Last summer, faculty members gathered to create a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) for Trinity. All year, the committee has focused on strengthening the experience of first years and has discussed the different ways of doing that.
The group is separated into three major sub-committees: teaching, advising and academic support. Each sub-committee met every week to find what strategies would best help the program be successful, and in March, they began reporting their findings to the chair of the QEP, John Hermann.
“Now we’re back at the developmental phase, where we’re voting to approve or not approve different information that the committees have. At the conclusion of this semester, the QEP should probably have approved tentatively what we call our new student learning outcomes, which are directly related to the institutional data,” Hermann said.
The strategies that have emerged from each sub-committee have helped developed five new student learning outcomes, which are goals that the QEP are trying to help first-year students meet. The outcomes include being able to demonstrate an understanding of Pathways, registration procedures, and requirements for graduation; being able to assess the interactions they have with their advisor; being able to determine their success in a class by the fifth week to identify any areas that need improvement; being able to identify institutional resources; and ultimately demonstrating help-seeking behaviors.
“I think the last is the most ambitious outcome. Help-seeking means, essentially in the literature, that they will establish a little bit of independence, so instead of me telling a student the best route to take, the student can figure out themselves what needs to be one to resolve an issue,” Hermann said.
The teaching subcommittee focuses on primarily first-year classes, such as First-Year Experience courses or introduction courses in STEM, as well as on creating a more consistent progress report system. This will allow students to have a stronger transition from high school into college.
“Sometimes students didn’t know that they were actually in pretty significant trouble grade-wise until they were more than halfway through the semester, almost like it was too late to change their performance,” said Lisa Jasinski, the teaching sub-committee vice chair.
Though the group aimed to resolve deficient grades in first-years, it needed to keep in mind the influence the changes would have on faculty members. To do this, the sub-committee decided workshops and incentive grants would be the best ways to involve professors.
“In colleges, we believe really fervently in academic freedom, which means that colleges, really professors, have almost entire discretion in how they teach their courses, so we didn’t want to feel like we were telling anyone how to teach their course, but we thought that through workshops and through these developmental grants and hopefully through a new software program, faculty will help find those ways to better help the transition,” Jasinski said.
Another strategy that the committees have developed is a way for students to know where they stand in classes before midterms.
“The teaching sub-committee has recommended a lot of good stuff. They have early alerts at low-stakes assignments in the first weeks, like five or ten percent of their final grade, so if the student is doing poorly in any way, the advisor will find out, and the professor will notify key factors, whether it be the writing center, or if they’re having sleep issues, they can take the student to the right place,” Hermann said.
Many of the classes that have high deficient grade rates tend to be entryways to pre-professional programs. By analyzing information like this, the committees have discussed implementing a winter skills camp.
“Since we have more deficient grade rates lately, we want to create a winter skills camp for students who are not doing well in their first semester. It hasn’t been approved yet, but when you come back from your fall semester, we’ll have an intensive session on strategies on how you can improve our grades, and we want that to continue into the spring semester,” Hermann said.
To aid in the process of strengthening students’ first-year experience, the QEP may also include a software that will enable professors, advisors, students and administrative faculty to communicate more efficiently.
“I don’t think technology alone helps at all. I think it’s a facilitator of technology, and it has to be used-friendly, both for the students and the staff. One of the things that I think is so essential that seems so obvious is that we want to make it easier for people to communicate. If we can facilitate and communicate, technology becomes invaluable,” Hermann said.
However, there is some disagreement with the software companies that the committees are looking at, Starfish and EAB. Although the companies’ predictive analytics may help students find the best major for them, Trinity’s later major decision may not be compatible.
“There are some issues with it. We don’t declare a major until the end of our sophomore year, and the demonstrations involved all these analytics about switching majors, but by the end of your sophomore year, you’re a little more sure of what you want to do, so we’re not sure if it’s going to be that helpful at Trinity or not,” said Diane Persellin, chair of the advising sub-committee.
Though the software may benefit the whole campus, some argue that an internal alert system for grades and issues in classes may be equally effective.
“I think technology helps connect the dots. It could be helpful, but I think it’s very flexible depending on how we set it up. We’re mainly focused on our students and having good advising for our students. We want our first years to really succeed and to flourish their first year,” Persellin said.
Although the QEP has come a long way from its creation, the committees are still working to refine it; the plan will be accredited in February of next year. After that, the plan will be rolled out in stages over the next five years.
“The underlying goal is to help students. Hopefully, it will make a meaningful difference and an enduring difference because that’s what a quality enhancement plan demands, but we need to get faculty to buy into this and support this. I hope our deficient grades reduce among first-year students, I hope our advising improves, and I hope that faculty and students know all about the great resources that are available to them,” Hermann said.