Eight strategies for a successful early warning system

Faculty are key to identifying at-risk students

While academic advisors (both faculty and professional) are absolutely critical in any institution’s student retention strategy, classroom contact can also play an important role in identifying at-risk students. Assuming the average student takes a 15-credit-hour course load over the course of a 15-week semester, they spend 225 hours in front of instructors each term. Compare that to the one or two hours students typically spend in a formal advising appointment each term.

Instructors also have access to two powerful—but underutilized—predictors of student success: scientific studies have shown that both classroom attendance and midterm grades are highly predictive of final GPA.

Related blog post: What can we learn from first-year GPA?

Knowing this, three out of four colleges and universities have invested in early warning systems, which allow faculty to flag early grades, attendance patterns, and student behavior in the classroom for advisor attention. However, many institutions struggle to achieve widespread use of these systems; faculty might not be aware of the systems or view them as just another bureaucratic requirement on top of a mountain of extra responsibilities.

Eight lessons to get early warning systems right

1. Make it simple. Instead of providing a long list of support offices where faculty members can refer students, create a single referral point or office. When faculty members don’t know exactly how to remedy a student issue, they respond well to hearing “we’ll take it from here.”

2. Make it all-inclusive. Create one system where faculty can log attendance problems, academic performance problems, and behavioral or non-academic problems.

3. Make it flexible. Rather than mandating one assessment date and grade threshold for early alerts, West Virginia University allows instructors to determine when (between weeks 3-6) to submit a formative assessment. Faculty members also determine what constitutes “on track” or “off track” for their students, and can select what resources to recommend to a student, if they so choose.

4. Ensure privacy. Faculty often worry about who will get to see the potentially sensitive information they submit about students. It’s important to communicate to faculty that FERPA and HIPPA compliance generally entails that these systems be secure and that medical and mental health counseling notes remain private.

5. Keep it positive. Faculty want to know that early alerts won’t feel like a punishment to students, as this can often contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Design your response strategy so that students receive positive action steps and opportunities for help, not just an “at risk” notification.

6. Hold faculty accountable. At the institutions with the highest compliance rates, the provost (not a central student success office staffer) sends a message before each term to faculty teaching first-year students, emphasizing the importance of early alerts. Department chairs, and in some cases, deans, will follow up with individual instructors who haven’t submitted reports.

Read the full study for more ways to engage faculty in student success efforts

7. Close the loop. Ensure that faculty members know when the early warning office or advisor has received and read an alert they’ve submitted, and that they receive updates as advisors address student problems. Without this feedback, system utilization tends to drop precipitously over time.

8. Illustrate the impact. Many faculty members want to see evidence that early alerts drive demonstrable results before investing their time in submitting them. At Indiana University Northwest, the administration shares data showing the grade improvements after students were flagged and took advantage of academic resources.

Early warning systems should target introductory courses

Academic leaders often focus on getting buy-in from tenured faculty for new processes and systems, but these faculty members aren’t usually the ones who teach the introductory or “gatekeeper” courses that reveal at-risk students. While early warning systems should be widely available for all faculty to use, target them at courses and student groups that you know are at higher risk—and don’t neglect adjuncts, graduate students, and teaching assistants who might be involved in many of these courses.

Studies have shown that these eight design principles help build initial support (and even excitement) for early warning systems among faculty, encourage robust participation, and sustain momentum over time even as “initiative fatigue” sets in. Every instructor wants their students to succeed—with the right tools, they’ll be able to direct campus resources to the students who need them most.

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