There is a long history of research proving the correlation between student engagement and student retention, even for non-academic offerings on campus. But how can we make those student connections most effective? And what proof do we have that our efforts at connection-creation are paying off in student retention and outcomes?
Dr. Jeff King, Executive Director of the Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching & Learning at the University of Central Oklahoma, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about non-academic ways to improve student retention and the market benefits of a second student transcript.
Student Transformative Learning Record Initiative at UCO
“(STLR) is the way we operationalize transformative learning in both the curriculum and the co-curriculum by having students engage in one or more of five areas that we refer to as our tenets,” Jeff explained.
STLR provides activities both inside and outside the classroom associated with one or more of five transdisciplinary tenets, often called “soft skills” or critical skills. Employers frequently say that recent graduates lack these skills, which include the ability to solve ill-formed problems and to work on a team with people who disagree with you.
“So here at UCO, STLR is the intentionality with which we build these developmental opportunities into the curriculum and co-curriculum,” Jeff said.
UCO assesses the student’s development toward a transformation using a set of rubrics based on the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ value rubrics. Then, the students reflect on their engagement in these STLR-tagged activities or assignments, and the faculty members use the rubrics to assess where the students’ thinking happens to be on a continuum across three different badge levels.
The lowest badge level is simply named Exposure. If a student attends the Asian Moon Festival as a co-curricular activity on campus, for instance, the only thing the university knows for certain is that that student was exposed to another culture. As faculty or staff assess the student’s reflective artifacts, however, they can make a determination about subsequent levels based on evidence.
“We wrap all of that up into what we call our STLR Snapshot, but which you can think of as a “co-curricular” transcript. This transcript is absolutely evidence-based,” Jeff said. “Everything that’s on it has been vetted by the university, so of course, it carries the registrar’s seal.”
STLR Results for Student Retention and Employment
From the beginning, Jeff and his colleagues saw an association at the 0.001 significance level in large end analyses between STLR and improved retention on the order of double digits.
“This has held across five years now,” Jeff said, “and we are particularly excited about the fact that we have pretty much eliminated the retention gap between (mainstream student populations) and at-promise populations.”
Last year, UCO decided to track the program’s impact on declared STEM majors to find out if STLR was having an outside retention impact there. The university discovered it was getting 25% retention lifts in members of that at-promise student population that was coming in as declared STEM majors.
To improve the value of STLR after graduation, UCO works with an employer advisory board composed of representatives from most of the major workforce areas in the Oklahoma City region.
The board members have conducted mock interviews with students find out the difference between a “STLR-ized” student and a non-STLR-ized student. They have become advocates for the program because, like many employers, they feel that the academic transcript is limited in its usefulness.
Jeff explained that “More and more in the absence of the academic transcript not being used the way it used to be, these employers told us, ‘We have started to pivot toward applicant testing as a part of the application process,’ but the testing is not in discipline areas. The testing is in emotional intelligence areas.”
That’s why these employers on the board were so eager and enthusiastic about this STLR snapshot or co-curricular transcript. It immediately dispels the myth that graduates would not be ready to hit the ground running day one.
How to Engage and Retain Non-Traditional Students
Sometimes, people say to Jeff, “Well, you must be getting good STLR results because it’s only good students that are opting in.”
But it’s not an opt-in-or-out approach. If a student takes a class, and there’s a STLR-tagged assignment in that class, then that student will get this kind of engagement.
“When even (commuter) students discover that they have this STLR snapshot and they understand that it is going to be a value add for them when they seek employment, then they do two things,” Jeff said.
Number one, they start to seek out as many classes as they can find that are STLR tagged.
Number two, they also start to consciously and intentionally look for the co-curricular activities they could engage with because those are STLR opportunities as well.
Next-Steps Advice for Improving Student Retention Rates
“Among the range of colleges and universities that have adopted and adapted (STLR), we’ve seen a number of different strategies,” Jeff said. “Several have in essence baby-stepped their way into this kind of approach.”
It is, after all, a heavy lift. How did you get faculty to buy in, for instance? And how did you figure out the IT?
“All of that can seem overwhelming,” Jeff said, “but as a good example, we’re working with Cal Poly Pomona now who’s decided to baby-step their way in regarding leadership. They need a way to track, assess, and document their students’ leadership development, and so adapting STLR in a small area has worked. Western Carolina University did the same.”
Ultimately, taking an intentional approach is the most important factor in making a program like this go.
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