Essential Ways to Promote Student Success in Higher Education

Leveraging intersectionality metrics and incorporating student voices are key components to promoting student success, especially in this new hybrid learning environment.

Juliet Greenwood, Vice Dean for Educational Initiatives at Arizona State University, backed by numerous collaborators and interdisciplinary teams across ASU involving faculty, staff, students, and instructional designers, reported the progress of their initiative as well as their strategies for scaling at the recent REMOTE Summit. The research began when Greenwood first came to ASU three years ago in response to an initiative from the university’s dean and CEO to improve student learning, success, and retention rates. 

ASU offers more than 300 online programs with over 70,000 students enrolled. Many students were reporting negative learning experiences, and so a team began to investigate where they were losing students. The findings indicate a total of 25 courses, termed high impact courses, which have high enrollment, high fail rates, and high attrition rates. 

After enrolling in a high impact course, students were more likely to not return to the university for three consecutive semesters or even leave the university altogether. Previous research indicates that once students leave the university, they have less than a 10% likelihood of returning and finishing their degree program. The monetary effect on students and the university is substantial, with student and university financial loss estimated at $27 million in tuition costs and $75 million tuition revenue, respectively. 

The weight of these preliminary findings urged the research team to investigate the characteristics and different intersectional identities of students to better understand the students and their experiences. They examined student success rates across ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status to discover a considerable gap, which has propelled engagement and initiatives for underrepresented students. 

For instance, from this data a qualitative research study was conducted to amplify student voices, focusing on women of color. The first two of three phases of this project are completed, with the third phase planned for later this year, and actionable items from the research include students reporting a need for: 

  • Equitable and inclusive language 
  • Messaging for faculty presence, engagement, and nudging
  • “How To” videos to reduce technology barriers
  • Reduction in Week 1 cognitive workload
  • Success coach training to provide coursework support, particularly for math courses

In response to student feedback, Operation Math was implemented, a community learning pedagogy with the goal of integrating success coaches to equalize learning and success across all demographic groups in foundational math courses. Since implementation, pass rates have increased 5% to 14%, enrollment has increased 66% over two years, week one module completion has increased 30%, and support infrastructure has been developed for student-facing staff. Many percentage increases are reflected in students of color and of lower socioeconomic status.

Similarly, Writers’ Studio Redesign aimed to equalize learning and success across demographic groups in first-year English composition courses. The efforts resulted in improved accessibility, pacing, and scaffolding; reduced technology barriers; successful community learning pedagogy; and faculty support. Pass rates have increased 5% to10% with increased enrollment of 50% in two years. The goal is to advance to an upward of 80% pass rate for all intersectional populations. 

Greenwood closed her presentation by providing a final example to demonstrate intersectionality methods and student voices to improve equitable outcomes, the Indigenous Student Success Initiative. The aim of this initiative was to create an inclusive definition to examine information on all students that indicate an Indigenous background in order to increase knowledge potential outcomes as well as increase equity, inclusion, and success for Indigenous students at ASU both online and on campus. This involved adjusting methodology to include students that identify as two or more races/ethnicities, effectively doubling the number of students that had previously been counted. A focus group was conducted and revealed the importance of indigenous students participating in cultural ceremonies and maintaining their link to their community. Further, students could not achieve this because of inflexibility within the educational system

The research progress present demonstrates that equitable design models improve student success for all demographic populations. By using intersectionality methods, teams are empowered to:

  • Integrate equity into the prioritization of resources for students and staff
  • Engage faculty in equity and inclusion conversations and promote professional development through action
  • Focus design and content creation process on culturally responsive teaching and inclusion practices

According to Greenwood, “The qualitative research really has amplified student voices and created empathy with our faculty. It's allowed us to really prioritize those opportunities for design improvements and it's helped to motivate faculty and designers around the goal for equitable course design.”

For more articles from the REMOTE Summit, see: 

Green Skills: Preparing Learners for the Green Economy

Urban Serving Universities are Disrupting Structures for 21st Century Skills

The Metaversity: Leveraging a Shared Learning Platform 

Faculty Needs to Be Drivers of Institutional Change

Lessons Learned: 8 Strategies for Effective Instruction 

Supporting Experimental Pedagogy with Social Animation Tools