Partnering with Faculty in Early Alert: A Faculty Perspective



Bernadette Jungblut of West Virginia University recently spoke to this issue — from a faculty perspective — at an April 2015 Academic Impressions webcast.

Now, In this article, Jungblut offers further strategies for partnering with faculty effectively. What follows includes both an institutional case study and Bernadette’s own individual responses to questions raised by participants at the webcast.

by Bernadette Jungblut, Associate Provost for Accreditation, Academic Planning, and Assessment, Central Washington University,
West Virginia University

To explore the issue of faculty engagement in early alert in very practical terms, let’s review the key challenges (both that I’ve noted and that participants at the webcast raised), strategies that work, and a case study from West Virginia University.

Engaging Faculty in Early Alert: The Challenge

Challenges noted by webcast participants:
  • “We have difficulty engaging faculty to take part in an early warning system for students who may have difficulty in their courses.”
  • “We found that faculty members were more likely to respond to our Early Alert when we were just collecting information on students who were already in academic jeopardy.  When we tried to expand the net to include all students to be preventative as well as just proactive, our response rates dropped from 85% to around 55%.”
  • “We have difficulty in having faculty provide assessment feedback to students early enough to inform the need for early alert support.”
Challenges I’ve experienced:
  • In some cases, DFW rates (final course grades of D or F – and the number of students who withdrew from the course after the one-week add/drop period) were used to suggest that faculty members were not “doing their job.”
  • Some faculty perceived that DFW rates were used to indicate that students’ lower performance was the “instructor’s fault.”
  • Some faculty believed they were being punished for being rigorous.
  • Colleagues across campus believed that “Faculty won’t do this…” That is, the faculty would not participate in an Early Alert program.

Engaging Faculty in Early Alert: Strategies

Here are strategies that we have employed at West Virginia University that make a difference in faculty engagement:

Face-to-face meetings:

We conducted face-to-face meetings with faculty members – one-on-one, in small groups, and at department faculty meetings.  We specifically described our undergraduate student profile – about which some faculty members knew relatively little.  When faculty began to become more aware of the many challenges our students face (especially the freshmen who have experienced weaker academic preparation in high school), they became more receptive to participating in an Early Alert program.

Taking a more sophisticated look at DFW rates:

We worked with Institutional Research to create a reporting tool that enabled us to take a more sophisticated and discerning look at DFW rates.  For example, for 100-level courses, we are primarily interested in freshmen DFW rates and DFW rates for students for whom those courses are major/degree program requirements or pre-requisites.  We are less concerned about a senior, non-major who is taking a 100-level class to fulfill a General Education requirement and only needs to earn a “D” to meet that requirement. Showing faculty that we were willing to delve deeper into the DFW rate data – and that we were concerned about specific sub-groups and were not simply “out to punish faculty for bad teaching” also led to faculty members becoming more receptive about working with us on an Early Alert program.

Asking these key questions:

As a follow-up to these discussions about our student profile and DFW rates, we asked faculty in key 100- and 200-level courses the following questions:

  • Can you predict students’ final course grades based on their early performance in your course?
  • If so, how early are you able to make an accurate prediction?
  • What would help students to perform better in your course?  What resources should students use early on in the semester (and continue using) to be more successful in your course?

Based on the answers to these questions, we created an Early Alert program based on faculty input and faculty preferences as follows:

  • As the content and course experts, faculty determined the ‘triggers’ for early-alerting a student.
  • Faculty determined the deadline for submitting “I” early alert grades.  (“I” means “student needs intervention”).
  • Faculty also determined the resources they want to recommend to students – and their preference order for those resources.  For example, some faculty members preferred that their students come to their office hours first – and then access specific types of tutoring.  Other faculty members preferred that their students access tutoring in their departmental learning centers.
  • Faculty members have said they appreciate the fact that they ‘drive’ the early alert process.
Making the reporting process easy:

We also tried to make the reporting process as easy as possible for faculty members.  We used our existing grading interface – which faculty members were accustomed to using.  We also did all the follow up with students in terms of sending messages; engaging in various types of outreach; providing resource referrals; etc.  Faculty members have said they appreciate the fact that, after they provide the information about students who need an intervention, someone else “takes it from there.”

