Using communities to improve course completion rates
Student perstance grows as students connect
Enrollment decline is putting pressure on student persistence more than ever
According to the New York Times, there was a 6.6% decline in total undergraduate enrollment from fall 2019 - Fall 2021— or 1,205,600 students. The pandemic shutdown aside, the rising cost of tuition, economic conditions, and general dissatisfaction with higher education is causing many potential students to find alternative paths or leave the degree they had already started. This flight away from traditional higher education is leaving colleges and universities, especially community colleges, in a position where retaining students is critical.
In addition to the shocking drop in student enrollment, many students are leaving the degrees they already started. Inside Higher Ed reported that the average retention rate dropped from 67% in 2018 to 66.2% in the fall of 2019. On its own this 0.8% drop may not have been cause for alarm, but with the state of enrollment, every student lost is ultimately important to institutions' bottom line. This slight drop was not universal across all higher education institutions, it was disproportionately felt by underrepresented students and part-time students. The Inside Higher Ed article continues, "Latinx students had by far the largest drop in persistence, 3.2 percentage points, while the rate for Black, white and Asian students fell by half that amount." There are many reasons students leave their degrees that colleges or universities can't control, but there are still many ways institutions can improve course completions and student persistence.
Increasing average course completion rates drives revenue increases
No matter what financial model a school is operating under, a decline in tuition income will drastically hurt revenue. To get back in the green, school leadership will have many hard decisions to make. Should they cut budgets? Fire professors? Hire more adjuncts instead of tenure faculty? Find grant funding? Cut student programs? How about increasing student retention? The true solution will likely lie with a mix of various tactics, but only a few options come with little downside and many benefits. The strategy we will be discussing today is increasing student persistence because it benefits the students, faculty, and university as a whole.
How can schools drive a meaningful increase in student retention?
There are many ways to approach this huge problem. Like with many big problems, it can be best to start with one, smaller aspect that is easier to control and measure. For student retention, that is course completion. Starting with improving course completion rates will result in actionable and trackable results.
How can you use Yellowdig Communities to improve course completion rates?
- Improve student support
- Strengthen learner connectedness
- Increase peer feedback
- Bring personal and career relevance to the course
Improve Student Support
200 words on how YD improves student support
Strengthen Learner Connectedness
Increase Peer Feedback
Bring personal and career relevance to the course
How does Yellowdig Engage encourage overall student persistence?
Course completions are just one piece of the puzzle, an important first step in improving student retention, but not the entire goal. To accomplish wholistic student retention from semester to semester, you will need to look to the student experience as a whole. From the time a prospective student is considering attending your institution to graduation day. In a study published in 2021 by the Journal of Further and Higher Education, they found that "students who frequently considered leaving university without completing their degree (i.e. dropping out) had a significantly lower sense of belonging than students who did not." Hence, student belonging is a key to keeping students at a given school.
Yellowdig can be used to increase students' sense of belonging across the student lifecycle
- pre-enrollment and welcome communities
- curricular/course communities
- co-curricular communities
Pre-enrollment and welcome communities
"Degree programs are about more than just the piece of paper that students earn at the end of their time. If you ask anyone who enjoyed their college experience, they'll likely tell you about the friends they made, the instructors who saw something in them and pushed them to be the best they could be, the classes that challenged them, but they made it through with their friends, and the memories they made outside of the classroom. Those first few interactions students have in in-person degree programs can lead to friends that last forever, roommates who become best friends, and orientation group members who become the people who help you through difficult times. Sure, often, the first friends made in college won't be the ones who stick with you for the rest of the degree, but those first friends help to make you feel comfortable and feel like you're a part of something. When students are exclusively taking online classes, their peers may be in different time zones and countries. That same bonding experience of starting on a challenging but rewarding journey together is much harder to come by. And even for the students taking in-person classes, that time before stepping foot on campus can be extremely daunting, not knowing anyone in their major, struggling to find a roommate, or even something as seemingly silly as stressing about how they'll do their laundry.
This is where pre-enrollment and welcome communities come in—allowing the students to informally get to know their peers before ever stepping foot on campus or entering that first online class. Students need the support of their peers. Online Education Services used a Yellowdig Community for one of their partners. They found that a community like this pre-enrollment and welcome community ""ebbs and flows with the needs of the students. First, many students join as they prepare for a new term and introduce themselves and find study buddies then, throughout the semester, they discuss specific needs like placements, tutors, grade worries, or even what to do if their learning management system is down, and then as the semester wraps up, students ask about graduation and start the process of finding study buddies and friends again.""
