The initial activity of the QEP Executive Committee involved reviewing QEP research efforts from other institutions across the country. In addition to this review, institutional data about current TSU students and previous research reports on TSU student populations (i.e., Entering Student Survey Report, First-time Freshmen Report, TSU Fact Book) were also reviewed.
Findings from these reviews directed our attention to course enrollment patterns and success rates for first-time freshmen students, especially those enrolled in developmental courses. As a result, the Committee decided to conduct a more detailed examination of the characteristics of TSU students enrolled in developmental courses, the types of developmental courses in which they enrolled, and the passing rates for those courses.
The Committee decided that it would also prove useful to examine the passing rates in gateway courses such as English 131 and English 132; History 231 and History 232; and various freshman college-level Math courses (Math 133, Math 135, and Math 138) given the general enrollment patterns of first-time freshmen. This latter examination of data, in conjunction with the findings from previous TSU student population reports, resulted in the identification of three critical areas that appeared to be central to the first-year experience of students attending TSU.
They were academic coursework, student support, and student enhancement. These areas were consistently noted as critical regardless of the data year or report year considered. For the academic coursework area, it was determined that a substantial number of students failed to meet the minimum standard necessary for enrollment in college level coursework in English and Math. And, among those that did, a substantial number of those students experienced difficulty in the college level course.
Similarly, based on student survey responses from TSU student population reports, University support systems designed to assist students in their university academic experience were consistently viewed as lacking by a substantial number of respondents. This was especially true in the areas of advising and financial aid. These findings were true as well in regards to student enhancement activities such as tutoring and the availability of computer labs. A substantial number of students also consistently viewed these areas as inadequate to meet their needs.
Current Student Survey
Given these findings, we sought more direct and comprehensive data related to the issues identified in the review. Specifically, the information on academic coursework was not always exclusive to first-time freshmen and those that responded to surveys were generally self-selected.
To address these issues, we developed a data collection instrument that specifically focused on the challenges of students in the gateway courses and other non-gateway courses in which first-time freshmen normally enroll. Using instruments previously developed to assess TSU student perceptions and behaviors, we expanded the list of items addressed in the areas of student support and student enhancement.
The additional items addressed areas identified as critical to the first-year experience in our review of other institutional QEP efforts. And finally, we developed a data collection strategy that gave us the potential to obtain information from a more representative sample of the first-time freshman cohort.
Current Student Survey Data Collection Instrument
The data collection instrument developed at this second stage was divided into three sections. The first section, Academics, asked students to rate specific subject areas in terms of the academic difficulty they experienced during their freshman year. Likert Scale responses were used, where 0 indicated “No Academic Difficulty” and 5 indicated “A lot of Academic Difficulty.”
The second section, Student Support, asked students to rate the degree to which they believed the items listed were challenges to their academic success during their freshman year. Likert Scale responses were used for this section as well, where 0 indicated “No Challenge” and 5 indicated “Major Challenge.”
The final section, Student Enhancement, asked students to rate the degree to which they believed the items listed would have made a difference in their academic experience during their freshman year. The Likert Scale responses for this section included 0 if they believed the item to have made “No Difference” and 5 if they believed it to have made a “Big Difference.”A copy of the instrument used for the Freshman Student Survey is provided in Appendix 2.
Current Student Survey Data Collection Procedure
To assure ourselves of getting at least a reasonably representative sample of the current freshman cohort, the instrument was administered during the Freshman Seminar course (FS 102) required of all first-time freshmen. Additionally, to minimize data coding issues, the instrument was administered electronically through Blackboard and each student was provided an iPad to complete the survey during class.
The survey was administered during the 2017 Fall semester. A total of 716 freshmen students responded to the survey. This total represented 55 percent of the total 1292 freshmen students enrolled in the FS 102 courses during this semester.
Current Student Survey Findings
The major findings from this second stage indicated that students experienced the most difficulty in their freshman year in the areas of Math and Science. Similarly, students felt their greatest challenges during the freshman year were in the areas of textbook costs, financial aid processes, and amount of aid received for books and tuition. Finally, students felt that their freshman experience would have been different if they had greater access to academic advisors, had mandatory tutoring sessions, and had greater access to on-campus computer labs.
Although the instrument was designed to yield results that would be more direct and more comprehensive, they nevertheless were quite consistent with previous reports on the TSU student population. Accordingly, Stage 3, through the use of focus groups, attempted to generate information that could provide a more in-depth understanding of what these findings actually mean in a practical sense.
