Faculty progress reports in Starfish allow for broad network of support

January 22, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students contend with many big problems both inside the classroom and in their daily lives. Family issues, lack of transportation, lack of understanding of technology and the pressure of working jobs are all challenges that Penn State students have reported to their academic advisers in recent months. But academic advisers wouldn’t have known about many of these issues — or been able to offer help — if a conversation hadn't first started with a flag in Starfish.

Each semester, instructors are encouraged to raise flags and kudos in the Starfish system for their students at two different points: during the week-three, early indicators progress-reporting period and the week-seven, mid-semester progress-reporting period.

“Faculty have let us know they wonder if their time completing progress reporting makes a difference,” said Janet Schulenberg, senior director for curriculum and technology in the Division of Undergraduate Studies (DUS). “We have thousands of examples of students making a change prompted by one or more flags, often coupled with extra attention from an academic adviser.”

The week-three flags are meant to allow instructors to note mismatches between observed behaviors and the expectations they have for students. Flags at this stage can allow students time to adjust before their grades in courses are too severely damaged. The week-seven reporting period comes just before the late drop deadline, and these progress surveys often include more specific data about a student's class performance. With the results of these progress surveys, academic advisers and students can have an informed conversation about whether a student will be able to successfully complete the course or if they should consider dropping it.

In the past, Starfish flags have prompted advisers to identify and support students who face challenges that could stop them from succeeding in courses. For example, the week-three early indicators survey has helped advisers connect students to appropriate technology support, adjust their class participation expectations and develop strategies for seeking additional learning support. There is also evidence in Starfish and other student systems that students take independent action after receiving a flag, including increasing their time in Canvas or attending tutoring, without ever telling anyone such a change had occurred.

Progress surveys are not just for reporting problems. During reporting periods, kudos — such as "Keep up the good work," “Outstanding academic performance,” and “Satisfactory work” — can help students to know they are on the right track. Last semester, more than 10,000 of these kudos contained additional comments from instructors. Comments offered encouragement and suggestions for further improvement. Students report that receiving instructor feedback through kudos can be a powerful motivator, especially for students who might be questioning whether they belong in college, or at Penn State.

In an email to faculty, Executive Vice President and Provost Nicholas Jones said, “Your participation helps us as a University to fulfill our broader responsibilities to students by noting concerns early in the semester. When you register a concern in Starfish, you enable the University to deliver custom, coordinated support to all students, especially those most in need.”

Academic advisers and Starfish administrators have witnessed hundreds of examples of students not knowing what to do when a problem arises or where to go to address concerns. If a student doesn’t bring their concern to an academic adviser directly, only alerts from other faculty or staff can prompt advisers to respond to possible problems. Academic advisers can then point students in the right direction for help: Tutoring, counseling, study habit development and technical solutions are all among the resources commonly recommended, according to a report from the Starfish team within the Division of Undergraduate Studies.

Sometimes it takes time for students to seek the help they truly need. When multiple flags are raised for the same student in different courses, it’s a powerful signal to academic advisers that the student is in need. The alerts raised by instructors have helped advisers and other University staff engage students in addressing mental health challenges, homelessness and unhealthy family relationships that stand in the way of academic success. These kinds of challenges can be difficult for students to bring to those they don’t know and trust yet. Repeated outreach from advisers — prompted by progress reporting flags — can help students know there is a safe space to begin.

The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for college learners continue to be uncovered at the individual level through progress reporting. International students, in particular, face the challenge of being many time zones away from faculty, staff and peers in the eastern United States. Many students also face technological challenges as they cope with remote or mixed-mode classes. In response to progress surveys, students have also reported to their academic advisers that they are simply having a hard time concentrating and studying in all-remote environments.

Multiple students who received flags during the fall 2020 semester were out of class because of COVID-19 isolation or quarantine. Many students weren’t aware that they could or should reach out to instructors about their absences. Flags helped some to receive better support.

Progress surveys are reaching a large number of students and creating opportunities for positive student outcomes. The fall 2020 semester saw a total of 65,906 instructor-raised Starfish flags University-wide, according to a Starfish data report. A total of 20,245 students received at least one flag from 7,216 course sections. There were 59,744 kudos across 8,336 course sections.

While these numbers are large, Starfish administrators in DUS said the opportunity for growth remains. Only about half of the undergraduate student body received instructor feedback through progress reporting last semester, with less than half of course sections participating. Participation in progress reporting is lowest in large-enrollment gateway courses at the University Park campus, where the positive impact could be the greatest, according to Starfish administrators.

When an instructor raises a flag in Starfish, individuals in a role that directly supports that student are notified by email. Assigned academic advisers, campus athletic directors, Morgan Athletic counselors, Multicultural Resource Center counselors and ROTC advisers all receive emails about faculty-raised flags for the students assigned to them through these roles. Any of those individuals may provide additional outreach.

In addition to pointing students to resources or speaking on their behalf, academic advisers also encourage students to reach out to their instructors with questions and concerns, especially instructors that have raised flags. Students who are struggling with their courses are also encouraged to seek out resources listed at keeplearning.psu.edu.

The Penn State Starfish team is currently working on a long-term data analytics project that will quantitatively examine how progress reporting by instructors affects student course outcomes.

“Ultimately, we want students to be successful in their courses and beyond,” said David Smith, associate dean for advising and executive director of the Division of Undergraduate Studies. “By alerting students to issues early and enlisting the help of a student’s support network, we are able to help students manage challenges, get the help they need and finish strong. Input from instructors is incredibly useful in this effort.”

The Division of Undergraduate Studies is part of the Penn State Office of Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at undergrad.psu.edu.

Last Updated January 25, 2021