IT Forum Perspectives

Step one in eliminating course bottlenecks: Find the cause

by Scott Winslow

As we continue to share our latest research with members at this year’s national meeting, one of the topics that has generated the most interest from CIOs is how to use data to help faculty remove course bottlenecks.

But why do course bottlenecks matter? A recent survey of students conducted by the California State University System found that bottlenecks led to significant costs, including:

  • Extra Fees (incurred to take intersession courses)
  • Increased Load (in subsequent semesters)
  • Time Conflicts (with work, family, and transportation for commuters)
  • No Prerequisites (can’t move on to the next step of a course sequence)
  • Slowed Progress (degree attainment delayed)

Overall, the CSU team found that 46% of students encountering a bottleneck course took unnecessary credits to maintain financial aid eligibility, and 77% saw their time to degree increase by at least one semester.

However, there is good news for IT leaders looking for ways to better support student success efforts: course bottlenecks can be identified through data. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers identified three key factors as the ‘root causes’ of course bottlenecks.

How can your IT team better leverage institutional data? Find out here

1. Course Outcomes
Definition: High overall or population-specific drop/fail/withdrawal (DFW) rate; sometimes the result of steep grading ‘curve’

UW-Madison Definition: Courses that enroll 100+ undergraduates per year and have a DFW rate of 20% or higher for any measured sub-group

2. Course Access and Demand
Definition: Large, lower-division courses and/or demand outpacing supply; often impacted by physical space or pedagogy

UW-Madison Definition: Courses that enroll 700+ undergraduates per year and/or had more than 15 students left on the waitlist

3. Academic Requirements
Definition: Required for general education (‘gateway’ course) or major progress; most often the early side of a multi-course sequence

UW-Madison Definition: Courses commonly used to meet general education requirements, at the lower end of multi-course sequences, or required for all students in larger majors

Infographic: 3 data-driven strategies to find—and fill—empty classroom seats

What did the data show?

When researchers compiled these courses, they found bottlenecks clustering in specific academic disciplines, and many courses featured at least two of the bottleneck characteristics. What would the distribution of these courses look like on your own campus?

Distribution of Bottleneck Courses by Root Cause Factor
University of Wisconsin-Madison, n=178 courses

The cost of low course completion rates on student success

The D grade, fail, and withdraw (DFW) rate at a typical institution is between 15-30%, costing students and institutions money.

Our brief details how to audit your courses to discover those with habitually low completion rates and four strategies to reduce the unproductive credit rate for students.

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