Student Focus Groups
Using information from Stage 1 and Stage 2 and from student surveys, several research questions were developed:
- What was the nature and impact of advising services on the start of the student’s academic career;
- How did financial aid and the process of securing financial aid impact their matriculation;
- What factors contributed to or hindered their academic success, including challenges that may have been experienced in Math and Science?
To enhance our ability to gain a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding each of these research questions, we did not attempt to address each question in a single focus group setting. Rather, focus groups were specific to a given research question. In other words, we had focus groups that specifically addressed advising, that addressed finance issues, and that addressed academic issues.
Student Focus Group Protocol
These research questions also became the basis for developing guiding questions for the focus group participants. These guiding questions were designed to elicit responses that were:
- contrast these categories
- propose solutions
The descriptive questions were attempts to elicit more immediate responses and to allow all participants to get involved in the topic. For example, the group on academics started with the question, “Tell me about one classroom experience last semester that really stands out to you even now.”
The second guiding question focused on establishing categories. For example, “Which classes were most difficult for you academically?” The distinctions for these categories were explored as a way of understanding perceptions and preferences which were often tacit and, in some cases, related to academic expectations from high school or earlier.
The third guiding question sought to establish a finer contrast within a category. For example, “Given what you said about your classes, what was it that made some classes more difficult than others for you?” The final guiding question focused on proposed solutions. Here, we sought to determine what students perceived to be possible solutions to the challenges they expressed in the previous discussions.
Copies of the protocols used in the Student Focus Groups are provided in Appendix 3.
Faculty and Institutional Staff Focus Groups
To further our understanding of challenges experienced by the TSU student population we conducted eight additional focus groups with faculty and staff. The specific focus groups were formed based on their relationship to the research questions associated with the student focus groups. Specifically, we formed a focus group of advisors, a focus group of staff from financial aid, and a focus group of staff in the enrollment management area.
In addition to these three focus groups with staff, we also formed five focus groups with faculty: one with faculty who teach on-line classes, one with faculty who teach primarily freshman level students in gateway classes, one with faculty regardless of teaching level in the College of Liberal Arts and Behavioral Sciences, one with faculty regardless of teaching level in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, and one with faculty regardless of teaching level in all other Colleges and Schools at the University.
Based on our review of the literature and QEP efforts at this and other institutions, we are led to conclude that if we do not successfully integrate the student into the academic lifestyle by midterm of the first semester, the likelihood of retention is significantly decreased. We therefore need a program that impacts the student immediately, not one that evolves throughout the course of the first year.
Likewise, from the review of institutional data and information collected from our current student population, we discovered that many of the students attending TSU are quite vulnerable and that a significant challenge in any aspect of their experience at the university can have significant consequences for their success.
In other words, academic success extends beyond the classroom into other institutional areas that may appear to have little bearing on classroom performance. And finally, our discussions with faculty and staff have led us to conclude that many of the resources and support that students would need to navigate the challenges that they face currently exist or have existed at TSU. However, the students seem to lack the knowledge that these resources and support are available; or the student’s believe that the support and resources do not exist in a manner that would actually be beneficial to their current needs.
These conclusions led us to believe that we need a program that intervenes early in the student’s academic experience at TSU. Furthermore, to address the many vulnerabilities faced by the TSU population, this intervention needs to be targeted and impactful regarding student academic success. And finally, given the existence of many of the resources and support systems necessary to be both focused and impactful, the program needs to have a mechanism for creating linkages that increase student knowledge and use of these resources.
Additionally, the program must be designed in such a fashion that it creates a synergy among institutional areas that facilitates a smooth transition for students into the academic lifestyle. These insights have led us to further conclude that the QEP goal of academic success can be achieved only if institutional and student goals are aligned. We therefore modified our original vision for the QEP design to include not only factors critical to the development of the “whole student,” but to also include factors critical to institutional success as defined by faculty and staff of the University.
Our revised vision of the process is depicted in Figure 3. This revised vision moves from a “siloes” presentation to one that reflects an awareness of the institution’s role in providing systemic programming and practices from application through graduation that ensure student success. Thus, we describe the TSU QEP as follows:
The TSU QEP seeks to restructure current processes in an effort to enhance perceptions of programs and access to resources that impact student success. It seeks to replace ‘siloed’ practices with an integrated set of procedures that result in a seamless and systemic immersion of first-time freshmen into the collegiate environment.