Increasing Students’ Academic Success Through Research-Based Program Development, Im

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Increasing Students’ Academic Success Through

Research-Based Program Development, Implementation, and Evaluation
Holly Gritsch de Cordova Charis Herzon Rebecca Anderson
University of California Santa Cruz
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the educational benefits of using institutionally specific research to understand student academic achievement patterns so as to develop and implement effective academic support services. We will describe several research studies and the academic support programs that we developed based on our findings so as to exemplify our success with this technique at the University of California Santa Cruz. On our campus, we focus on developing intensive academic support programs to address two major academic issues: ensuring student retention by minimizing student academic failure and improving student access to “educational equity” and “inclusion in excellence.
Although almost all of our students meet the academic standards of UC eligibility (only approximately 2 to 4% per year being offered Admit by Exception status), our research indicates that students who have attended low-performing high schools, come from low- income backgrounds, and are the first in their family to attend a university, are more likely to experience academic difficulty and fail-out of the university. Additionally, they are also more likely to achieve cumulative Grade Point Averages below those of their peers from more privileged backgrounds throughout their entire four to six years at UCSC. Therefore, it has become a major goal of Learning Support Services at UCSC to conduct research to identify key academic problem areas and to design course-specific academic support programs.
We will present several examples to illustrate our strategies including: a study of our two levels of Math below calculus, College Algebra (Math 2) and Pre-Calculus (Math 3), that resulted in changes to the configuration of course sections and the implementation of a Math 2 Stretch course, allowing students two quarters to master College Algebra; a study of students academic success in our required freshman composition courses resulting in changes in our placement process and our tutorial support; a study of students’ academic performance in a writing-intensive Latin American/Latino Studies course and the writing- intensive support model that emerged; and research validating our conjecture that at-risk students benefit from supplemental instruction and tutoring that resulted in required Academic Success Plans for certain groups of students. In all of these instances, we sensed the existence of a serious educational problem that disadvantaged specific

students. Using our findings, we designed and implemented academic support models, and continually collect quantitative and qualitative evaluation data to monitor our effectiveness in assisting students’ to improve their academic performance.

Academic Support Services as a Response to Educational Inequity
Through a longitudinal study of the cohort of students who entered UCSC as frosh in

2005, Learning Support Services confirmed our suppositions that UCSC has not yet succeeded in establishing educational equity for its students. Students from low- performing high schools, the first in their families to attend a university, who are often students of color, and are given EOP status, are not achieving educational excellence as frequently as are their more privileged peers. Figure 1 presents a comparison of cumulative GPA’s of fourth-year EOP and non-EOP students in the 2005 cohort by Academic Division based on their academic majors.

Figure 1 Fall 2005 Frosh Cohort: Percentage of Students Whose Cumulative GPA>2.99 by Current Major Division as of Fall 2008, EOP v. Non-EOP


Arts Engineering Humanities Physical & Social Sciences

Biological Sciences

It is obvious that EOP students are consistently achieving fewer cumulative GPA’s of 3.0 and above, thus making it less likely that they will have options to attend graduate school programs that will prepare them for interesting, well-paying professional careers. This was especially true in the Social Science Division, a division that traditionally attracts many EOP students who attend UCSC.
Developing and implementing effective academic support programs to equalize students’ opportunities to achieve academic excellence at UCSC is a major goal of Learning Support Services. These academic support programs first become available during

students’ first year and continue even through such upper-division courses as senior seminars.

Increasing Student Success in Math 2, College Algebra and Math 3, Pre-Calculus
Several years ago it became very clear to Learning Support Services, the Mathematics Department, and the Physical and Biological Sciences Division that students who enter UCSC underprepared in mathematics were seriously hampered from pursuing their initially preferred major of study. At UCSC, mathematical competence at the level of eligibility for calculus is required of all majors in the School of Engineering, Division of Physical and Biological Sciences, Economics, and Psychology. However, the overall pass rate in Math 2 (College Algebra) was below 75% and the overall pass rate in Math 3 (Pre-Calculus) fluctuated from 64 to 97% depending on the quarter and teacher effect. Obviously, we knew that we needed to design extensive academic support programs for these students. Simply supporting these classes with supplemental instruction and tutoring that students were encouraged to use voluntarily was not adequately addressing the students’ learning needs.
In our initial study, we traced the academic achievement trends of students based on their demonstrated preparation for Math 2 as assessed by the UCSC Mathematics Placement Examination (MPE) (required of UCSC students prior to enrollment in their first math class). Our first academic intervention was to restructure the required sections for Math

