Helping Every Student Graduate, One Student at a Time

Signage from the Kentucky Student Success SummitAt CPE’s Student Success Summit on April 3, David Laude, Sr. Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives at University of Texas Austin and chemistry professor, delivered the opening plenary session. UT Austin has made dramatic improvements in its graduation and retention rates in a short period of time by using predictive analytics and high-impact practices identified by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Here is his story.

When David Laude began teaching chemistry at UT Austin, he started every semester the same way. He asked four of his students to stand up, and after a dramatic pause, asked three to sit back down. “Only one of these four students will make it to graduation,” he pronounced.

For students and professors of a certain age, this exercise was common enough to become a cliché. But times may finally be changing. UT Austin is one of a handful of schools making headlines for innovations in teaching and learning that harness technology and data analytics to inform its educational practices.

For David Laude, the change began about ten years ago with a sudden epiphany. A quarter of his students routinely failed introductory chemistry, which amounted to 125 per section, 500 per semester and 1,000 per year. “Over the course of a few years, I realized I had crushed the hopes and dreams of thousands of students,” he admitted.

Laude began to challenge the generally accepted notion that a high rate of failure is indicative of academic rigor. What if a student’s failure is not just the student’s fault, but the instructor’s fault as well? What if he was failing to present the material in an engaging and enlightening way? Maybe his primary objective was not merely teaching the material but ensuring students learned it. If so, a 25% rate of failure was not a badge of honor but a sign of ineffectiveness. This realization eventually propelled him from the chemistry department to the provost’s office, where he has earned the unofficial title of “graduation czar.”

For Laude, creating a student-centered classroom meant flipping the script. Instead of pointing out how many students are likely to fail, he now begins each semester with a bold assertion—every one of you is capable of earning an A in this class. “Look at the student to the right and left of you,” he says. “These are the people who will help you get an A.”

David Laude
David Laude addresses the Kentucky Student Success Summit.

Laude thinks of himself less as an instructor and more as a motivator and facilitator. He regularly records three-minute videos of himself explaining chemistry’s key concepts and posts them on YouTube, freeing him from the lecture format. He uses high school GPAs to predict which students will need more help and focuses his time and attention on them. If students are facing a particularly difficult personal challenge, he is willing to “crack the academic calendar,” sometimes giving them longer than a semester to master the material and complete the course.

In his administrative role, Laude has been charged with helping UT-Austin reach an ambitious goal—to raise the four-year graduation rate from 50 to 70 percent. Since 2013, the university has experienced an 11 percentage-point increase in its graduation rate and is on track to hit 70 percent by the end of this school year. Even better, contrary to the skeptics, academic integrity has not been compromised; in fact, students are outscoring their predecessors on assessments of student learning.

Laude credits several university-wide practices for their success:

  • Building community—All of UT’s undergraduate students are placed in small learning communities (20-30 students) led by an advisor, not just the students who need additional support or the ones who opt in.
  • Using data to inform decisions—Predictive analytics inform all major decisions at UT-Austin. Early-alert systems warn advisors when students fail their first test or miss too many classes. Students who are not likely to graduate based on indicators like academic readiness, racial/ethnic status or income are given supplemental advising and mentoring.
  • Connecting college and career—At-risk students are placed in campus jobs to develop their sense of belonging, connect classroom learning to the real world and alleviate some of their financial burdens. The work-study program has increased first-year retention rates to around 90 percent for participants.

In short, Laude says, improving student success comes down to the belief that every student will graduate, and a commitment to making it happen, one student at a time.