Engaging Faculty in Early Alert: A Case Study of West Virginia University

At West Virginia University, we have conducted an Early Alert every semester since Fall 2010. The Early Alert is designed to let students know they are underperforming in specific courses at the third, fourth, or fifth week of the semester rather than waiting until mid-semester D/F grade reports are issued. The program focuses on high D/F/W rate courses (although instructors from any courses can participate).

Faculty members establish the criteria for students performing poorly in their courses and in need of additional support and then work with program staff to determine the timing of the Early Alert. Some faculty members have opted for Week Three; others have chosen Week Four or Week Five. The faculty also specify their preferred resource referrals – including tutoring in Departmental Learning Centers, Extra Lecture Support Instruction, Peer-Led Team Learning, tutoring at Academic Resource Centers, faculty or graduate teaching assistant office hour visits, review sessions, as examples.

Staff members from Academic Success Initiatives and the First-Year Experience contact all early-alerted students via email and provide specific resource referrals based on faculty members’ preferences. Then, Academic Affairs Resident Faculty Leaders and Student Life Residence Hall Coordinators reach out to early-alerted students in residence halls, and student success coaches from Academic Success Initiatives and the First-Year Experience and the Student Life Office of Assessment and Student Success Programs discuss Early Alerts with their assigned students. We have conducted focus groups with early-alerted students to determine their subsequent resource usage, and we track total usage of many of the resources listed above prior to and after early alerts are issued. We experience a significant increase in resource usage after the alerts are issued –- and then again after midterm D/F grades are posted. (See “Mid-Semester Programming” below).

We have explored structural-functional refinements (for example, purchasing an early alert system or using an early alert module linked to our Learning Management System) to make the process easier for our faculty members and to employ different messaging strategies to increase student response rates and resource usage.

In Fall 2013, we implemented significant improvements to the tracking of student resource use. That enhanced tracking enabled us to link students’ resource use to post-alert in-class performance and better to evaluate the impact of the Early Alert on students’ behavior and academic performance. We were then able to provide this information to faculty members – which, in turn, led to their increased participation in the program when they saw that students who responded to the alert by using the recommended resources on the whole performed better post-alert.  In Fall 2015, we will pilot an enhanced tracking system – and a reporting system that be even easier for faculty to use.  We will be working with faculty members prior to, during, and after the pilot to make sure their questions are answered and any concerns they may have are addressed.

Mid-semester programming:

We would like to better connect our Early Alert to programming at mid-semester. Faculty members are required to report grades of D and F for students during the ninth week of the semester, and students receive an e-mail indicating they have a midterm grade. (Faculty are not required to report grades for students earning grades higher than D).

In the past, Student Life held Mid-Semester Help Centers every semester right after midterm grades were posted. These Help Centers were “one-stop shops” which provided access to advisors, financial aid staff members, and representatives from multiple support services – and, as needed, assistance with withdrawing from classes and adding mid-semester courses.  We observed a decline in students’ participation in the Mid-Semester Help Centers, and so began using a different strategy in Spring 2014.

Specifically, units from across campus now co-facilitate an event that offers access to all the services listed above; however, we emphasize that the event is a prime opportunity for students to connect with tutors for the specific classes in which they are earning Ds or Fs and also to meet with success coaches to devise a plan to develop and hone their metacognitive skills over the remainder of the semester.  We have seen turnout improve.

In addition, Resident Faculty Leaders and Residence Hall Coordinators reach out to students with D/F midterm grades in their residence halls; first-year seminar instructors meet with their students with D/F grades; and success coaches discuss mid-semester grades with their assigned students. Colleges and schools are also encouraged to connect with their students with D/F midterm grades via email, in-person meetings, or other strategies, as they prefer. Academic Success Initiatives and the First-Year Experience staff members make D/F grades available to all college and school assistant and associate deans in charge of advising – and also provide breakdowns by student type, major, rank, etc. This makes things easier for those administrators and their faculty colleagues as they do not have to compile these data themselves.