Better-connected and bearing more data, advising takes leap forward

There are four questions Autumn Cartagena, an adviser to open option students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, likes to ask each of her new students: "How are your classes going? How's your roommate situation? How do you plan to get involved? Are you feeling homesick?" 


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"Those lead naturally to some meaningful conversations," she said. "I want to know what's going on with you as a person that is going to impact what's going on with you academically." 

The opportunity for that sort of deeper engagement, proactive discussion that extends beyond course registration, is why academic advising is crucial in improving student success and reducing retention and graduation gaps for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students. 

"Academic advising is often the only required one-on-one interaction between a student and an employee of the university," said Karen Zunkel, director for undergraduate programs and academic quality. "It's where everything comes together in a relationship." 

A software platform recently expanded for use across campus makes it easier for advisers and other staff to have connect-the-dots conversations, meeting with more students for more reasons with more information at their fingertips. Users can design student outreach tailored to specific segments, see notes about students’ interactions with other campus units and access predictive analytics models that crunch years of ISU data to help identify students who need support. 

"It's a leap forward for us technologically," said Amy Slagell, LAS associate dean for academic programs. "It really is transformative." 

Coordinating care 

The student-success platform -- EAB Campus, often referred to as EAB -- was piloted beginning in 2015-16, expanded campuswide to undergraduate academic advisers last school year and is adding student affairs departments this year. Ninety-four percent of undergraduate students can now use EAB to schedule an appointment with their adviser or many other student-support offices using the platform, a growing list that eventually will include most of student affairs. More than 700 staff are trained to use the system, Zunkel said.  

"It's a way for students to connect with campus offices for appointment scheduling, and a way for campus offices to connect with each other about student success," she said. 

The goal is to create a coordinated care network. When an adviser or another staff member meets with a student, they document it with a brief report that anyone who meets with the student can see. Nearly 84,000 reports were loaded into the system during the 2017-18 school year, according to data shared by Zunkel. 

Who's connected

Besides undergraduate academic advisers, the following offices and departments are linked to EAB Campus (more will be soon):

Detailing contact with students makes subsequent meetings more fruitful and efficient. For open option LAS students, it's a huge advantage, Cartagena and Slagell said. Students don't have to start from scratch when they move to a new adviser.  

"We know sometimes students get exhausted having to tell their story over and over," Slagell said. 

National leader 

Advisers also can see if students are following through with referrals to campus resources, said Jessica Van Winkle, a 10-year advising veteran who was hired this summer as the provost office's EAB student success coordinator. 

"It's not this whole, 'Did they or didn't they,'" she said. "If they're having problems with a roommate, we can see if they talked with someone in residence."

Data-driven software platforms aimed at coordinating student-success efforts are increasingly common in higher education. It's an initiative of the University Innovation Alliance in which Iowa State and 10 other large universities share promising ideas for making college degrees more accessible. But Zunkel said by next fall she believes ISU will be a national leader among large universities with the breadth of student affairs offices connected through the EAB platform.

"Our division of student affairs is really embracing the broad use of platform. I can say fairly confidently that we will be among the national leaders, based on what I've heard from other campuses of our size," she said. 

Laura Doering, associate vice president for enrollment management and student success, said student affairs units are excited to join the EAB system and expand the coordinated care network it helps build. 

"The data we have access to in this platform will help the campus make better-informed decisions about how to lean in and support our students academically and holistically,” Doering said.

Sensitive private information isn't shared -- for instance, student conduct details or information from health center or counseling visits, Zunkel said. Staff are trained how to broach issues with students in ways that aren't intrusive, she said.  

"You don't say, 'Well, I see your hall director said X,'" she said. 

Student feedback has been positive, largely because it makes scheduling appointments easier. Van Winkle said undergraduates who grew up in an interconnected era expect coordinated note-sharing among campus staff.  

"I think a lot of them are shocked we didn't have this before," she said. 

