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Outlook - April 2005

New program helps students ASAP

Teaching Learning Center staff

by Angela Schafer
        Renee*, an incoming freshman with a low high school grade point average was accepted to Union, but on a condition: she must be part of the new Freshman Development program for her first semester. This new curriculum, which is provided by the Teaching Learning Center (TLC), is designed to help freshmen like Renee develop the study habits and organizational skills that will lead to academic success in college.
        Elliot Smith, a graduate of Union College and academic coach for the Academic Success and Advising Program (ASAP) and the Freshman Development program, met with Renee to discover what skills she needed to improve. In his meetings with Renee, Smith realized she had simply not been motivated to get good grades in high school. Smith helped Renee choose goals for the semester, both short-term and long-term, and then held her accountable for meeting those goals. He also helped her plan for encountering and overcoming roadblocks along the way.
        “I’m here to help teach students skills that will enable them to function better in college,” Smith said. “It could be competency in the area of time management, study skills, stress management, interacting with teachers, or accessing campus and community resources. Sometimes I discover outside stresses that cause students to do poorly in college. Sometimes they need help finding a job, getting car repairs, or trying to balance family problems and school.”
        After researching the needs of students on academic probation, Debbie Forshee-Sweeney, director of the Teaching Learning Center, and her staff implemented the ASAP and Freshman Development programs in the summer of 2004. “I think the programs have been successful because we have allowed flexibility,” Forshee-Sweeney said. “If one approach isn’t working we try something different.”
        The two programs are similar, the main difference is the class standing of the students. The Freshman Development is targeted to incoming freshmen whose ACT scores or GPA are below average. ASAP was designed to help returning students whose GPA was lower than 2.0. Previously, these students were put on academic probation and exchanged e-mailed regularly with the vice president for academic administration. Forshee-Sweeney saw the need for a skills-building program that would do more than monitor students’ academic status.
        “The old academic probation program did not involve professional advice and support, though we did hold some meetings and required e-mailed study reports,” said Malcolm Russell, vice president for academic administration. “The most valuable aspects of the new ASAP approach are the regular one-to-one counseling and workshops on necessary study skills and time management.”
        At the beginning of the semester, Smith meets with each student and gives them a self-assessment sheet to evaluate their own skills in areas such as time management, study strategies, organization, math, writing and reading. When the self-assessment is complete, Smith knows where to start. Some students need to organize their book bag or keep a daily planner, some need to make flash cards or learn to highlight the key points in a textbook. Smith makes a contract with each student, according to his or her needs. Every student must meet with Smith twice a month; they may also contract for peer tutoring in one or two subjects, or for TLC stress management groups.
        At the end of the semester, the students again fill out an assessment sheet, evaluating their skills in the same areas. Many students feel they have improved.
        For example, Rick*, a sophomore, has struggled with academics since coming to Union. He never had to study in high school and always received good grades. Since entering college, however, Rick found that cruising through school didn’t work anymore. When meeting with Smith, Rick revealed that he did not know how to study. Smith coached him through study skills such as note taking, reading comprehension, organization and writing. Smith also paired Rick with a tutor for his pre-algebra class. Rick agreed to use the on-campus Hagen Writing Center to help him with each College Writing II paper. Smith checked the writing center sign-in sheet to hold Rick accountable.
        Smith’s own experience in college helps him relate to the students in ASAP. During his first year at Union, he was placed on academic probation. Not because he wasn’t smart enough, but playing basketball all night and skipping classes made it hard to get good grades. He thought perhaps Union wasn’t the right place for him, so he applied to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do and thought the classes might be easier at UNL. Because Smith was on academic probation at Union, UNL’s academic dean questioned him. “He said to me, ‘I’m not sure you should be in college. Are you sure this is what you want?’ remembered Smith. “He got me thinking…. Do I belong in college?” Smith recalled. After that wakeup call, Smith returned to Union, changed his study habits and started attending classes regularly.
        In addition to coaching students who need a motivation reality check similar to his own academic turnaround story, Smith also encourages students who face personal distractions that lead to academic problems. Louis* returned to Union his junior year and was enrolled in the ASAP program because he failed some classes the previous semester. Louis revealed to Smith that he had been struggling with family issues, which had distracted him from his academic pursuits. Smith recommended ways to better handle his family pressures and suggested Louis see a counselor. Smith also taught Louis stress management techniques and how to use his time more effectively by using a day planner, which helped Louis reduce his tendency to procrastinate on assignments. Being able to focus on his schoolwork, instead of his family problems, has helped Louis get back on track and off academic probation.
        At the end of first semester, Smith conducted a customer service survey of the students in ASAP and was pleasantly surprised by the feedback. “My fear was that since it was a mandatory program and some students saw this as an ‘ugh’ experience, we would receive a negative reaction,” Smith said. “I was impressed that a lot of the responses were very positive. Students appreciated the support and the fact that there was someone there to care about them and motivate them.”
        Last semester, 29 students were in the ASAP and Freshman Development programs. Being put on academic probation was enough of a warning for some students to get serious. Others hadn’t developed solid academic skills in high school, but the support given to them by the TLC staff, including Smith’s coaching, gave them the extra focus they needed to succeed.
        Because of the success of ASAP, this semester a new option has been added: personal academic coaching. This service is available to students seeking extra support and academic accountability.
        “Through ASAP and Freshman Development, a significant percentage of the students were moved off of academic probation,” Smith said. “We’re still adjusting the program to see what’s effective, not just another hoop someone has to jump through. My goal is that students can leave academic probation behind and find success ahead.”

*Names and personal details have been changed to preserve privacy.