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.

Serving Military Veterans

Hundreds of military veterans enroll in Kentucky colleges each year. These students are typically older, have to work while in college to support themselves or their families, or have physical or mental health conditions incurred during service. Because of these issues, student veterans are at a higher risk of dropping out.

At the Council's Kentucky Student Success Summit this week in Louisville, a panel of military students provided their insights as to how campuses could improve existing services, as well as how some campus culture changes could improve their overall college experience.

Living expenses
Although the GI Bill provides an education stipend, military students struggle with financing housing close to campus and basic living expenses. This is especially a concern for those with children or with a spouse in a low-paying job. Many must work part-time to full-time jobs to support themselves or their family. The panelists felt that campuses could improve advising and mentoring to address stressors that could affect their ability to stay and succeed in school.

Feeling "out of place"
One concern reiterated several times was "being treated like a traditional student when I'm not one." Military students felt that faculty have a "one-size fits all" approach to dealing with students.

This was a de-motivator for most of the panelists. They felt that their ages and maturity levels, as well as their vast experience, are often ignored. They also pointed out that many veterans are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder - either diagnosed or not. This makes many sensitive to certain questions about their service or the mention of any atrocities they have witnessed.

They recommended that campuses look into professional development programs that instruct faculty as to how to best work with military students. They felt that faculty, once informed and supportive, could shape a campus climate that is more responsive to and respectful of their needs.

They also pointed out that, in many cases, the campus building for military students is located "on the outskirts" of the campus. They felt this wasn't convenient, and it made them feel a little isolated from the campus community. In addition, they expressed the need for a sense of community among military student peers, preferably in a physical location.

Better communication
When the majority of military students enroll in college, they are approaching it without exposure to K-12 college access programs. Many enlisted straight out of high school, without a thought of talking to a high school counselor about college. This left them overwhelmed as to what they should do to go to college and the services available to them during the transition. Panelists felt that a more holistic, structured communication plan with military students would help not only during the transition to college, but also throughout their college experience.

Career advising/understanding how courses transfer
When faced with choosing their "life after military," many panelists were overwhelmed at selecting careers that would work best with their prior education and skillsets. They pointed out that coming from the intensely structured military environment to civilian life is a very stressful and disorienting experience. They felt deciding "what to do with the rest of my life based on what I've already done" without help seemed too big a task.

They recommended that campus advisors provide guidance that links degrees to careers, and explains how to get the "most bang out of our prior coursework." The panelists felt that military students, especially, have a lack of understanding as to the financial ramifications that choosing the wrong degree could have. They said that better transfer and financial advising would help.

Given their discipline and prior education, military students are a great asset to Kentucky's campuses. With the support of faculty and campus staff, a good college experience can transform them into stellar students and Kentucky's future leaders. In addition to respect for their service, our campuses should give thought to improving military student services to shape their career - and continued - success.