The surprising truth about student achievement

What’s the secret to a successful college career? At the Office of Assessment and Planning at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), it’s our job to find out. What we discovered may surprise you.

Studying the data

We’ve been collecting student data for many years—running longitudinal cohort studies on every class since 2007. That data includes high school GPAs, SAT scores, English and math placement, gender, ethnicity and adjusted family income as well as cumulative information about the student’s experience and performance at SCSU. It adds up to a lot of data—1,855,500 data points in every study, to be exact.

With all that data, it’s hard to know where to start. Indeed, many academics simply start where they always start: with their assumptions. There is an attitude prevalent in higher education that some students will succeed no matter what and, conversely, that some students will always fail. The corollary is that you can use static data such as high school grades and demographics to predict a student’s college performance.

The power of story vs. the accuracy of data

It’s easy to find anecdotes that support the prevailing assumptions. And when you have a good story to tell, it’s easy to convince a roomful of people looking for simple answers to challenging problems.

But anecdotes are flimsy evidence. Understanding the data is a crucial first step in making responsible decisions—especially when it comes to student success. Because we take this responsibility so seriously at the Office of Assessment and Planning, we call ourselves the Anecdote Busters

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Putting students first

Make no mistake: student retention and achievement are big challenges for any university, but especially for SCSU. For many of our students, life is pretty complicated. Many of them work off-campus to pay for college or support family members. Many are the first in their families to go to college. We’re committed to helping them overcome the obstacles and reach their full potential.

To do so, we need to know what they really need to succeed—and we need to be able to see it coming so we can intervene early enough to make a difference.

That’s why we’re digging deeper into the data from our longitudinal cohort studies. We use IBM Watson Analytics and IBM SPSS software to uncover insights we otherwise would have missed. When we’re looking for ways to keep students enrolled and help them achieve their best, Watson tells us where to start looking so we don’t have to rely on anecdotes or hunches.

What the data taught us

Contrary to accepted wisdom, Watson told us that a student’s experience on campus and academic habits of mind were among the strongest predictors of success. For example, we administer a self-assessment survey to first-year students to learn about their experience. We found that the experiences that students have on campus are far more important predictors of college success and retention than pre-college learning and their demographic profiles.

  • The key predictors of retention, academic achievement, and graduation were academic habits of mind, college GPA and math content knowledge, sense of belonging, increased sense of confidence in academic skills, and an orientation to the future that informs goal setting and taking actions in the here-and-now to achieve desired futures. The predictive models also showed that it’s all about relationships.
  • “Academic habits of mind” includes the competency to work autonomously, to handle cognitive complexity, the process of inquiry that is common to all academic disciplines, and the self-advocacy that is the result of an orientation to the future.

With these insights, we’ve launched a cadre of successful programs to support our students, keep them enrolled and see them through to graduation. They include:

  • An academic success center designed to intervene when students are not thriving academically
  • A Coordinator of Student Financial Literacy and Advising to help students cope with economic stresses
  • A first-generation living-and-learning community, which brings together students and staff who share the experience of being the first in their families to go to college
  • Changes to the general education curriculum designed to help students navigate a complex society with many choices.

Targeted investments that make a difference

The efforts have paid off. By investing our limited resources into targeted intervention programs supported by data, SCSU has achieved its highest two-year retention rate in nearly a decade. And our incoming class of 2013 reached the highest graduation rate since 2000.

It’s a testament to what’s possible when you dig deeper into the data and challenge prevailing assumptions. Thanks to AI analytics, we can continue to dig and refine our programs, focusing on activities that are likely to have the most effective outcomes.