Alabama State University
Quality Enhancement Plan Theoretical Framework
“A Journey to Success in the First-Year Experience”
The rate at which students enter college is an indication of the degree by which a country’s population is achieving higher levels of skills and knowledge (Wirt, Choy, Rooney, Provasnik, Sen & Tobin, 2004). Today’s global market demands more from educated people through environmental, global, intercultural, technological, and scientific implications (Kuh & Schneider, 2008). Furthermore, there is an increased awareness that what was known as an appropriate high school education is no longer adequate to succeed in college or the current workforce (Kuh, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2006). A college degree is most relevant when it symbolizes learning that empowers the individual and is valued by society (Kuh & Schneider, 2008). Thus, it is incumbent of institutions to invest and establish effective, high-impact practices that become indicators of student success amongst students pursuing a higher education (Kuh & Schneider, 2008).
Economic realities and workforce development are shaping and redefining the meaning and definition of student success (Kuh et al., 2006). According to Connolly, Flynn, and Oestreicher (2017), the incipience of college is challenging for most students, but those who have been identified as at-risk for dropping out their first semester are even more challenged. Rentz (1988) purports that the first year of college is crucial “during which students’ attitudes, identities, goals, values, beliefs, adjustments and future successes in higher education are most influenced” (as cited in Connolly et al., 2017, p. 2.) The research is clear in delineating that an increase in new students’ peer group interaction, their participation in campus clubs and organizations, a “sense of belonging to the college community, as well as regular use of student support services helps in determining a “student’s full integration and involvement in the academic and social communities of the institution” (Connolly et al., 2017, p. 2).
The major concern for most institutions is student persistence (Stewart, Lim & Kim, 2015). Not only is persistence an indicator of student goal attainment and success, but of institutional success as well (Green & Wright, 2017). Empirical research conducted by Astin (1975) and Tinto (1993) supports the findings disseminated by Netscape News with CNN (2004), that says one in four college freshmen at 4-year institutions did not return for their sophomore year in 2004 (Schrader & Brown, 2008). According to the U.S. Department of Education, the 2012 graduation rate for full-time, first-time in college students who began their college careers in the fall of 2006 was 59% (NCES, 2014). Furthermore, 23% of full-time students who began their academic careers in 2008 did not persistent the following fall (Stewart et al., 2015). Moreover, data produced from a 2010 national survey by ACT regarding student retention at public four-year institutions report the median retention rate for first- to second-year students at 75%, with a mean of 74% (Ashraf, Godbey, Shrikhande, & Widman, 2018).
The concept of persistence is based on Tinto’s (1975, 1987) theory of student departure and Bean’s (1980, 1983) model of student attrition (Burrus et al., 2013). Tinto’s theory of student departure (Tinto, 1975, 1982,1987,1993) highlights the role institutions have on campus-based interactions and integrations on persistence (Burrus, et al., 2013). His theory declares that positive interactions and involvement in academic and social settings equips students with the capital they need to assimilate into the institution (Burrus, et al., 2013). This, in turn, creates an enhanced commitment to completing college (Burrus, et al., 2013).
Similarly, Bean’s model underlines “the ways in which background characteristics and interactions with an institution influence satisfaction, commitment to degree completion, and persistence” (as cited in Burrus, et al., 2013, p. 8). According to the literature, some of those factors may extend beyond the control of the institution, but have an influence on student persistence (Burrus, et al., 2013). Additionally, student interaction and integration coupled with a student’s experience may have a direct impact on overall satisfaction and an indirect impact on persistence (Burrus, et al., 2013). The two theories feature a sequence of academic and social interactions and experiences that can be conceptualized as student engagement (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).
Consequently, Tinto (1993) devised a longitudinal model of institutional departure that focused on exploring and explaining dropout behavior and student persistence of traditional students at four year universities (Stewart et al., 2015). The constructs used to help identify the factors that best describe persistence patterns include “student background, educational and institutional goals and commitment, and academic and social integration” (Stewart et al., 2015, p.14). Tinto (1993) acknowledged that student performance was influenced by an array of background characteristics and goal commitments. Additionally, he recognized that finances impact a student’s decision to persist or leave school.