Reinvesting time 

When she had the opportunity to try the platform in her previous position as an adviser in the mechanical engineering department, Van Winkle said she embraced it because it would simplify handling her 360-student advising load. Mandatory meetings with graduating seniors, for instance, became much easier. 

"Instead of tracking this in Excel, it did it for me. It really saved me time," she said. "It changed how I advised." 

That means more chances to seek out meaningful connections with students. Users can conduct email "campaigns" offering resources and advising appointments for specific reasons to customized groups -- those who are first-generation, got a C in calculus or are on academic probation, for example. In many cases, that outreach was difficult or impossible before. Advisers often wouldn't know which students were first-generation and couldn't easily sort who had trouble with calculus.

Cartagena uses email campaigns to request those initial check-in meetings with her first-year students. Before EAB, a similar effort was more difficult. 

"Anecdotally, I think it's made a huge difference. It's made my job easier and more rewarding. I am able to do so much more resource-referring," she said. 

A May survey of academic advisers found that on a five-point scale, with five being they "strongly agree" that EAB made an action more efficient, the average response from advisers was 4.16 on scheduling appointments, 4.04 on documenting advising meetings and 3.6 on targeting students for outreach. More than half of advisers said they reached out to students in new ways since using the platform. 

Not all campaigns are targeted at students who may need remedial help. For instance, Van Winkle said some advisers have used the customized emails to reach out to high-performing students to recommend high-impact experiences such as undergraduate research. 

Breaking the model 

The heightened connectivity is paired with big data. When advisers meet with students, they access an EAB dashboard through AccessPlus that includes predictive analytics that suggest whether a student is struggling or thriving. That includes EAB's own model, which analyzes 10 years of Iowa State academic data to show a risk status of green, yellow or red. The dashboard also shows two to three other predictive assessments:

  • A model specific to success in STEM fields
  • A model based on a student’s odds of earning a 2.0 GPA in the first term
  • Results from Mapworks that include student survey data 

“You get a lot of instantaneous information,” Zunkel said.  

Another key metric displayed is whether a student has missed any department-specific success markers -- most often, grades achieved in courses that correlate with likelihood of graduation. Reviewing data analysis from EAB, department leaders select four to eight success markers, Zunkel said. More than half of departments have set their success markers, and the goal is to have all departments set them by the end of the school year, she said. 

Sometimes those predictive courses are within the major. For instance, meteorology students who earn an A in Meteorology 206 are 38 percent more likely to graduate than students who earn a B, Van Winkle said. Other times, the courses that show a correlation are more surprising. In mechanical engineering, graduation rates for students who take Economics 101 and earn a B or better are 23 percent higher than students who earn a C, Van Winkle said. 

While advising analytics are useful, it's important to use them as a way to spot support needs instead of flagging risk factors, Slagell said. 

"I always say when I'm talking about EAB in terms of a student success initiative, its real goal is to break the predictive model," she said. 

Analytics help advisers reach hard-working goal-setters who may lack the confidence to talk about their struggles, Van Winkle said. 

"We want them to know there are people who are going to help them get where they want to be," she said.  

Other benefits 

The ease of accessing Iowa State data with EAB has other upsides. Slagell said LAS uses it to assess departments in new ways. University data showed a sharp drop in persistence for students with less than a C in English 250, the second of two mandatory communications courses, which is why a C in the class is now a graduation requirement, she said.   

"There are all sorts of things in the data analytics that help us function more successfully," she said. 

EAB has improvements in store, too. Van Winkle said an option might be added next fall to seek progress reports from faculty who opt in. That would give advisers a way to know if a student is having issues in a class before midterm reports, which often is too late. Athletics already uses that function for NCAA compliance requirements, she said.  

Slagell hopes to integrate adviser waivers, replacing the existing paper-based process for advisers to approve policy deviations. And email campaigns will be studied to see what works and what doesn't with an eye toward improving future efforts, Zunkel said.  

"It has promoted a lot of conversation and a lot of thinking," Slagell said. "I think we're just at the beginning of learning how to leverage the tool."