UNC Schools Alert Students Early About their Academic Performance

Several times near the beginning of each semester, East Carolina University engineering professor Ricky Castles sits down at his computer and sends alerts — both praise and warnings — to students doing especially well or especially poorly in his classes. If students have attended class consistently and scored well on quizzes and tests, they receive a “kudos” email. If they have missed class, not turned in satisfactory assignments or scored poorly on exams, they receive a “flag,” accompanied by suggestions of steps to improve.

ECU engineering professor Ricky Castles (right) with students.ECU engineering professor Ricky Castles (right) with students.

In addition to contacting the students themselves, the automated system sends alerts to the network of people invested in their well-being, including academic advisors, residential life officers and the tutoring center.

“This is a one-stop-shop that sends one alert to as many support resources as the student has — and that’s really the beauty of it,” Castles said. “As a faculty member, I would never have the time to send an individual email to the tutoring center, to academic advisors, to residential life." 

ECU is not alone in its efforts to alert students early about their academic performance. In fact, as part of an effort to increase the number of students earning degrees across the University of North Carolina system, all 16 universities* are in the process of implementing automated yet personalizable early warning systems and developing sets of follow-up interventions, according to Tracey Ford, the UNC system's assistant vice president for academic and student affairs. 

“The sooner you can let students know how they’re doing and identify students having difficulty, the easier it is to get them on track,” Ford said. “If you wait until week eight or 10 of the term, students are potentially too  far down to dig themselves out. This works because it’s early, and students feel like they still have a chance.”

Along with its early warning system, ECU has put in place a number of controls to identify students when they first exhibit signs of trouble. The school’s Pirate Tutoring Center has moved into a new space, upgraded its technology and started paying its lead tutors rather than relying completely on volunteers. Castles and the other engineering professors have synchronized assignments in the foundation courses so students can always find an instructor to answer their questions. And in his own classroom, Castles pays attention and makes adjustments when needed, switching out struggling students’ lab partners, for example.

“The early alert system is helping students know about the opportunities to get help sooner than they would otherwise, while there’s still time,” Castles said. “The whole network of support is making for much more student success.”

A student gets some extra help at ECU's Pirate Tutoring Center.A student gets some extra help at ECU's Pirate Tutoring Center.

System-wide Student Accountability

The University’s focus on early warning systems is part of its strategy to increase the number of North Carolinians with bachelor’s degrees or higher from the current 26 percent to 32 percent by the year 2018.

According to the University’s 2013-2018 strategic plan, “Our Time Our Future: The UNC Compact with North Carolina,” all UNC campuses had to implement an early warning system by this fall.

Over the next several years, each campus will be responsible for strengthening its system, Ford said, by expanding the number of students it targets and adding intervention strategies.

While some campuses have employed formal early warning systems before, others did not. To help those in the earlier stages of development, the University dedicated $100,000 to pilot programs at three institutions — Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Winston Salem State University — during the 2013-2014 academic year. It also provided eight other institutions $13,000 each to enhance the systems on their campuses.

During the pilot, North Carolina A&T targeted about 750 students who fell into categories considered at-risk (including students undecided in their majors, students in certain retention programs, athletes and band members) in entry-level, general education core classes like University Survival, English 100, and Math 101.

Lorraine Cook, who teaches University Survival and works as an advisor in the school's Center for Academic Excellence, receives professors’ alerts for the students under her watch. When she receives a message about a student, she responds by emailing the student and asking them to stop by her office to discuss the issue.

“The way it was done previously, it was hit or miss,” Cook said. “If you had an instructor who really honed in on students, they would take the time to send the advisor an email. With the new system, because we’re now receiving communication three times a semester on how students are performing in class, we know who needs attention.”

Sophomore Morgan Williams, one Cook’s advisees, remembers receiving multiple kudos in her English classes last year. 

“I was glad to get them, to let me know,” the 19-year-old said. “I got excited.” 

Classmates who received warnings instead of kudos, she said, usually tightened up and started attending class more. 

“It’s a really good program,” Williams said. “It helps everyone stay on track and know what they need to do to improve.”

Amanda Phillips, a retention specialist for the Academic Contract for Excellence Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has found the early alert system valuable as well. Phillips supports students returning from suspension or dismissal during their first semester back at school.

Previously, she had trouble keeping up with the approximately 150 students she was responsible for each semester. Now, though, she can tell exactly who needs extra help and she can become a second, third or fourth voice urging students to make positive changes.

“When their professor and another person — me — knows they’re not attending class, that motivates them to attend more,” Phillips said. “They know they have people holding them accountable.” 

Report from the Classroom

In an evaluation of its early warning system, ECU found that students are, in fact, responding well to the alerts. 

Between fall 2011, when the early warning system and intervention process were implemented, and summer 2012, ECU professors sent out a total of 59,100 alerts: 26,900 kudos, 24,500 academic warnings and 7,700 attendance-related messages. 

In a survey conducted at the end of fall 2011, 85 percent of students said they changed their study habits when they received academic difficulty flags. Additionally, 62 percent said they spoke with their professors, 34 percent said they contacted their advisors and 18 percent said they sought tutoring.

“The follow-up is the most important,” said John Trifilo, who manages the system. “If you don’t have the follow-up to go with the early alert, you’re just sending out an email.” 

In the spirit of collecting data, Castles examined the effect of the early warning system in his own classroom — specifically, in his mechanics class, one of the engineering program's foundation courses.

After he began sending early warnings, the percentage of students receiving A’s increased from 19 to 26 percent, and the percentage of students receiving B’s increased from 24 percent to 38 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of students receiving D’s decreased from 20 percent to 11 percent, and the percentage of students receiving F’s decreased from 18 to 5 percent.

“We’re finding significantly more students are getting A’s and B’s and significantly fewer students are getting D’s and F’s,” Castles said. “This system really helps us to understand and address the bigger picture. It helps us as educators get on the same page to support students as individuals.”

Moving forward, educators at ECU and across the UNC system are looking to expand and fine-tune their early warning systems. Because when it comes to increasing graduation rates, early intervention is critical.

“The more students we help through difficult times,” Dr. Ford said, “the more students that will make it to the finish line.”


*NCSSM not required to implement since this is for undergraduates

Homepage caption: A tutor at the Pirate Tutoring Center meets with a student.
Story by Christina Cooke, Freelance writer
ECU News Services photos by Jay Clark, Cliff Hollis.