Written by Marianne Fontes, Ed.D., Associate Professor, English

During Fall 2017, members of the Curriculum & Instruction Strategic Planning Goal Team surveyed adjunct faculty about retention strategies. The process and ensuing “Help One More Student Stay” project is described below. The team hopes to recruit more faculty to be involved in this important project.

Have you ever wondered why the student who is doing well in your class suddenly drops? Or why the student who was getting a “C” doesn’t return after one poor test grade? The most troubling is the student who is passing all along and then just doesn’t show up for the final. We’ve all had students in our classes who suddenly drop out, and we seldom get an explanation for their disappearance. We might attribute it to family problems, work issues, test anxiety, or unpreparedness; but the truth is that we may never know why. Conversely, there are a number of students who stay in our classes all semester long and who, unbeknownst to us, were on the verge of dropping out but chose not to. Like the students who leave our classes, we may never know what caused a student who was considering dropping to stay in our classes.

The question of “students staying” intrigued Dr. Robin James, Dr. Rich Johnson, Dr. Jennifer Berne, and me. As part of the Curriculum & Instruction Strategic Planning Goal Team, we wanted to know techniques instructors use that encourage retention for those students who are on the verge of dropping out. We weren’t asking about intervention techniques; we wanted to know what instructors were already doing that might increase the likelihood of a student who was thinking of dropping out to stay. Because we wanted to know, we asked.

During Fall 2017, we sent out a survey to all adjunct faculty that asked: Do you have specific strategies you employ for students who may be at risk of withdrawing or drifting away from class? More than 140 adjunct faculty responded. The four of us then grouped the responses into three categories: Communication, Flexibility, and Empathy. Within each category, we noted specific strategies that were the most common among the responses. For example, many instructors thought that setting aside class time to conference with each student at least twice during the semester encouraged them to stay (Communication). Instructors responded that flexibility with due dates and assignments perhaps helped students stay longer than they may have otherwise (Flexibility). Many instructors responded that asking students about their lives outside of school increased the likelihood of them staying (Empathy). Within each category, there were two to three common strategies. As it turns out, the results were consistent with a large-scale study on retention published by Odessa College in Texas. Learn more about The Drop Rate Improvement Program at Odessa College.

Armed with this information, I presented the results of the survey to a few adjunct faculty at the beginning of the Fall 2017 semester and asked if anyone was interested in trying one of the techniques that our colleagues said worked. Five instructors agreed to try a strategy that they were not already doing in one of their classes. I have checked in with them throughout the semester, and the results are promising. Mary van Opstal, who teaches chemistry, for example, has noted that the class in which she conferenced with the students has far more students still attending class compared to her other sections and in previous semesters. On December 20, we will be sharing our experiences of the project during a celebratory dinner. In addition to those who worked on the project this semester, 10 more full and part-time faculty who have agreed to be part of the project during Spring 2018 have been invited as well.

I would love for you to be part of the “Help One More Student Stay” project in the spring! I hope to recruit more faculty who would be willing to try one thing different in their classes next semester. If you are interested in learning more, please let me know as soon as possible (mfontes@harpercollege.edu). Together we can increase the likelihood that “one more” student stays in our classes!