According to Green and Wright (2017), student persistence is essential to retention and college student success as well as a key measurement of student and institutional success. Some students enter college well prepared for the academic and social challenges they will encounter while others are inadequately equipped to meet the expectations that higher education has awaiting them (Annual College Readiness Report, 2012; Kidwell, 2005). As a result, institutions are implementing some form of intervention, both formal and informal, to increase academic achievement and positive social adjustment (Schrader & Brown, 2008). Petty (2014) asserts that understanding the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that inspire students allows institutions to motivate them to persist. The literature also suggests that professors (and teachers) should assist students in adjusting to the transition by gaining an understanding of the challenges caused by the first year experience (Kidwell, 2005). Institutional success results in the institution’s capacity to involve faculty and administrators collaboratively to create an environment that actively engages students in learning (Tinto, 2003).
The First Year Experience
The term ‘first-year experience,’ coined by John Gardner, describes the set of initiatives that are designed and implemented to strengthen the satisfaction and quality of student learning during the first year of college (Gardner, 1986; Koch & Gardner, 2014; Upcraft, Gardner, & Barefoot, 2005). The University of South Carolina’s National Resources Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition refers to the first-year experience as a comprehensive and intentional approach (Hunter, 2006b). In efforts to positively impact student retention, institutional initiatives are being developed to increase student involvement and enhance a sense of campus community during the first year upon entrance to college (Hunter, 2006b). Hunter (2006b) makes reference to Upcraft et al.’s (2005) suggestion that first-year students are successful when they make gains toward “developing academic and intellectual competence, establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships, exploring identity development, deciding on a career and lifestyle, maintaining personal health and wellness, developing civic responsibility, considering the spiritual dimensions of life, and dealing with diversity” (p. 5).
The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has called for institutions of higher learning to support four key learning outcomes for student success in the twenty-first century (Kilgo, Sheets, & Pascarella, 2015). These include, ‘‘knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative learning’’ (Kilgo et al., 2015, p. 510). These outcomes, which are considered high impact practices, are designed to make certain that students gain the knowledge, skills, capacities, and competencies to compete locally and globally, solve significant problems, and navigate diverse environments (National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise, 2007).
High-impact practices support students’ discovery of deep approaches to learning. Students who apply these approaches are more likely to earn higher grades and be retained at higher rates (Kuh, 2008). According to research, high-impact practices are successful because they typically (a) demand that students dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to meaningful tasks, (b) necessitate that students communicate with classmates and faculty, (c) provide an opportunity for consistent feedback and assessment of work, (d) allow for exposure to diverse opportunities and people and (e) allow students to apply knowledge to experiences outside the classroom (Kilgo et al., 2015; Kuh & Schneider, 2008). These skills are necessary if students will become effective members of society and their communities (Kinzie, 2017).
The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) gathered data that examined the effectiveness of high- impact practices at the campus level using campus level assessments of high-impact practices (Finley, 2011). The learning outcomes where were first analyzed using initial aggregated data at the state level. The second phase of analysis included a review of the system level data to provide national findings (Finley, 2011). According to the results, nearly each high-impact practice examined was connected to significant gains.
According to Freeman and Lynd-Balta (2010), information literacy is a basic and key element of general education requirements. Having a strong literacy program is important for students to strengthen their understanding of library resources and provides students with a competitive advantage as they matriculate through college and eventually enter the workforce (Krysiewski, 2018). Thus, there is an expectation that students graduate with proficiency in information literacy (Riehle & Weiner, 2013). The American Library Association refers to an information–literate person as one who has the ability to recognize when information is needed as well as has the skills needed to locate, evaluate, and use that information effectively (https://libguides.ala.org/InformationEvaluation/Infolit). According to Harris (2008) the development of information literacy skills requires interaction among people (Riehle & Weiner, 2013). The socialization component of information literacy could create opportunity for practice and reinforcement of information literacy within learning communities, which are based on shared learning (Riehle & Weiner, 2013).
Varlejs and Stec (2014) reference the research conducted by Foster (2006); Kolowich (2011); Mittermeyer (2005); Purcell et al. (2012); and Taylor (2012) that indicated that first year students begin college ill prepared to make use of the resources that their institutional libraries provide. More studies are being conducted on information literacy, and its importance is being stressed toward student retention (Krysiewski, 2018). The information seeking skills developed in college will be used by individuals throughout their entire life (Krysiewski, 2018). Thus, being considered information-literate is imperative for one’s academic and career success (Krysiewski, 2018).
