Learner Success Lab puts focus on data to drive retention, completion

A campuswide effort has produced a roadmap for improving student success over the next decade. Recommendations from the initiative informed Iowa State's new strategic plan, which was approved by the state Board of Regents at its June 2 meeting.

Iowa State was one of 10 institutions selected to participate in the American Council on Education's Learner Success Laboratory, an 18-month initiative supported by a grant from the Strada Education Network, to develop institutional strategies for student success.

More than 70 ISU faculty, staff and students worked on the project, led by project co-chairs Shawn Boyne, director of academic quality and undergraduate education in the office of the senior vice president and provost, and Robert Reason, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Human Sciences, and a 14-member steering committee.

Learner success includes not only how well students do in their academic coursework, but also critical factors such as retention, degree completion, preparation for lifelong learning and workforce readiness.

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, associate provost for academic programs, said the challenges associated with learner success have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The pandemic has been a challenge for everyone, but the impacts are especially pronounced among students who finished high school online and may not be as prepared for the increase in academic rigor as well as the transition to life on campus," she said.

In its report to the university, the ACE site visit team highlighted Iowa State's land-grant mission as a student-centric leading research university, its passionate and engaged faculty and staff, and its strong first-year retention and six-year graduation rates. The university's first-year retention rate was 88% last year, compared to the national average of 76% for four-year public institutions. Iowa State's six-year graduation rate is 76%, nearly 20 points above the national average of 57%.

Recommendations from ISU's project summary report include:

  • Take steps to reduce the equity gaps for retention and degree completion among underrepresented students.
  • Prepare to meet the needs of "new majority" learners such as first generation, low-income and transfer students.
  • Make data more broadly available to inform decision-making, focus efforts and provide a mechanism for accountability.
  • Create a "culture of completion" that supports students from their first day on campus to their graduation.

"The legacy of the Learner Success Lab project is a framework that will help us continually improve how we work together, across units and divisions, to serve students' needs," VanDerZanden said. "It's fulfilling our promise to do everything we can to help students not only reach the finish line of completing their degrees, but prepare them for lifelong professional success."

Specific action items to be developed over the summer will include:

  • Universitywide goals for student retention, success in gateway courses such as calculus and participation in high-impact practices.
  • Broadening access to tutoring services.
  • Focusing academic advisors on at-risk students.
  • Initiatives that foster students' sense of belonging on campus.

Several of these are part of the "jump-start" to the new strategic plan, announced June 2 by President Wendy Wintersteen.

Wheeler to help coordinate efforts as faculty fellow

Andrea Wheeler, associate professor of architecture and 2021-22 Faculty Senate president, has been named to a three-year, half-time appointment as Provost's Faculty Fellow for Student Success, effective July 1.

Wheeler will work with VanDerZanden to coordinate and lead a student success task force focused on using data to inform decision making, expand partnerships across the university, identify initiatives to support targeted student populations, and collaboratively develop benchmarks and metrics to meet graduation and retention goals.

"I am excited to serve Iowa State in this broader capacity and to bring a faculty voice to our student success initiatives," Wheeler said. "I look forward to expanding my network across campus and also better understanding students' needs outside the classroom, which also play a critical role in their academic performance."

Wheeler, a first-generation student, joined the Iowa State faculty in 2013. She earned a bachelor's degree at Plymouth University, a master's degree in mechanical engineering and diploma in architecture from Oxford Brookes University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham, all in the United Kingdom. A scholar in the sustainable architecture of educational buildings, Wheeler recently completed a research fellowship in the Centre for Research in Advanced Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.