Targeting Behaviors and Student Success: A Q&A

By Jill Frankfort, Adrienne Maslin and Ross O’Hara

Across the U.S., an estimated 60% of incoming community college students require developmental courses to be ready for college-level work, according to estimates by experts. As these courses act as a gateway to further studies, those who fail are most often lost to higher education: Less than a quarter will earn a degree or certificate within eight years. Connecticut’s Middlesex Community College, an institution serving approximately 3,000 students at locations in Middletown and Meriden, is using new approaches based on behavioral science to improve retention among all students, with a particular focus on students who have historically struggled to earn a degree. In the following Q&A, Jill Frankfort, co-founder of Boston-based Persistence Plus, talks to Adrienne Maslin, dean of students at Middlesex, and Ross O’Hara, behavioral researcher at Persistence Plus, about issues facing community colleges in retaining underprepared college students and the potential offered by interventions that target psychosocial factors related to student success.

What are the challenges facing Middlesex Community College with regard to students being underprepared for college?

Maslin: Our experiences parallel those at other community colleges across the country. At Middlesex, approximately 55% of new students enroll in developmental education courses each year. Of these students, 60% successfully complete those courses, with about 40% moving on to college-level courses within one semester and about 60% within two. Many students, however, are never able to move into college-level courses, with the exception of those courses that do not require college-level reading, writing or math skills. And those are pretty few in number. Of course, the ways in which students are underprepared vary, particularly when you’re talking about the diverse students at a community college. Although our population of traditional, straight-from-high-school students has grown, we have many students who are older and have been away from the learning environment for quite some time. These students tend to have weak math skills and sometimes weak writing skills as well.

Many state legislatures have passed or are considering bills that reform or eliminate developmental education. How has Middlesex responded to legislation passed in Connecticut in 2012 that sought to streamline developmental education?

Maslin: The main objective of the 2012 legislation is to prevent students from languishing in developmental education with no clear path out, which is consistent with the goals of most community colleges, Middlesex included. The challenge, however, which we have begun to remedy, is that students who place into developmental courses frequently need more time on task to master the concepts of the course. To better help these students at Middlesex, we now offer developmental education in a variety of ways for both English and math. First, students can opt to take introductory courses that have developmental education embedded into them. These students are expected to put more time into the course, but are also provided with the extra assistance necessary to succeed. This allows students to catch-up on key skills while still engaging in college-level work. Second, students can enter into the “Accelerated Learning Program,” which pairs a developmental education and a college-level course. Students take these classes concurrently and earn credit for both, again allowing students to move seamlessly into college-level work while improving in any areas of concern. Finally, students can still enroll in a more traditional developmental education course, as has been the model in the past.

What has Middlesex done to increase retention, particularly among students who historically have low persistence rates, such as those in developmental education courses?

Maslin: Certainly we’re optimistic that offering students more options for transitioning into college-level courses will boost retention among these students. In addition, we now have a full-time retention specialist who’s available to help students with any issues—academic, financial or personal—that may cause them to withdraw. We’ve also put into place a variety of initiatives to support students through the use of technology. One example is our partnership with Persistence Plus—a service that can help support students who may be unable or initially unwilling to take advantage of student services offered in-person.

What is Persistence Plus and how does it work?

O’Hara: Persistence Plus leverages mobile technology to motivate, engage and support more students to degrees. We provide daily, low-touch interventions, known as nudges, to students via their cell phones. These nudges are based on research that tells us that psychosocial factors often play as large a role, if not larger, than academic and financial difficulties in students’ decisions to withdraw from college.

What kinds of psychosocial factors?

O’Hara: Much of this work centers on normalizing the college experience for new students. When many college students struggle, they often assume that everybody else is doing fine and that they simply don’t have what it takes. This attitude tends to be more pervasive among first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds who have fewer opportunities to discuss college with their families and mentors. Changing these attitudes, therefore, is often the first step to changing students’ performance. For example, students who believe that they can improve their academic abilities, instead of believing that intelligence is set in stone, tend to work harder when struggling and ultimately perform better in college. Some nudges, therefore, share stories about other students who struggled at first but then did exceptionally well in college. Other nudges let students know that many people go to their professors or the tutoring center for help and that it’s not only normal, but it’s expected of them. Ultimately, we want students to realize that being confused or getting a bad grade is not a sign that they should quit.

Is Persistence Plus the first intervention to target psychosocial factors among college students—or, more specifically, students in developmental education courses?

O’Hara: Certainly not. Many researchers in psychology and education have demonstrated that psychosocial factors can be successfully changed in college students and doing so can lead to better academic outcomes. With regard to developmental education, one of the most noted applications of this research to date is a program called Pathways—two developmental math courses developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. This program, like Persistence Plus, targets psychosocial factors that can lead students to quit when they don’t understand math, such as the belief that one is simply “not a math person.” The goal of Pathways is for students to develop strategies for persevering in the face of adversity, a concept they call “productive persistence.” Early results from Pathways were very exciting, with completion rates rising from 6% to 51% in the first year. It’s findings like these that have informed the ways in which Persistence Plus aims to support student success.

What have results been like for students using Persistence Plus at Middlesex?

O’Hara: In fall 2013, we had just over 300 Middlesex students using Persistence Plus. After the first semester, we saw a seven-percentage point higher retention rate among students using Persistence Plus versus those in the general population. We’re particularly excited, though, about our results with developmental education students. Of our cohort of 300 students, approximately 30% were enrolled in at least one developmental education course, and 60% of those students returned to Middlesex for fall 2014, a rate six-percentage points higher than the general population. Also exciting, this advantage in retention was consistent for developmental education students enrolled both full-time and part-time.

How have Middlesex students reacted to the service?

Maslin: Students have had many positive reactions to Persistence Plus. One student commented how “it’s like you can’t really fail” because the nudges help motivate you. Students in developmental education, specifically, have mentioned the sense of community that nudges foster. One student said that nudges were a reminder that they were not “the only one having a crisis in the middle of the semester or worrying about finals.” Another student remarked that “knowing what other students had to say in regards to getting help and reaching out to professors made me want to push harder.” Nudges, therefore, seem to be effective in normalizing the challenges of college for these students. Also, when we asked another Middlesex student what was most helpful about nudges, they replied “The fact that they were right there on my phone!” It appears then that students enjoy the accessibility of having supportive and personalized messages delivered to them on their cell phones.

What’s next for Middlesex in terms of supporting underprepared students?

Maslin: As we adapt to new models of developmental education, making sure that the students who struggle most are given a chance at success is critical to our mission. With President Obama’s proposal to fund two years of community college, the potential influx of students further underscores the need to find innovative ways to support students with a range of academic and personal backgrounds. Our work with Persistence Plus adds to burgeoning evidence that psychosocial factors play a key role in student success, especially among those underprepared for college and most in need of additional academic support. We’ve been excited to see that low-touch mobile support is welcomed by students and seems effective at moving the needle on persistence, and we look forward to continuing to support our students to degree achievement in-person, on their phones, and by other means that we haven’t thought of yet.


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