Early Alert pilot project a success in supporting students

image shows a class in the Curtis Lecture hall
Hundreds of students sit in a lecture hall and listen to an instructor at the podium

A pilot project implemented across York University is paving the way for increased student success by identifying students who may need extra support early in the semester. Called the Early Alert Retention Program, the initiative launched in September 2018 in response to a request from the York University Retention Council, a group that seeks to improve student success.

The program, which was adopted by nine Faculties and included 11 courses and 16 professors, seeks to proactively support students who may be struggling and connect those students with resources that may help, including academic advising, counselling, tutoring and more.

image shows a class in the Curtis Lecture hall
The Early Alert Retention Program seeks to proactively support students who may be struggling

Each participating Faculty implemented an Early Alert system in at least one first-year course, with a focus on larger courses showing a history of retention issues.

The Department of Economics in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) participated in the pilot and reported positive outcomes.

“I very much welcomed the opportunity for the Department of Economics to be part of the Early Alert pilot project,” said Ida Ferrara, associate professor and Chair of the Department of Economics. “There is significant interest in an economics degree among students, and the high transferability of the skills that the degree affords is likely an important consideration, but students often underestimate the efforts necessary to thrive or misjudge the importance of the scientific aspect of the discipline.”

According to Undergraduate Program Advisor Jill Thomas, in the Fall/Winter 2017 semester 26 per cent of economics majors had a GPA below 4.0.

Jill Thomas sits at a computer and looks at the camera
Jill Thomas. Photograph by Nicole Glassman

Thomas’s team chose to implement the pilot through ECON 1530: Introductory Mathematics for Economics. Not only does the course have high levels of enrolment – with 1,144 students registered in Fall/Winter 2018 – but it also has a reputation to be challenging for some students. Over the past six years, Thomas said, 800 students have repeated ECON 1530 at least once. An Early Alert initiative in this class would allow advisors to “proactively and intentionally connect with students,” especially those at risk of having to repeat the class, said Thomas.

Thomas and fellow academic advisors Luisa Robinson and Magy Baket implemented an “appreciative advising” approach, which highlights and builds on strengths of students rather than identifying and fixing their weaknesses. Thomas describes it as “a reciprocal approach where both the student and advisor learn in the process.”

Academic advisors created a Moodle website, based on its familiarity to students, dedicated to supporting ECON 1530 students. Moodle also allowed advisors to connect with students in creative ways, including sharing videos, infographics, tips and reminders.

Initially, all 1,144 students registered for the Fall/Winter 2018 course were contacted with a welcome email by the advisors. From that group, students who received a D+ or lower on their first midterm – or who did not write the midterm – were selected for the pilot and added to the Moodle course. The course itself consisted of a communication plan that was structured around the six phases of an appreciative advising approach: disarm, discover, dream, design, deliver, don’t settle. Each module included a video, the option to schedule an appointment and information on additional resources. Although the Retention Council requested that pilots be carried out for one term, the Department of Economics continued to carry out its pilot until April of this year.

“An Early Alert Program presents the opportunity to establish a stronger relationship between students and the department – and by extension, the Faculty and the institution,” Ferrara said. “This relationship will allow students to feel valued and supported throughout their journey and can help them appreciate our commitment to their overall development and goals.”

Derrick Fairman, assistant director of academic advising for LA&PS, sees the work of the economics Early Alert Program as a great example of what can be done and what’s to come.

“I’m very proud of the work that was done with the Early Alert Retention pilot and the Economics Department in particular,” Fairman said. “I’m very thankful that they participated in the pilot. I think it’s just a huge step in the right direction for the students of York University.”

In total, across the nine participating Faculties, more than 675 students were identified during the Early Alert process, 126 met with advisors and more than 200 referrals were made to additional resources – including personal counselling, Learning Skills Services, the Study Hub, the Writing Centre and more. Additional assessment is also underway regarding final grades and persistence to year two.

Brendan Schulz, Chair of Retention Council, said, “The key to successful ‘early alert’ is early reporting of grades and behaviours, coupled with integrated care and support thereafter.”

According to Schulz, the Retention Council intends to run the Early Alert Program again this coming fall, incorporating additional best practices and lessons learned.

“It is fantastic to see this collaboration across Faculties,” said Schulz. “Each program/Faculty is able to tailor their approach to their students’ unique needs while we maintain an overall, consistent experience for students.”