How does this type of community impact student retention? According to an article on college student belonging by Gopalan and Brady of Penn State University and Wake Forest University respectively, ""at 4-year schools, belonging predicts better persistence, engagement, and mental health even after extensive covariate adjustment."" If institutions help students in their degree programs find that sense of community as early as possible, they will help to set them on the path of completing their degree. Specifically, ""OES's data indicates that there is a positive correlation between Yellowdig participation and student pass rates and retention.""
When creating courses, it is easy to focus mostly on course materials and getting students to achieve the desired learning outcomes, and then evaluating their level of learning in the traditional manners of exams, quizzes, projects, presentations, and writing assignments in many forms. Often instructors might assign homework in the form of practice problems or writing assignments for completion that is lower-stakes, but often even these are graded for accuracy. Being "on" 100% of the time in the 3-7 classes students are taking each semester can be exhausting and overwhelming, especially if they feel like they are alone.
A community designed for a specific course can be used in a myriad of ways to support the student academically and help them find relevance to course material, both of which are critical to a student seeing value and achieving success in their degree program and deciding to continue forward through completion.
- Support the student academically
- A course community for a class that is in a STEM degree program, will often have some aspect of the community be focused on student Q&A in a "Help Forum" style format. This gives students the opportunity to not only ask questions that they're struggling with, but then also become the expert and help other students. We've seen that the students responding to other students' questions also benefit from learning because they need to take the time to form an explanation and truly understand the topic. This can drastically reduce the number of emails instructors need to reply to and help students perform better in classes, which can lead to more course persistence. Dr. Hart from the University of Vermont found that "there was a significant positive association in the final grade with asking, answering, or commenting on a question."
- Find relevance to course material
- In our 2021 Fall Survey of 164 learners across over 20 institutions, students reported that their top 3 priorities in order were 1) Competency in their subject 2) Getting a Job, and 3) Building Connections. If students are actively thinking about getting a job and excelling in their subject, then finding that connection between their future careers and what they're studying is something that will be valuable to them, and help them to want to continue on the path that they're on. In online learning communities, students are encouraged to share their real-world experiences and find current events that relate to course topics. For example, at Aims Community College Carole Brown,Chair, Faculty Teaching and Learning Center; Associate Professor, Biology, Anatomy, and Physiology saw students with prior work experience use Yellowdig Engage as a place to share the connections they found during their units on specific body parts to procedures they had performed in their jobs. One of Carole's colleague, also invited an expert into her class community and had students ask her questions.
"Co-curriculars are often what students define their college experience by and are often where they make their friendships that last a lifetime. Many campuses have greek life that is central to it's DNA, and many have so many clubs that students have even created clubs for something as silly as squirrel watching. Many of these organizations have means of communicating or are so deeply connected that a school endorced online community would be redundant, but there are ample opportunities for top notch institutions to step in and give students the space to find community in a co-curricular manner.
Why should an institution put effort into creating communities for co-curricular activities? Since so many students find great value in the social and professional opportunities co-curricular involvement affords, investing in ways that keep students engaged beyond the classroom and help them to feel a part of these valuable co-curriculars can help to keep them enrolled.
- student club communities
-Communities set up and run by student clubs can be a great way for institutions to facilitate co-curricular interactions. Yellowdig can be used to help students asynchronously connect about their shared interests, which can lead to a sense of belonging. Student leaders can announce virtual or in-person events and have lively discussions around topics related to the club.
- advising communities
- Advising can be a personal and unique journey between students and their academic advisors. However, there are still many aspects that their peers can help with and answer questions around. Often, getting advice from a student 1-2 years ahead of you around which classes and professor to take or how they were successful, can be just as valuable or more valuable than students' assigned advisors.
- career services communities
- Deciding a career path is not an easy feat. Peer to peer support is often desired, but missing from career services. DePaul University utilized a Yellowdig Community as a part of their Future Forward Career Education Program. Students were able to help each other with resumes, get feedback from other students, support each other, and share what they're going through. "