Many students experience difficulty adjusting to college, which can make them question whether they belong and are capable of succeeding in college, as well as wonder how they are viewed by their school. While institutions offer many resources to support students when they experience academic difficulty, students may not be aware that these resources exist, or may be hesitant to utilize them if they believe that seeking help may be perceived negatively by their instructors or peers. Research demonstrates that when institutions communicate that academic difficulty is not uncommon, that seeking support is a key strategy for success rather than a sign of weakness, and that all students are capable of growing their abilities and succeeding in college, students are more likely to take advantage of campus resources to support their success (Canning et. al., 2019, Brady, Kroeper, Henderson, Ozier, et. al. (In Progress)). They are also less likely to feel shame and stress about experiencing academic difficulty (Brady et. al, 2018).
Institutions have an opportunity to destigmatize academic difficulty and connect students with resources through their early warning or early alert practices. Early warning practices refer to a variety of processes that allow instructors to identify students who, based on course performance in the opening weeks of the term, may not be on track to receive a passing grade, and provide interventions that can help students improve their performance. Campuses participating in the Student Experience Project have been testing numerous changes to their early warning practices to support student belonging and communicate an institutional growth mindset. Institutions in the SEP have been primarily focused on ensuring that communications sent to students who have an early warning referral or alert from their instructors are attuned to students’ concerns, and thus directly and adaptively answer the questions on their mind. Campuses are investigating whether adjusting their messaging to normalize academic difficulty, destigmatize the use of academic support resources, and convey a growth mindset about student abilities will lead to more students engaging with academic support resources.
Ensuring that the early alerts process is designed to support equitable student experience can take time and require input from a variety of stakeholders on campus. Here are a few steps that institutions can consider taking to set the foundation for effective early alerts:
- Engage instructors in communicating about early alerts in a psychologically-attuned way: Instructors often submit early alerts for their students behind the scenes, but don’t always communicate with students about the purpose of this process. This can leave students feeling uncertain about what receiving an early alert means for their ability to succeed in the course, or embarrassed about the difficulty they are experiencing. To ensure that students perceive early alerts as helpful and supportive, rather than punitive, instructors can normalize these challenges and encourage students to seek support from the instructional team or other campus resources. The SEP team at University of Colorado – Denver worked closely with instructors to craft student-attuned statements about early alerts that they can share during class time and in the syllabus. For more tips on developing psychologically-attuned messages about early alerts, click here.
- Encourage deans and chairs to remind their faculty to participate in the early alerts process: Providing support and resources to students who need it requires high participation among faculty in the early alerts process. While instructors may get messages from central campus offices about participating in early alerts, academic leaders can reinforce this messaging in the context for success for their college or department. Tracking and publishing data on early alerts participation can provide opportunities for deans and chairs to encourage participation and celebrate success.
- Consider the name of your early alerts process: While “early alert” and “early warning” are commonly used terms among faculty, staff, and administrators across higher education, these phrases may cause unnecessary confusion or alarm for students. These terms may also lead campus stakeholders to approach the process solely as a notification system, rather than a more holistic opportunity to connect students with resources. CU Denver recently adopted the name “Early Action” for this process, to signal to students that they can take steps to utilize resources and succeed in their courses.
- Have the right messenger: Many campuses use automated systems to send early alert notification messages to students, allowing notifications to be distributed quickly and efficiently. Students may perceive these messages as cold and impersonal, particularly if they are coming from unfamiliar departments or email addresses. Several SEP campuses surveyed students about their perceptions of early alert notification emails; the SEP team at UNC Charlotte found that students much preferred and were more likely to take action on notifications that came from their instructors, advisors, or other familiar people. Investigate the settings in your early alerts software to understand what your personalization options might be.
- Review any early alert template messages for stigmatizing language: Do a quick scan of any centralized early alerts notifications or email templates for language that might make students feel shame or stigma about receiving an early alert. Consider reframing or revising these statements to be more attuned to students’ experiences. For example, if your messages reference that students receiving early alerts should take action so they do not fail a course, changing the framing to emphasize early alerts as an opportunity to utilize resources designed to help them succeed would be more supportive of student experiences.
- Ensure students are being directed to resources that can help them: While you’re checking your messages, make sure that information about relevant campus resources, such as advising, tutoring, etc., are up-to-date and easily accessible to students. If your institution offers both in-person and virtual services, explicitly stating this in the early alert notification may help more students connect with these resources.
- Include student perspectives of experiences with early alerts: Studies of attuned academic probation letters show that including student stories into academic standing communications is beneficial for students (Brady et. al. (In Progress)). The University of North Carolina at Charlotte has several student stories on their Early Alerts website that demonstrate the kind of perspectives that can be highlighted in your early alert communications. For more information on the importance of including student stories, example student stories that you can adapt for your institutions, and suggestions for gathering perspectives from students, check out this free toolkit for improving communications about academic standing from the College Transition Collaborative.
Brady, S. T., Kroeper, K. M., Ozier, E. M., Henderson, A. G., Walton, G. M. & the College Transition Collaborative (2018). Academic probation and the role of notification letters [Research Brief]. Retrieved from http://collegetransitioncollaborative.org/content/sass_toolkit_researchbrief_final.pdf
Canning, E.A., Muenks, K., Green, D.J., & Murphy, M.C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances, 5(2).
How You Say It Matters: A Toolkit for Improving Communications About Academic Standing by the College Transition Collaborative
Samantha Levine, Associate Director, Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and APLU Office of Urban Initiatives
Several members of the SEP Cohort contributed to this blog post.