George Kuh identified strategies that would assist with student persistence (Bell, 2008). These strategies focus on increasing student engagement in their studies and the institution (Bell, 2008). According to Bell (2008), this includes establishing quality connections among students and educators, identifying high-risk students early in their academic pursuits, creating learning experiences outside of the classroom, and improving quality teaching. The focal point of these strategies is people and not physical resources (Bell, 2015).
Kuh asserts that academic libraries contribute to improved retention rates and increased student engagement (Bell, 2008). Furthermore, he purports that librarians may indirectly impact “student success through their interactions with students and by helping them acquire needed research and information literacy skills and competencies” (Bell, 2008, p. 2). By establishing a relationship with students, librarians can help foster a supportive campus environment which has beneficial effects on student engagement and achievement (Bell, 2008). However, according StewartMailhiot (2014), as well as Guo, Goh, Luyt, Sin and Ang (2015), it is important for all campus educators to emphasize the importance of information literacy education and awareness by demonstrating how information literacy is applicable to assignments and course outcomes (Krysiewski, 2018). Additionally, collaboration with faculty and students in the classroom and other creative ways allows librarians the opportunity to systematically integrate information literacy into the curriculum (Bell, 2008). In order for students to become information literate, faculty and staff should work collaboratively in developing assignments that require students to become acquainted with information technology that can be used in pedagogical practices (Bell, 2008).
Kuh, Borruff-Jones, and Mark discovered the need for institutions to incorporate meaningful information literacy instruction into the curricula using library related assignments collaboratively for first year courses (as cited in Douglas & Rabinowitz, 2016). Douglas and Rabinowitz (2016) conducted a mixed methods study to investigate the relationship between faculty-librarian collaboration and course for first year students and students’ demonstrated information literacy abilities. The study was conducted using “surveys, interviews and rubric-based assessments of student research essays” (Douglas & Rabinowitz, 2016, p. 144). A diverse group of faculty, administrators, librarians and first year the students were recruited for the study. The team developed a survey that was used to “gather information on students’ level of familiarity with and use of libraries and accompanying resources during high school” (Douglas & Rabinowitz, 2016, p. 147).
The surveys were printed and distributed to students in their first-year seminar class during the first week of class to yield a favorable return rate. There were 385 students enrolled in the seminar and 98% responded to the survey. Faculty members were interviewed using questions that focused on information literacy integration, working with librarians, and over all teaching experiences during first-year seminars. They pointed out that student engagement and interpersonal relationships had a big impact on the success of their course (Douglas & Rabinowitz, 2016). Furthermore, the study revealed that students had varying levels of familiarity with and use of the library’s resources. Thus, those enrolled in seminars with greater faculty- librarian collaboration were more likely to report using library resources and services.
Cook and Klipfel (2015) outlined a framework for information literacy instruction for facilitating student retention as well as transfer of information literacy skills. They provide five principles and strategies for providing retention (Cook & Klipfel, 2015). They include creating a problem context, doing less, building a narrative, focusing on deep structure, and understanding that active learning is proactive of deep structure (Cook & Klipfel, 2015). Their model of instruction was developed to serve as a guide for librarians who wanted to use the findings of cognitive science to improve student learning outcomes (Cook & Klipfel, 2015).
Best Practice, Sense of Belonging
When looking from a student’ perspective, persistence is another way of referring to motivation (Tinto, 2017b). Motivation is what is needed to continue pursuit of a goal, although challenges may arise (Tinto, 2017b). This is important to understand because it allows universities to evaluate what can be done to not only retain students, but to influence student motivation in efforts to impact persistence and then ultimately graduation (Tinto, 2017b). Coupled with motivation and self efficacy is the need to ensure that students consider themselves as a part of and valued by the dominant community of students, faculty and staff (Tinto, 2017b). Tinto (2017a) describes this as a sense of belonging and is directly impacted by the dominant campus climate with “other students, academics, professional staff and administrators, whether on-campus or on-line” (p. 4).
A student’s sense of belonging can positively impact their persistence and academic achievement (Green & Wright, 2017). Strayhorn (2012) defined a sense of belonging as a student’s perceived social support on campus, a feeling of connectedness, feeling mattered or feeling cared about as well as accepted, respected, and valued by the college community which includes faculty, staff and peers (Green & Wright, 2017). Those students who lack a sense of belonging rarely stay in college (Strayhorn, 2012), however, research indicates that supporting student and faculty interactions can increase academic achievement integration and retention rates (Astin, 1993; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991; 2005; Sax, Bryant and Harper, 2005).
