By: Sunil Singh, Senior Director, Product Management

& Dr. Joshua Schwartz, Director of Product Marketing


The Likely Scenario 

Picture this likely future scenario:

Jonathan just graduated high school and finally accepted his offer to attend The College of TargetX for the Fall 2020 semester. He quickly registered for virtual classes because the college is still online for the semester, but the college did a great job of building off Jon’s excitement – getting him engaged with student clubs and organizations, all virtual with the pandemic. Jon successfully completes his first two semesters with a 3.98 GPA and is now a sophomore at the college!

All registered and ready to go for Fall 2021, which is now back to face-to-face learning, Jon is even more excited as he gets to move into one of the residence halls on campus. Just a few weeks later he is all moved in and ready to go – making new friends, getting more involved on campus, and even picking up a new job at the local cafe to bring in some extra spending cash. However, all the new changes are causing Jon to have some anxiety with adjusting to the new learning environment and one of his faculty members is noticing his academic performance in the first 4 classes of the semester is not up to par.

Having that gut feeling something just isn’t right with Jon, Professor Doe knows she has to reach out to Jon and his Advisor. Logging into the school’s Faculty Early Alerts system, Professor Doe quickly and easily issues the “Academic Performance Early Alert” – notifying Jon and his Advisor, encouraging Jon to reach out to tutoring services and providing him feedback to get back on track. His Advisor reaches out to begin engaging and checking in with Jon, ultimately getting him the support services he needs to be successful in the classroom.

Professor Doe’s gut instinct was right and utilizing the early alert system provided Jon and several of his other classmates the opportunity to get the support, early, to be successful throughout the semester.

As practitioners of student success and retention, we all understand that the first few weeks of a term play a huge role in determining students’ success. And yet, for many of the schools, it is not until midterms when they have any idea of how the students are doing.


The Research Behind the Process

As the world begins to go back to normal how we support and engage with students from a student success perspective is going to be altered. It’s why having a Retention/Student Success plan and supporting systems in place to easily track student progress, develop early intervention processes, and issue appropriate kudos and alerts for students. Remember, an early alert process isn’t always about highlighting the student’s negative academic performance, it’s also about positive reinforcement to support and encourage outstanding academic performance and ongoing improvements in the classroom!

Defining the best student retention methods has always been questionable in higher education because it’s forever changing; however, for the over five decades, Vincent Tinto’s theory, published in 1975, is most accepted by the educational community. Tinto’s theory suggests that students have pre-college attributes such as family background, prior schooling, and different skillsets and abilities. These attributes, in return, influence the students’ choice of goals and commitments. Ultimately, Tinto’s theory suggests that whether a student leaves an institution lies heavily on the students’ connection to the institution – both academically and socially.

Tinto’s model was primarily focused on four-year institutions, but in 1990, this model was tested on two-year, non-residential, open-door community colleges. Focused mainly on freshmen community college students the study found similar results from Tinto’s model. Research showed that student retention is complex, and there are many moving factors, in most cases, particular to a student. However, similar to Tinto’s findings, the researchers reference that the student attributes and beliefs influence retention with institutional characteristics.

Over the years, many researchers continue to propose and test other student retention theories. Some researchers, like Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, found that the lack of student interaction with members of a college community is the single leading predictor of college attrition. They reference that student engagement needs go beyond a classroom environment to develop that personal connection to the institutions. This connection is even more vital in retaining underserved students. Jomills H. Braddock found that the amount of faculty engagement strongly impacts academic performance and student retention for underrepresented students.

Through research and feedback from higher education institutions across the country, TargetX offers several best practices to begin engaging the faculty, early in the student success journey. Part of establishing any successful retention initiatives requires the development of an institutional plan to support the overall process.

This blog post is intended to provide guidance and industry best practices to support your overall decision-making around the development and implementation of TargetX’s Faculty Early Alerts that helps encourage faculty adoption by not only reducing friction by having a really easy to use interface, it also greatly simplifies closing the loop with faculty on alerts raised by them.


