The Student Experience Project (SEP) is a collaborative of university leaders, faculty, researchers and national education and improvement organizations committed to innovative, evidence-based practices that increase degree attainment by transforming the college student experience and creating equitable learning environments. The SEP’s mission is to find strategies to transform the college student experience so that every student feels a sense of belonging and receives the support and resources necessary to persist and succeed. Read more about the research evidence informing the SEP, as well as our network design and focus areas below.
When students enter college, and at transitional moments throughout their college careers, they are asking themselves two questions: “do I belong here?” and “can I do it?” Students’ answers to these questions, which are deeply impacted by environmental and interpersonal cues, can determine how they face the challenges that arise and whether they reach out for support, which ultimately affects retention and academic achievement in college.
This is particularly important for students from structurally disadvantaged or numerically underrepresented groups, who are paying particular attention to signals from the institution, their professors, and the other students about whether they, or people like them, belong on campus, and are capable of succeeding.
When students run into challenges, like struggling with course material, feeling intimidated by professors, or difficulty navigating college systems, students who are already questioning their place in college can interpret such experiences as a sign that they don’t belong or can’t succeed. Research shows that once students draw this conclusion, it can lead them to disengage academically and socially, negatively impacting academic performance and retention.
Fortunately, addressing these processes has been shown to boost academic engagement and reduce achievement gaps. Research demonstrates that when learning environments are designed to promote social belonging and communicate that instructors have a growth mindset about intelligence (e.g. believe that intelligence can be developed), students are more likely to take advantage of campus resources to support their success, persist through challenges, and achieve at their full academic potential.
The SEP draws on this research on social belonging and learning mindsets to develop practical approaches that campuses can use to bolster student engagement, increase equity in academic outcomes, and support student success. These approaches address core aspects of the student experience that promote student belonging and support students’ growth and learning.
To learn more about learning mindsets and student experience:
The Student Experience project is designed as an improvement network with a shared aim to create equitable learning experiences and outcomes for college students. The SEP framework includes four focus areas for improvement: equitable academic and social supports, supportive instructor and course interactions, inclusive department and campus climate, and student-centered institutional structures and policies. SEP campuses use Copilot-Ascend, a professional learning program that enables college instructors to understand how their students are experiencing courses through an adaptive and continuous process.
A primary focus of the Student Experience Project for the 2020-2021 academic year is Supportive Instructor and Course Interactions. Research on learning mindsets tells us that instructors create and communicate the mindset culture of their courses, and therefore play an important role in building equitable learning environments and fostering a sense of belonging for students in their classes.
The SEP Faculty Core Collaborative is a group of over 100 instructors across the SEP network utilizing research-based practices to improve student experience and academic outcomes. Gateway STEM faculty at each cohort institution engage in this work in the following ways:
Developing syllabi to support equity: Instructors participating in the Core Collaborative have reviewed and revised their syllabi to ensure that students’ earliest experiences in their course promote a sense of belonging and self-efficacy that will support equity, belonging, and growth throughout the term.
Executing psychologically-attuned classroom change ideas: Throughout the term, instructors utilize a number of “change ideas,” classroom practices that support student experience and that research tells us improves academic outcomes. This includes: setting growth mindset and social belonging foundations in the first week of class, providing feedback to foster academic engagement and growth, and cultivating a supportive and inclusive classroom.
Measuring student experience for continuous improvement: Instructors use the Copilot-Ascend tool to learn how their students are experiencing their course and to access SEP change ideas that they can use to make those experiences more equitable, engaging, and supportive of student success. Copilot-Ascend is designed to support instructors through an adaptive and continuous process, with multiple cycles of inquiry, reflection, and action over the course of the semester. Faculty use regular student experience data to identify bright spots, to learn from one another, and to improve practice over time.
SEP campuses also participate in Innovation Labs, cross-institutional working groups that support small-scale improvement projects focused on Equitable Academic and Social Supports and Inclusive Department and Campus Climate. Within each Innovation Lab, campus teams identify an area for improvement and track the impact of various changes on their aim. The current Innovation Lab foci are:
Early Alerts: Early Alerts are intended as a proactive system to identify students at risk of academic difficulty and help them to access available supports. By designing early alert communications and processes in a way that is attuned to students’ experiences, colleges can help ensure that early alerts provide clear, positive answers to the critical questions on students’ minds about their academic standing and ability. In addition to revising early alert messaging, campuses participating in this Innovation Lab are working on projects such as increasing faculty participation in early alerts in STEM gateway courses, improving course grades for underrepresented students who receive early alerts, and increasing student access to academic supports after receiving an early alert.
Inclusive Virtual Environment: Inclusive campus climates communicate that students from all identities and backgrounds are welcome, valued, and respected as a part of the learning community. This is especially important for students from backgrounds that are negatively stereotyped or underrepresented in college settings, who are more likely to have concerns about whether or not they will be respected and included in the learning environment. Campuses participating in this Innovation Lab are working on projects such as a rubric for evaluating departmental websites for content and language that promotes belonging, renovating academic support spaces to encourage collaboration and inclusivity, and designing improved apps and web portals to improve student access to support services.