Plett and Wilson (2014) conducted a mixed methods study to explore the specific factors that affect a (STEM) student’s sense of belonging and the effect that faculty and community had on student engagement. The researchers used a variety of approaches, including surveys, interviews, focus groups and classroom observations to examine the connections students have with the campus community suggested by the conceptual framework (Plett & Wilson, 2014). Data were analyzed separately quantitatively and qualitatively and together using mixed methods approaches. Five diverse higher educations in four different areas of the of the United States. They included a Historically Black College/University, a private faith- based teaching institution, a Research 1 institution, a midsized reaching institution and a women’s college (Plett & Wilson, 2014). The findings indicated that “a student’s sense of belonging in classes… is strongly associated with academic engagement and other positive outcomes” (Plett & Wilson, 2014, p. 8).
The authors report the following:
- Belonging reflects the experiences of a student in the STEM environment and has implications for what they do in class (effort and participation) and how they feel about their experiences in class and their major (positive and negative emotions). Our research indicates that strong connections to peers and faculty in class (and other highly local settings) are closely correlated to the degree to which students engage in their academics.
- Faculty and peer support of students are correlated to the students’ sense of belonging at multiple levels (Plett & Wilson, 2014, p. 8).
- Faculty behaviors can influence student academic engagement, and small adjustments to faculty behavior can improve student engagement (Plett & Wilson, 2014, p. 8).
- Although lecture still predominates in the engineering classroom, a modified lecture style observed in our study is associated with high student academic engagement and faculty interaction that is otherwise typically observed only in active learning environments. (Plett & Wilson, 2014, p. 9).
- Informal academic communities, especially lab groups, study groups, and faculty-led groups, are valuable to most students, but not all. Providing dedicated space, structured opportunities for academic groups, and options to transfer to other groups or temporarily withdraw from such groups altogether can be key to successful community building for engineering students (Plett & Wilson, 2014, p.10).
- Participation in non-academic communities (e.g., extracurricular activities) provides opportunities for many students to meet belonging and safety needs (anxiety and stress reduction) which in turn, support better student academic engagement (Plett & Wilson, 2014, p.10).
The first academically credited seminar offered to first-year students have been traced to the Lees College in 1882 (Barefoot & Filder, 1996; Gordon, 1989). They have a common goal to increase academic performance and persistence through academic and social integration, while striving to increase degree attainment (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006). A significant amount of research suggests that first-year seminars provide positive benefits to students and serve as a valuable intervention to impact persistence (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006). A number of studies conclude that participation in first-year seminars increases meaningful interactions amongst students and their peers, as well as with faculty and others (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006). Additionally, students who participate in first-year seminars achieve higher grades and have a more positive perception of themselves and their ability to learn (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006). Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) found substantial evidence that indicated “that first-year programs increase persistence from the first to second year of college” (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006, p. 26). Most first-year seminars have a common theme of holding regularly scheduled meeting times with instructors and new students (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006). Elements as such the frequency and duration of the class times as well as “content, pedagogy, and structure; credit hours and grading; and whether the course is required or an elective may vary from program to program” (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006, p. 26).
Research from the Center for Community College Student Engagement suggests that first-year seminars, which were a part of a list of 13 practices identified by CCSSE (2016) as educationally effective for student success in community colleges, are an effective educational practice that leads to strong educational outcomes (Young & Keup, 2016). By definition this practice is offered to first year students where they would be introduced to college-level work and also serve as a model of quality for other higher education interventions (Young & Keup, 2016). Furthermore, first-year seminars serve as a catalyst for other high- impact practices such as “writing intensive educational experiences, collaborative assignments and projects, and diversity and global learning” (Young & Keup, 2016, p. 60). The authors port that using interventions to better structure, educational environments can lead to processes that would support student success (i.e., in community colleges) (Young & Keup, 2016).
Reflective writing may take several different forms such as reflective statements, essays, portfolios, journals, diaries, or blogs (Tsingos-Lucas, Bosnic-Anticevich, Schneider, & Smith, 2017). Research purports that reflection skills for millennial students is scarce (Everett, 2013). However, the benefits that emerge from engaging in the process of reflection is extensively accepted in the field of education (Dewey, 1933; Kolb, 1984; Schön, 1983). Research (viz., Braxton, Jones, Hirschy, & Hartley, 2008; Tinto, 2012; Trotter & Roberts, 2006) indicates that levels of student engagement and retention can be affected by teaching methods. Furthermore, persistence can be enhanced through the use of teaching and learning strategies that stress shared experiences, positive feedback, and reflection (Huntly & Donovan, 2009). During the first year seminars, some institutions employ reflective writing through journaling activities (Everett, 2013).
