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UToledo a National Leader in Improving Student Success Through Student Experience Project

The University of Toledo’s participation in the national Student Experience Project has helped faculty revamp how they engage with students to enhance student support, retention and success, particularly for first-generation and underserved students.

The method built at UToledo now serves as a national model for how to do what are called Communities of Practice, which is transforming how faculty teach. Participating instructors at UToledo, who total 142 since 2020 and includes faculty, lecturers and graduate students, are called Equity Champions.

“The project is based on evidence regarding some of the reasons we lose students from the very beginning,” said Dr. Michael Prior, an associate professor of social work and Equity Champion. “We lose so many students through them not believing in themselves and not practicing habits that lead to success. But through specific techniques, we can adjust our service to impact both of those aspects of the students’ experience which in turn can make all the difference in the world for them academically.”

Research shows that social belonging and the cues students receive about their ability makes a difference in whether they persist or not.

For the past three years UToledo is one of six schools that has been working with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and Coalition of Urban Serving Universities on an equity-focused initiative to boost student achievement by fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging.

University partners in this project are UToledo, Colorado State University, University of Colorado Denver, University of New Mexico, University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Portland State University.

The Student Experience Project also was a collaboration with other learning partners that included a group of social psychologists across the U.S. and Canada associated with the College Transition Collaborative and the Project for Educational Research that Scales.

As part of its work on the project, UToledo implemented a Community of Practice where each semester a cohort of Equity Champions are given a space to meet once a week, encourage each other and share resources that worked in their classroom.

“I joined Equity Champions as we were starting to come back to campus amid the pandemic, political discord and racial divisiveness because I knew I needed to focus on my students’ well-being if I wanted them to learn the content of my courses,” said Heather Robbins, senior lecturer in the School of Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences in the College of Health and Human Services. “I never felt alone nor overwhelmed while doing the work. Quite honestly, it has sparked a new love for teaching as it reminded me why I got into this profession in the first place.”

The national results of the Student Experience Project, funded by the Raikes Foundation, will be released next month along with field-tested resources. Dr. Denise Bartell, associate vice provost for student success, will be part of a panel discussion and talk about what worked for UToledo so other institutions of higher education across the country can replicate the best practices. The virtual event is noon Wednesday, July 13. Register through the event’s Zoom website.

“The University of Toledo has been a leader in the work on the Student Experience Project and that speaks to the power of the faculty who have stepped up to adopt practices that make first-generation and underserved students feel welcome and supported while improving academic performance,” Bartell said.

The practices utilized by Equity Champions and designed by the Student Experience Project include revising syllabi and course policies to be more student-attuned, explicitly communicating the belief that all students are capable of success, sharing stories with students of times when they struggled with a sense of belonging in college, and highlighting the work of diverse scholars.

“For example, changing the tone or word choices in a syllabus is critical,” Bartell said. “Instead of it reading like a contract, convey that it is common to struggle in courses like this, we have resources to support you, we know you can be successful here, and reach out to me for support. And provide reasonable flexibility for students who need to work a part-time job or support their family. It truly changes the nature of students’ experience in the classroom.”

Data from UToledo show that implementing these innovative practices is increasing student academic outcomes. Equity Champions have collectively made gains in every key concept addressed by the Student Experience Project in each semester since the beginning of the project.

For example, sense of social belonging — the feeling that one belongs in the learning environment — jumped from 36% to 43% in Fall 2020 and 54% to 57% in spring 2021, and identity safety — in which students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome, valued, respected and recognized as having the potential to succeed — increased from 64% to 73% in fall 2020 and 76% to 80% in spring 2021.

Equity Champions measure the immediate impact of their course changes by using a free, data-driven survey tool throughout the semester called Ascend that enables the instructors to learn how their students are experiencing courses. They then use these results to identify evidence-based practices that can improve the student experience in their classroom in real time.

Students who report positive experiences across all categories in Ascend have fewer failing D or F grades or withdrawals from courses with participating instructors.

“I realize that through operationalized caring and believing in students, I can impact their success and academic well-being more efficiently each semester,” Prior said.

UToledo’s cohort of Equity Champions for the upcoming fall semester is 76, the largest since the project began. Half of the instructors have participated in a previous semester and half are new to the project — with some academic programs scaling it up to the department level.

“Our goal is to change the system of higher education and the way we do this is by empowering faculty to create equitable learning experiences and utilize their power and influence to move their institutions forward for student success,” Bartell said. “Higher education is inherently competitive. We created a space that feels different, modeling that we’re all learning together.”

“The lived experience in the program has done for me something akin to what we hope we can do for our students,” Prior said. “I realize that, even at the age of 67, I have not reached my potential as a teacher.”

Read UToledo’s semester reports about the Student Experience Project on the Office of the Provost website.

At the July 13 event the APLU plans to release resources for administrators and faculty across the country to improve equity in student experience, including the First Day Toolkit, a field-tested Classroom Practices Library and the Ascend measurement platform.

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