Student Success Insights Blog

String theory and student success

by Michael Koppenheffer

You’d be forgiven for thinking that string theory and student success are, if anything, inversely related to each other.

For the uninitiated, string theory is a framework from particle physics that attempts to explain deep questions of quantum mechanics. In its complexity and abstraction, it’s exactly the kind of thorny intellectual challenge that students run up against in so-called “bottleneck” courses, the courses that are most likely to throw students off track.

But at EAB’s CONNECTED16 conference, string theory meant something very different. For an icebreaker activity, we asked our Student Success Collaborative members to identify their greatest student success strengths, greatest challenges, the population most in need of student success support, and the individual most influential in their own student success.

In keeping with our focus on innovative approaches and best practices, we didn’t simply do a poll or an electronic survey. Instead, we applied principles from experiential learning and design thinking, and directed conference attendees toward an interactive string board. Participants each took a string, color-coded by institution size, and threaded it through pegs representing responses to each question.

Attendees explore the string survey board

The great value of this string-based survey approach, apart from forcing respondents to pause on each question because of the physical action required, is that it makes patterns and relationships between responses immediately evident.

A quick view of responses

String theory and student success

Consistent with the actual composition of attendees from the CONNECTED conference (senior student success leaders), most string board users self-identified as working in academic affairs.

The first surprise, given all the challenges associated with college affordability, was the large proportion of attendees—almost all institutions with between 6,000 and 20,000 students—who agreed that their institution’s greatest student success strength was “making college affordable.” “Building student engagement” and “supporting special populations” were also common responses.

New infographic: The evolution of student success

However, in talking to the EAB staffers who assisted attendees with the exercise, I learned that many participants remarked that it was hard to choose a greatest student success strength because so many aspects of student success still felt like a struggle.

Converging on challenges

Student success challenges

Having said that, there was a considerable convergence about how attendees felt about their greatest student success challenge. “Graduating students on time” was the top response by far, drawing votes from every size of institution and every starting point.

Likewise, participants from all institution sizes and types agreed, “My university needs to better support transfer students.” What’s more, as the photo above shows, there was a strong link between those who rated on-time graduation as a top concern and those who see a particular need to support transfer students, suggesting a possible causal relationship.

Underrepresented students, first-generation students, and low-income students also gathered considerable votes as populations needing better support.

Responses splintered again on participants’ “one student success wish.” The top response was “widespread support from faculty,” but “funding for more students” and “more professional advisors” got strong support as well. And, interestingly, small schools were most likely to pick “additional financial aid resources.”

One way to interpret the pattern of responses at a high level is that attendees tended to agree on what they needed to accomplish to improve student success, but diverged on how best to get it done.

Find more than 200 best practices to meet these challenges in the new Student Success Best Practices Library

Other uses for strings?

I lingered by the string board periodically and saw a steady stream of attendees winding their strings around the pegs during free moments, so it appears to have been an effective in-person feedback mechanism as well as a source of insights. I even overheard several attendees talking about how they plan to discuss their string board responses with their teams on their way home from the CONNECTED conference.

This exercise also could be readily adapted for student (or faculty, or advisor) engagement exercises on campus, as one attendee noted on Twitter:


More from the conference

CONNECTED's keynote address examined the evolution of student success over the last 50 years. Our new infographic summarizes the changes into six "eras" and 10 practice areas.

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Be part of the action next year

To learn more about how you can take part in CONNECTED next year, request your free demo of the Student Success Collaborative.

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