Establish a Pilot Process

Rolling out a new Faculty Alerts process may have its challenges, like, “How do we get faculty to support and adopt the process?” or even, “What type of alerts and kudos should faculty issue, and when?” To help answer these questions, it is recommended that your institution, if they haven’t already, identify a cohort of faculty to pilot the initial rollout of the Faculty Early Alerts. This cohort can be a select group of faculty from a certain campus or even faculty within a given department/division.

Research has shown that faculty alerts can be impactful, but it’s also the reality that folks want to see this type of data within their own institution before they agree to participate. Selecting a cohort to test pilot the use of Faculty Early Alerts will do several important things:

  • Data: The collection of data is now underway. There are several data points that can be collected and utilized.
    • Student Interventions/Support Services: The minute faculty start issuing out alerts or kudos, the institution is able to track the types of “at-risk” students and identify the interventions taken to support their success.
    • Student Progress/Success: On the flip side, it can also show if the use of kudos is encouraging students and providing them additional confidence to be successful in the course, and throughout the overall semester.
    • Faculty Logins and participation: Faculty usage is another data point your institution will want to collect. How often do they login? How many alerts or kudos do they issue? How do these relate to student success.

If the data lives in Salesforce, your institution can use it! This is the opportunity to look at the data points and establish institution retention and student success goals.

  • Faculty Input: By selecting a specific cohort of faculty to participate, your institution is able to obtain additional input from faculty that will help develop the general rollout across the institution. Your institution can establish an FAQ document to answer frequently asked questions from faculty in the pilot program, but also determine if the right alerts and kudos were utilized. This type of faculty input can be vital to internally establishing faculty/user adoption of the new tool.
  • Advisor Input: Similar to capturing faculty input, the advisor input is equally important. From here, you can see if the internal processes and interventions established by the institution once a faculty alert is issued – are working. Advisors can help identify which alerts or kudos they’re seeing more frequently – allowing your institution to be proactive in offering support services to students in upcoming semesters. Advisor input also allows you to establish additional user adoption of the new tool.


Define Terminology & Potential Early Alerts

Research shows that “early alert systems allow educators to systematically monitor student performance and intervene when academic challenges arise” (Harris, III, et al., 2017, p. 28). There has often been debate on when the early alert system should occur, but as the researcher’s reference, it needs to happen at the start of a semester and not at the halfway point of a course. As the researchers state, “The goal of an early alert system is to intervene with these support services in order to curb challenges students are facing while there is still time to change the trajectory of their success in a given class” (Harris, III, et al., 2017, p. 28).

Based on research and industry best practices, TargetX makes the following recommendations:

Recommended Definition of an Early Alert: An early alert should occur, during a 15-week semester, between weeks 2 and 3. The alert options for faculty to utilize should be minimal and consistent. Below are examples of potential alerts/kudos.

  • Academic Performance Early Alert – This alert would be used during the early alert time frame. This alert will generate an email to the student to encourage them to seek tutoring for the course.
  • Missed Work Early Alert – This alert should be used in the early alert timeframe. This alert will generate an email to students struggling in a course because of a failure to turn in assignments rather than the quality of the work.
  • Non–Academic Struggles Early Alert – This alert should be utilized during the early alert timeframe when a faculty member feels there may be non-academic struggles a student is facing. This could include food or housing insecurities, daycare needs, or technology needs.
  • Unsatisfactory Attendance: No Longer Attending – This alert should be utilized for a student who has missed a significant amount of their course time over the past two to three weeks (online or face-to-face) and is no longer attending the course. The student would be encouraged to consider withdrawal front the course if they cannot make up the missed coursework.
  • Never Attended Class – This alert should be utilized if a student has never attended the course. This may be part of the decertification process required within the first two weeks of the semester.
  • Excellent Work – This alert should be utilized for students, who within the first two to three weeks of the course, have demonstrated commitment to the course and are doing outstanding work on assignments.

In addition, the Faculty should be able to raise alerts or to give kudos during the term period as a feedback mechanism for the students and informing the advisors who are working with the students.

TargetX team members understand the importance of a successful student, like Jon from our earlier scenario. Over the course of the next several months, we’ll continue to release enhancements and new features to our Retention and Community College Suites to support student success initiatives. Check back to our blog posts for more thought leadership and best practices supporting our ongoing initiatives to ensure every student is a graduate – and every graduate is a success!