Connecting with Students for Success: A Case Study for Retention
Student retention is an important success indicator in higher education. Graduating from college offers access to better paying jobs and social mobility (Tretina, 2022). The National Student Clearinghouse, however, reports that the public four-year institutions’ student retention rate has not yet returned to the pre-pandemic level of 75.6 percent (Gardner, 2022).
In his 2015 book, Breakpoint: The Changing Market Plan for Higher Education, Jon McGee encouraged optimism: “The changing conditions reshaping the world of higher education in America should lead us neither to gloom nor to despair but rather to the pursuit of opportunity and advantage” (p. 143). Today, it is even more important for all institutions to be creative and explore options to promote student retention and the common good.
University case study for retention
This case study focuses on a small, public, Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) in Texas with an enrollment of approximately 1,800 students that has taken a creative approach to increase retention, which has declined since 2016. In 2021, a group of six faculty from all campuses, representing four different disciplines and teaching both online or hybrid and face-to-face courses, began a review of the literature to consider instructional practices to address the problem of retention.
Many variables affect student retention. Mariana Guzzardo and coauthors (2021) explored the significance of faculty and student relationships in their article “The Ones that Care Make All the Difference: Perspectives on Student-Faculty Relationships.” They affirmed the power of positive faculty and student relationships. From interviews with students, they found that one contributor to student retention was faculty engagement with students.
In Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, Peter Felten and Leo Lambert (2020) focused on faculty and student relationships too. They concluded that the single most important factor for an excellent college education is the quality of human relationships. They cited a retention project, one promoting faculty and student relationships at a community college in Illinois, that dramatically increased student retention.
In spring 2022, the six faculty decided to adapt the Illinois retention project for their institution, and they started the Connecting with Students for Success pilot. The faculty agreed to implement four simple practices in their classes: (1) learn students’ names early, (2) provide actionable feedback on assignments early, (3) set high standards while offering support, and (4) hold an individual conference with each student.
The faculty used a mixed methods design to evaluate their pilot. Students in the pilot courses completed a survey at the end of each semester. Faculty studied retention rates and compared the treatment group with the general population. Finally, participating faculty took a survey about their implementation of the pilot.
The Connecting with Students for Success pilot is starting the second year, and there are now ten faculty participating. Results are highly promising.
Student survey results
In spring 2022, 30 percent of students (24 of 80) participated in the survey. In fall 2022, 22 percent of students (29 of 130) participated. Table 1 shows the results.
|Semester||1. Professor Knows My Name||2. Professor Provides Actionable Feedback Early in the Semester||3. Professor Holds High Standards While Offering Support||4. Professor Holds Individual Conference with Each Student|
|Fall 2022 |
n = 29
|Spring 2022 |
n = 24
Students rated two practices the highest: providing actionable feedback and holding high standards while offering support.
The student survey also asked how common the four practices were in students’ other courses. Responses ranged from 35 percent “always” in fall semester to 33 percent “always” in spring semester.
When asked whether the pilot helped them to succeed in the course, 77 percent of students in the fall and 81 percent of students in the spring responded “agree/strongly agree.”
In the open response section of the survey, students further stressed how valuable the pilot was to them. A sampling of their comments:
“When your professor learns your name and give you effective feedback on assignments, you start to feel like your professor cares about your success.”
“The pilot made a difference in overall enjoyment of class.”
“It made me feel like I wasn’t another ‘nameless’ student going through the motions of another 16-week course.”
“The teacher helped me realize that I can push myself to understand the lesson better as we went over my grades together.”
“Not only has the Connecting with Students for Success pilot helped me be successful in this course, it has made me WANT to be successful.”
Student survey results (disaggregated)
Ratings for fall 2022 are reported by gender and mode of delivery. Overall, 79 percent of student participants identified as Hispanic (n = 22), 18 percent as White (n = 5), and 4 percent as multiracial (n = 1).
|1. Professor Knows My Name||2. Professor Provides Actionable Feedback Early in the Semester||3. Professor Holds High Standards While Offering Support||4. Professor Holds Individual Conference with Each Student|
n = 20
n = 8
n = 15
n = 13
Disaggregated results for fall 2022 include the following:
- All groups gave highest ratings to providing actional feedback or holding high standards while offering support.
- Students reported how common the four practices were in their other courses. Respondents who said “always” included 40 percent of female students, 17 percent of male students, 27 percent of online and hybrid students, and 46 percent of face-to-face students.
- Students agreed that the pilot helped them to be successful in the course. The percentages for combined “agree/strongly agree” ratings were 83 percent for male students, 75 percent for female students, 80 percent for online and hybrid students, and 73 percent for face-to-face students.
Faculty tracked student enrollment from semester to semester from spring 2022 to fall 2022. Table 3 shows the retention rates of students in the Connecting with Students for Success courses compared with students in other courses.
|N indicates students who were not retained; Y indicates that that were.||7.44%|
|*NOTE: Data excludes those enrolled in spring 2022 who graduated in spring 2022 or summer 2022.|
|**NOTE: Cohorts smaller than 10 students may be susceptible to significant variations statistical outcomes.|
|***NOTE: AVG Difference is the average increase in retention rates across all cohort subgroups—excluding values with undue weight (i.e., subgroups less than 10).|
Students in the pilot courses had a 7.44 percent greater retention rate than the general population. Additionally, first-year students in the pilot courses had a 11 percent greater retention rate than their first-year peers who were not in pilot courses.
In January 2023, participating faculty took a survey about the pilot. All agreed or strongly agreed that they would recommend the pilot to their colleagues. Faculty did report that holding individual conferences was the most challenging practice.
This pilot focuses on the four practices that all faculty agreed to implement. It does not address other intervening variables that may have affected student retention rates.
The pilot evaluation data indicate that the four practices are making a positive impact on student retention. Students’ qualitative responses on the survey show that they value the interventions. The retention data indicate that students in pilot courses have a higher retention rate those in non-pilot courses.
Disaggregated data suggest that this pilot may have special benefits for certain groups. Male students, for example, report greatest satisfaction levels with the pilot practices. Survey results demonstrate how important high standards with support and early feedback are for student success.
The four practices may be considered universal in college classrooms. Yet students overall reported that less than 40 percent of their instructors in non-pilot courses implemented those practices.
The participating faculty recognized that implementing the four simple practices did make a difference, and other institutions may discover that too.
Felten, P., & L. M. Lambert. (2020). Relationship-rich education: How human connections drive success in college. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Gardner, A. (2022). Persistence and retention fall 2020 beginning postsecondary student cohort. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Guzzardo, M. T., Khosia, N., Adams, A. L, Bussmann, J. D., Engelman, A., Ingraham, N., Gamba, R., Jones-Bey, A., Moore, M. D., Toosi, N. R., & Taylor, S. (2021). The ones that care make all the difference: Perspectives on student-faculty relationships. Innovative Higher Education, 46, 41–58. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-020-09522-w
McGee, J. (2015). Breakpoint: The changing marketplace for higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Tretina, K. (2022, June 21). Is college worth the cost? Pros vs. cons. Forbes Advisor. https://www.forbes.com/advisor/student-loans/is-college-worth-it
Jeanne Qvarnstrom, EdD, is a professor of education at Sul Ross State University. Her doctorate is from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses and is a university supervisor for student teachers and interns.