Major strides in student success

Students working together.The five-year WSU Transformational Change Initiative (TCI) created an excellent model for boosting student success, and plans are in the works to continue improving the program.

“The intention is to help the students connect with opportunities that align with their values, play to their strengths, and move them toward their goals,” said Samantha Swindell, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-principal investigator for TCI.

By utilizing multiple approaches, the program provides resources and practical tools students and faculty can use in the classroom and beyond. The three main TCI components are: a parent-student handbook; LAUNCH, a peer-facilitated program designed to connect students to co-curricular learning opportunities; and LIFT, a faculty development program that focuses on the student’s experience in the classroom.

“Our goal was to have multiple touchpoints, using evidence-based programs that we know help students,” said Laura Hill, senior vice provost and co-principal investigator for the Transformational Change Initiative. “It really came together and even stimulated other efforts at WSU. We achieved all of our goals with each major arm of the program.”

Both LAUNCH and LIFT boosted student retention among participating cohorts. Students whose parents or guardians read and implemented tools in the handbook reported a decrease in alcohol use and cannabis use through their first four semesters at WSU.

Lending a handbook

Hill led faculty at WSU and staff in Office of the Dean of Students and Student Affairs staff in designing the “First Years Away from Home: Letting Go and Staying Connected” handbook. Created in collaboration with partners at the University of Washington, the resource helps parents of first-year students learn ways to support their students’ autonomy while communicating clear expectations and providing emotional support.

The goal was to decrease risk behaviors, measured through alcohol and cannabis use and it succeeded, both statistically and qualitatively.

“The handbook received rave reviews from parents,” Hill said. “The students whose parents got the handbook were less likely to participate in those risk behaviors. The handbook helped the parents prepare for the transition and what their student would be experiencing when they went to college.”

Hill said the next step is to update the handbook and run another trial with parents and students at Colorado State University. The National Institute of Health is providing grant funding and Hill is hopeful that the program will eventually expand to wider audiences at WSU and across the country.

Preparing for LAUNCH

The myriad opportunities for involvement at WSU can be overwhelming for first-year students, but research shows that co-curricular learning experiences are often key to success in college and beyond.

The LAUNCH students opt in to the program, which has been embedded in Psychology 105, Human Development 200, and Math 140. They complete an initial Goals, Personal Values, Strengths (GPS) inventory, and then participate in a workshop with the LAUNCH ambassadors that helps them lay out a plan to reach their goals as an undergraduate, and beyond.

“The experiential and co-curricular opportunities are not just preparing them for jobs, but increasing their breadth of knowledge and helping them to develop a flexible skillset,” Swindell said. “We’re trying to get students engaged as soon as possible. Starting early not only gives them more time to develop their skills and knowledge – and build important relationships – but each opportunity may lead to more opportunities and students are likely be better able to step into those new opportunities because of the experience they have already acquired.”

Through four cohorts, the LAUNCH program has served 2,202 students in nine colleges, boasting a retention rate two percentage points higher than all WSU students in year one, and three points higher in year two.

“In addition to the retention data, we use a validated measure of personal growth and our results speak to the fact that students are getting something out of the program,” Swindell said. “Not only do their personal growth scores increase from pre- to post-assessment, but students say that they see   experiential opportunities as extremely important to that change.”

This year’s cohorts are completing programming virtually, and will perhaps serve as a model for the future of the program.

Faculty providing a LIFT

When it comes to teaching, there are many options for training and improvement, but the LIFT Faculty Fellowship set a high standard. Bill Davis, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Veterinary Medicine and co-PI for the Initiative, says the “Learn. Inspire. Foster. Transform.” programming came along at the right time and positively impacted both faculty and students.

“Instead of talking about active learning and pedagogy, we focused on the student experience,” Davis said. “At the time LIFT started it was fairly unique. The trainers and facilitators worked hard to build a program that is robust, effective, and has a high impact. The testimonials tell us people are walking away with a new vision of the learning environments they can build for their students.”

The fourth cohort of LIFT fellows will begin training this month. The LIFT instructors focus on mindfulness and self compassion. They emphasize how to foster a growth mindset, increase sense of belonging, and teach values-based decision making for students. The LIFT training includes a four-day experiential workshop in which instructors experience interventions, create an action plan for their classrooms. Following the spring trainings, they conduct peer observations of other LIFT participants during the fall semester.

Nearly 10,000 students were exposed to at least one LIFT-taught course in the first two years of the program and those students were retained at rates 6% higher than their peers in the first year. The trend in higher student retention rate continued and increased in years two and three.

Faculty are also enthused about the program and the practical tools it provides for instruction and beyond.

“We’ve had faculty tell us they’re so glad that WSU has invested in this, and we’ve found that a lot of LIFT fellows talk about how they’ve used the training for situations outside of work with a family member or a partner,” said Katie Forsythe, director of TCI. “Faculty fellows also appreciate the system-wide aspect of the program. We’ve had instructors from Everett, Global Campus, Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Pullman, and this spring we’ll have some from Spokane.”

A dedicated group of faculty serve as trainers and dedicate many hours to leading instructors through the curriculum.

“Our trainers have been really committed year after year and we haven’t had any drop off,” Davis said. “Most of them have been through the program, and then become trainers. They want to continue to be involved because they believe in it and want to see it grow.”

The Transformational Change Initiative was initially funded through the WSU strategic reallocation process in 2016.

Top photo: A LAUNCH ambassador works with a student during a 2019 workshop at The Spark Building.

Originally posted at WSU Office of the Provost and WSU Insider.