture content. At IUPUI, we use a locally constructed workbook tailored to our student demographic and our learning expectations that reinforces problem-solving skills. It is essential that students meet all prerequisites for the course. (This is confirmed through a placement examination.)

  • Prior to the session, students complete a “self test” that includes required preparatory material for that week’s workshop and establishes a baseline level of content familiarity.
  • During the workshop session, peer leaders guide students as they collectively complete a series of exercises and problems. If needed, the peer leader provides additional guidance or redirection to others acting as academic coaches.
  • Following the group sessions, students independently work on a set of problems resembling exam questions to challenge and confirm learning (answers are provided for post-workshop exercises).

Benefits to students include small-group attention and guidance, a low-pressure environment where students have time to seek help and direction, guaranteed time-on-task for relevant problem solving, and an improved ability to work effectively in small groups. To achieve a desired mix of student ability and preparedness in the sections, students register based on their availability and schedule preferences. Peer leaders also benefit both professionally and personally. Leader studies have revealed disciplinary content improvement, stronger group-work skills, enhanced feelings of value in the learning process and peer support, and the value of closer interactions with faculty.

Over nearly twenty years using this format in first-semester general chemistry, we have observed improvement from a pre-PLTL DFW rate (the percentage of a class that earns grades of D or F or that withdraws) of 50–60 percent to a more recent 20–30 percent DFW rate. On a standardized two-semester examination, students performed about 10 percent better than the historical performance using traditional recitations. Although the total cost of this program is greater than the traditional recitations, the overall success of the approach has been strongly established. Costs are now shared through CTE base funding and a modest course fee for PLTL-based courses.


Life-Health Sciences Internships (LHSI)

LHSI (http://lhsi.iupui.edu/About-LHSI) has just celebrated its tenth anniversary (with 523 completing interns). The concept for LHSI was developed by individuals in the Department of Biology and the School of Medicine who were aware of the need for second-year programming to support students. Because many students attend IUPUI with plans to apply to professional programs (including a large medical school) on our campus, the LHSI planning group believed that an internship program that allowed young students to work in the professional environment to which they aspired might be a valuable experience promoting good academic habits and opportunities to explore new career paths and that it would strengthen student persistence to attain their degree objective. The internship program has accomplished all of these objectives and more.

The two collaborators submitted a proposal for the last round of CTE money and were successful in gaining $250,000 in base funding for a program that placed primarily sophomores in positions (10 hours per week for 30 weeks) with faculty in medicine, dentistry, rehabilitation science, pharmacy, optometry, and the like. They also budgeted for conference attendance, an end-of-year poster session, and a program director. The latter turned out to be a particularly wise move because the program requires identifying appropriate settings and mentors, monitoring the internship sites, and developing the skills to match diverse groups of students and mentors.

This program is somewhat selective in that it requires an overall GPA minimum of 2.5 with a 3.0 in the major or the courses foundational to the internship setting. Although most of the placements in medicine and dentistry are laboratory research-based experiences, other types of opportunities (e.g., projects in family medicine, clinics, survey research) are also available.

Outcomes of this program are truly remarkable. The four-year graduation rate is 93 percent (vs. 32.8 percent compared to a matched [GPA, majors, ethnicity] student cohort) with students representing 41 majors from 12 schools on campus. The retention (persistence) of students (years one–nine) was more than 95 percent with an additional 1.3 percent gaining professional school admission before earning a baccalaureate. Finally, LHSI graduates attend Indiana University graduate and professional schools at a 58 percent rate (approximately 75 percent for all schools) vs. 19 percent for the matched cohort.

Today, the FWP continues as the Biology Apprentice Program. PLTL now thrives in both semesters of general chemistry and in Organic Chemistry I, and it is about to be adopted in computer science. LHSI has been expanded through the voluntary contributions of campus deans in response to student demand.


Lees, N.D. (2017) Student Retention: Understanding Its Importance and Identifying the Intervention Team, Academic Leader, 33(5), 4–5.

Lees, N.D. and Malik, D.J. (2017) Student Retention (and Success): Programs, Interventions and Strategies That Can Be Effective, Academic Leader, 33(6), in press.

Kuh, George D. (2008) High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/leap/hips


David J. Malik, PhD is special advisor to Academic Affairs and Institutional Improvement and former chief academic officer (Indiana University Northwest), dean, and chair at IUPUI.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD is associate dean for Planning & Finance, professor and former chair of biology at IUPUI.


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