The Importance of Early Interventions

This week, we enter week three of the full semester, and as has become the standard practice at Grand View, this is the week instructors will be asked to prepare early alert and progress reports for their courses via our Navigate software. While that may seem early (it still feels like the semester started yesterday, to be honest), there’s a reason this process begins when it does. For most full-semester courses, if a student is still struggling by week six, their chances of righting the ship significantly decrease. But if we and our students are able to identify areas of struggle and then implement strategies to address them early on, the odds of a successful outcome are enhanced. Thus, the early alert system is designed to proactively address areas of concern for a particular student, but more importantly, provide enough time for different choices and new strategies to actually bear fruit.

There is a significant body of research which demonstrates the efficacy of early interventions for academic success; this is true for all of our students, but particularly so for some communities within the larger student body (first-generation students, for example) that have not always been well-served in higher education. Some key themes emerge from this literature, but perhaps the most important is the need for well-designed and thoughtfully-conducted interventions in order for students to experience their benefits.

At Grand View, we pride ourselves on the network of support with which we surround our students, as well as our high-touch practices that identify resources and help solve problems. But if an instructor doesn’t notify their student that an early alert is being submitted, and the student receives an unexpected notification from their advisor about seeking academic support, then intervention feels more like punishment (the ALT Center becomes the equivalent of the Principal’s Office), and the potential benefits are wasted. A good rule of thumb, then, is to make the early alert process a collaborative one, beginning with letting a student know we’re submitting an early alert and explaining what exactly that means. From there, it’s a natural progression to a conversation about strategies and support.

What if we have several (perhaps even a majority of) students in a class who are in need of additional support? What if we have a sense that our students could benefit from some different choices when it comes to study and preparation? Or what if we have that conversation with a student, telling them we’re submitting an early alert in order to connect them with additional resources, but then they ask us what they can do, specifically, to improve? What are some of the things we could recommend to them that are actual, effective strategies for success?

The following lists will hopefully provide material to answer those types of questions from our students, as well as to ensure that we ourselves are creating opportunities for our students to assess their own strategies, determine how they’re working, and course-correct if necessary.

First, here are some techniques that you can share with students to better learn and retain course material (particularly as the semester goes on and the material becomes more complex). Moreover, the ALT Center has resources that go further in-depth with, as well as beyond, the items that follow:

  • Peer Instruction: teach the material to others–make a presentation to someone (either real or imaginary) that involves not just repeating, but analyzing and applying, the material.
  • Preview/Read/Recap: before doing the assigned reading, skim the introductory material and headings and create a brief outline to guide notetaking. Once the reading is completed, create questions as if writing a quiz on the material and then answer them.
  • Paraphrasing: separate readings or other assignments into smaller “chunks,” and for each chunk, review and summarize it in your own words.
  • Concept Mapping: use a visual chart to plot main ideas/concepts, and draw the connections or relationships between them (UNC’s Learning Center has a good primer on concept mapping).
  • Practice testing/Retrieval practice: test yourself on the material, using questions from the book/course material, or that are self-created. The simple act of testing yourself on what you’ve just read or engaged with can have a significant positive effect on retention of that material.

As instructors, there are also things we can do in order to help our students assess their own learning strategies, and discern whether they’re working. At the root of all of this is feedback. Our students won’t know if they’re successfully meeting course criteria if we don’t tell them–and not just via a score or letter grade. For a student, it’s not enough to know how they’re doing; they need to know why as well. In that spirit, here are some ways in which we can ensure our feedback to students is useful and effective:

  • Use Dee Fink’s “Fidelity” model for feedback: F.I.D.L. Fink’s acronym challenges us to make our feedback to students Frequent (students should be receiving lots of feedback, and regularly); Immediate (the quicker the feedback, the more relevant and useful it is); Discriminating (it’s clear what the standards are, and the criteria are applied fairly); and Loving (feedback is supportive and empathetic rather than harsh or punitive).
  • Mix low-stakes and high-stakes work, so students have the opportunity to practice skills, techniques, and analyses before being asked to do so on, say, an examination or formal paper. For the formative assignments, feedback should help students identify both areas of strength and areas for further development.
  • Consider offering feedback via student conferences. One of the best ways to “break the ice” that sometimes prevents students from coming to our office hours is to require a brief conference early in the semester. An informal and welcoming conversation can go a long way towards establishing a rapport and building student confidence. Many students report being intimidated by going to office hours and being unfamiliar with their purpose. Introductory meetings are an excellent way to demonstrate that purpose, as well as dispel some of the anxiety that might accompany going to a professor’s office. If you choose to do this, consider doing these conferences in lieu of regular class time and have those hours available as potential appointment spots for students who might not be able to meet at other times of the day.

Hopefully, these suggestions provide some food for thought as we move into early alert season. For some more discussion about working with students who may be experiencing academic difficulties, be sure to come to this week’s Conversations on Teaching, where Jade Horning, Director of the ALT Center, will facilitate a session challenging us to be more discerning when it comes to understanding student struggles. Happy hour starts at 3:30, and the session starts at 4:00 PM; we’ll be in the CETL (Rasmussen 208). Hope to see you there!

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