A Close Look at Rio Salado College’s Approach to Boosting Success for At-Risk Online Students

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The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges, universities, and organizations that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

2015 was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

If you’re looking for ways to assist online students who are academically under-prepared, you may want to watch Rio Salado College’s developing research project, PLan for Undergraduate Success (PLUS). The two-year college’s latest initiative targets new students pursuing an associate degree or planning to transfer to a four-year institution, and will allow Rio Salado to route additional support and preparation to these students. Assisted by a $2.7 million First in the World grant, the college hopes to increase degree completion and persistence by personalizing learning, supporting students with a college success course and facilitator, and by offering an online boot camp to minimize the need for remediation.

Each of the program’s main elements is replicable at other institutions: the key at Rio Salado College is how all four are integrated with and build on each other:

  1. An Online Boot Camp for students who test into developmental courses
  2. A College Success Seminar
  3. A focused course sequence to help students be successful early in their college career
  4. An adaptive learning platform, with support provided by a PLUS facilitator

We talked with Shannon McCarty, dean of Instruction and Academic Affairs, to learn more about each of these components.

1. An Online Boot Camp

Once degree-seeking, new-to-college students are identified, they will be split into control and treatment groups for the project. All students in the treatment group will immediately be enrolled in Rio Salado’s College Success Seminar. Students will also take placement exams, and students who are not deemed college-ready will be placed into a one-week Online Boot Camp.

The Online Boot Camp is an assessment-focused, resource-rich opportunity for students to review material before taking the placement exams a second time. It will help students identify and target problem areas, and complete an in-depth review of subject material covered in the exam. McCarty and her team believe the boot camp experience will help more students place into college-level classes after taking the placement exams a second time.

2. A College Success Seminar

All students in the treatment group will also participate in the College Success Seminar taught by a PLUS facilitator. The seminar is a 16-week program that will teach students metacognitive skills such as setting goals, using test-taking skills, time management, and self-efficacy with a focus on grit and growth mindset activities. The course accommodates rolling enrollment so that students can efficiently move through the program — a must for an institution like Rio Salado where students starting courses 45 out of 52 weeks each year.

3. A Focused Course Sequence

Once students are ready for college-level courses, they are funneled into a focused sequence of courses that meet the criteria for a college degree. The courses in the sequence were chosen because they are the most successful gen-ed courses Rio offers, McCarty explained. The 13-credit sequence can be completed by full-time students in as little as a semester. Part-time students will complete the same sequence, but over the course of a year. The PLUS facilitator who taught their College Success Course will continue to be their primary support person as they move through the course sequence.

4. An Adaptive Learning Platform

Rio Salado College also plans to move the ten online courses in the sequence into an adaptive learning format, with a target date of May 2017. As students move through the content and take formative assessments, programming in the system will generate their final summative assessment, McCarty notes.

The adaptive component also will allow them to scaffold assessments and build opportunities as students progress. Students who are ready for the next challenge will keep moving forward, while those who need extra time to master a concept will have the opportunity to set a solid foundation for the next challenge. McCarty adds that students enjoy adaptive learning better, and often persist longer in courses and in their college experience.

Are Your Students Ready for Online Coursework?

If successful, Rio’s project will build college skills and student confidence that will carry through their college career.  According to McCarty, placing students in courses where they’re most likely to be successful should build confidence early that students can carry with them throughout the process.

Because Rio Salado offers the majority of its courses online, they will also assess whether students are specifically ready to take online classes using the online assessment tool. That will allow them to identify and address any problem areas before students begin college-level coursework.

“Students don’t necessarily choose online because that’s their preferred way to learn. They choose it because that’s what their lifestyle permits and they’re still really hungry to get a degree so making sure that you provide any opportunity for students that can be online or virtual opportunities is extremely important.”
Shannon McCarty, Rio Salado College

Whether some, most, or all of your own institution’s courses are delivered online, there are some critical questions you and your colleagues may need to address:

  • Are you assessing readiness for online courses prior to matriculation?
  • What student services do you have in place to support your online learners? Do you have the right services in place? How individualized is the online support, and to what extent do your faculty and students know where to find it?
  • What does an “online learner” look like at your school? What are the behaviors of a successful online student? What can you put in place to encourage and enable those behaviors?
  • “Those learning opportunities and those teaching moments that are not necessarily focused on content but more on just support, are going to be more useful to students,” McCarty advises. What teaching moments — outside of the course content itself — can you help facilitate for your online students?”