A study conducted by Everett (2013) examined the ways reflective journal writing improved teaching and learning outcomes from a first-year seminar (p.214). The course was designed to help students make a successful transition to college (Everett, 2013). Students in the class were required to write and submit a journal entry that could have been as long or short as the students wanted them to be. The study revealed that journaling served as a means for students to work through personal issues and challenges (e.g., identity issues, homesickness, social issues and academic challenges) that they encountered (Everett, 2013). Additionally, reflective writing also provided the opportunity for students to engage in self-discovery, personal growth, and stress relief (Everett, 2013). Furthermore, this activity allowed students to share private details with instructors that they might not have otherwise shared, thus serving as an avenue of social engagement (Everett, 2013). The findings of this study indicated the use of reflective journal writing as a beneficial pedagogical strategy to improve student retention and student success (Everett, 2013).
Student engagement has been acknowledged as an important factor that influences achievement in higher education (Kahu, 2013). Engagement is defined by Sweat, Jones, Han and Wolfgram (2013) as “a set of experiences and perceptions that bring students and institutions into greater alignment, such that there is a match between student goals and institutional expectations; this requires the provision of opportunities to participate in activities that result in an increased student commitment to learning and pursuing a degree” (p. 3). The literature offers five approaches to understanding engagement: (1) behavioral perspective, which places an emphasis on effective teaching practice; (2) the psychological perspective, which views engagement as an internal individual process; (3) the socio-cultural perspective, which considers the critical role of sociocultural context; (4) logical perspective, which considers engagement as an internal individual process; and (5) a holistic perspective, which makes efforts to pull the strands together (Kahu, 2013). Kahu and Nelson (2017) devised a conceptual framework that illustrated student educational interface that included the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral connects to their academic life. Kahu, Nelson, and Picton (2017) conducted a qualitative study that explored the student interests, “which are known to be associated with persistence and learning” (p. 55). Following 19 students from an Australian university, the findings indicated that “students’ emotions, self-efficacy, and sense of belonging are important factors in clarifying the connects between student interest, the teaching environment, and student engagement” (p. 55).
As institutions have sought to improve the first-year experience, the idea of requiring a common reader for students has gained popularity (Ferguson, 2006). These readers are typically integrated into orientation courses for new students and hinge on small group discussions that facilitate a shared experience among students. The concept rests on the premise that reading the same book creates a sense of community and common space (Ferguson, 2006). Most common reading programs are incorporated in new student orientation to assist with the transition to college and though they are structured differently from campus to campus; they have the same intended goals: to bridge the gap between disciples, promote a shared intellectual experience and enhance the first year of college (Ferguson, 2006).
George Kuh asserts that institutions can implement strategies to connect students to high-impact learning experiences and to the campus environment by embedding solid academic advising programs in them (Drake, 2011). According to Drake (2011), Pascarella and Terenzini write that students are most happy and academically successful when they develop a strong bond with someone who can assist with them navigating through the academy such as an academic advisor, faculty member or administrator. Academic advising is understood to be a process of decision making that leads to students reaching their academic potential by a communicating and exchanging information with an academic advisor (Drake, 2011). Academic advisors assist students in navigating the higher education maze, make beneficial decisions about their futures, adapt life skills necessary in the academic world and to develop both academic skills and knowledge to be successful (Drake, 2011). As it is the common factor of student academic, career readiness, and personal success, academic advising is the key element in ensuring the retention, persistence, and graduation of students (Drake, 2011).
Reducing the attrition among freshmen who are having difficulties with transitional issues require advisors to be more intentional with providing intervention strategies (Earl, 1988). First-year students are often reluctant to seek help when needed. Intrusive advising is a process of identifying students early in their academic journey and pairing them with advisors who will provide them with the support needed to keep students engaged and motivated to do well academically (Earl, 1988). Additionally, intrusive advising involves using an early alert system to identify students who are at risk of failing classes and a referral process to ensure students are guided towards appropriate resources on campus (Heisserer & Parette, 2002).