2. Rather than continuing to offer the traditional one hour per week required sections of

25 to 30 students, we offered twice-a-week sections of from 12 to 15 students led by trained undergraduate Learning Assistants to all students who scored below the mid-point of an Algebra Readiness Exam. We introduced this exam, now given on the first day of class, to provide a course-specific assessment focus that provides more detailed analysis of students’ preparation for Math 2 than the MPE. These measures improved the pass rates in Math 2 to 82 to 87% (winter, 2005-fall, 2008).
Even while the overall class pass rate was increasing, it became apparent that students who scored below the midpoint of the MPE range for Math 2 continued to struggle. Figure 2 illustrates the differences in Math 2 pass rates for EOP and non-EOP students.

Figure 2 Math 2 Pass Rate vs. MPE for Non-EOP and EOP Students, Fall 2004-Fall 2009

In spite of the improved Math 2 pass rates based on the introduction of the twice-a-week sections, many students continued to fail the class. As the sole purpose of Math 2 from a student’s perspective is to prepare him/her for Math 3 or other Math and statistics classes, we remained concerned about a group of students who, even with the twice-a-week sections, continued to earn non-passing grades in Math 2.
One group of students, those who scored low on both the MPE and the Algebra Readiness Exam, seemed to need a different instructional option to master their college algebra skills in order to successfully pass Math 2 and move into pre-calculus or decide

to seek a major devoid of mathematics requirements without the consequences of an F on their transcripts. Therefore, the Math Department, Learning Support Services and the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education developed Math 2

Stretch, a two-quarter, 7 unit Math 2 instructional model. In this stretch course students begin and end in the Math 2 lecture setting, but spend the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second quarter in a small section taught by a graduate student Teaching Assistant where they review the first part of the course material and pre-learn the second part of the course material. As Table 1 will indicate, the pass rate in Math 2 Stretch in fall/winter 2010-11 was higher than the pass rate in Math 2 for like students with MPE and Algebra Readiness Exam scores in the low ranges.
Table 1 Pass Rates for Math 2 and Math 2 Stretch Students with Low MPE Scores and

Algebra Readiness Exam Scores

Pass Rate

Math 2 Fall 2010


Math 2 Winter 2011


Math 2 Stretch

Fall/Winter 2010-11


Having explained our progress in increasing the likelihood of students’ academic success in Math 2, we will discuss the equal challenge of assisting more students to succeed in Math 3, Pre-Calculus.
A trend that is disturbing is that students in Math 2 who move on to Math 3 tend to earn one grade lower in Math 3 than they did in Math 2. Table 2 illustrates these distressing academic achievement patterns.
Table 2 Math 3 Pass Rates Based on Math 2 Grade and Section Utilization

Math 2


Once-a- week Math 3 sections

Std Dev

Total Students N

Twice-a- week Math

3 sections

Std Dev

Total Students N






















The discrepancy in pass rates based on teacher-effect makes Math 3 data more difficult to study longitudinally. Yet, although student pass rates in Math 3 varied widely, a group of EOP students who scored below the mid-point of the MPE placement range for Math 3 placement exhibited academic difficulty each quarter similar to that experienced by the same level students in Math 2. Therefore, LSS implemented small twice-a-week sections in Math 3 as an option for students. Based on students’ pass rates, as Table 3 illustrates, students’ have demonstrated improvement when they attend these small, twice-a-week required, Math 3 sections.

Table 3 Math 3 Pass Rates Based on EOP Status, MPE Score, and Section Utilization

MPE Score



% Pass (N)


% Pass (N)


71% (351)

84% (173)


63% (141)

73% (95)

These twice-a-week sections have been helpful to all students but we are still concerned that more program innovation is needed. We still see the pattern where EOP students in the MPE score range below the midpoint used for Math 3 class placement continue to struggle to pass Math 3. Twice a week sections are helpful, but we may need to consider a stretch model for Math 3 as well.

It is our continual careful collection and analysis of student achievement data in Math 2 and 3 that has enabled us to propose a series of academic support models that have

proven to be effective. Yet, students entering UCSC with underdeveloped university level mathematical skills continue to be at risk of facing academic difficulty in both required general education and major related classes.

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