Starfish progress reporting shows improved student outcomes

Data from analyzed courses shows improved pass and retention rates
Academic adviser talking to student

In a photo taken prior to the pandemic, an academic adviser talks with a student.

Credit: Steve Tressler

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Data from recent semesters suggest positive student outcomes when instructors submit progress reporting feedback through Starfish and students follow up on concerns with an academic adviser. 

Instructors at Penn State are prompted to provide feedback for their undergraduate students in Starfish during two progress reporting periods each semester. Feedback in Starfish can also be viewed and acted upon by academic advisers, allowing for a collaborative approach to helping students be successful in their courses.  

When instructors complete progress reports, there is a notable difference in student success that can even be seen between sections of the same course. In fall 2021, the pass rates were 8% higher in math course sections at the University Park campus that participated in progress reporting compared to course sections that did not participate. At all Penn State campuses, pass rates were 6% higher for MATH 3 and MATH 4 course sections participating in progress reporting than for those that did not. 

Progress reporting has an increasingly wide reach at the University. Last semester, there were 9,775 course sections that used Starfish to provide feedback. In these sections, 63,404 undergraduate students received feedback from at least one course. There were 21,414 students who received “flags” on areas of concern — 8,758 of whom had a flag in more than one course, potentially indicating a more pervasive concern. A total of 32,977 flags were raised that asked for additional help from the student’s assigned academic adviser. 

Progress reports give a student’s support network the opportunity to address academic performance more holistically, responding to flags from multiple instructors. The Academic Advising office at Penn State New Kensington shared the example of a student who had several flags raised by their instructors in fall 2021. The academic adviser reached out to the student for a meeting and learned the student was about to walk away from the semester completely. After meeting with their academic adviser, the student dropped one class, met with the Learning Center Coordinator, began academic coaching and tutoring and connected with disability resources. The academic adviser cleared the flags and let the instructors know the flags had done their job of alerting the student and their support network. 

While it is up to instructors to initiate progress reports, academic advisers have the responsibility of connecting with students to address certain flags. Adviser outreach matters. Students who receive progress reporting feedback and are supported in addressing the concerns raised have better outcomes than their peers who do not respond to outreach. In the spring 2021 semester, 90.1% of students who responded to an academic adviser’s outreach on progress reporting feedback were retained into the next term. For students who did not respond to outreach, only 84.6% were retained. 

“For students to get the full benefit of progress reporting, they already need to have a strong relationship with an academic adviser,” said David Smith, associate dean for advising and executive director of the Division of Undergraduate Studies at Penn State. “When a student trusts their academic adviser enough to respond to outreach, that’s where see progress reporting making a measurable difference. The relationship is what helps students who might otherwise fall through the cracks to persist and to excel. We see this in advising theory and experience, and it’s borne out by what we are starting to see in our data.” 

Many students are connecting with their academic advisers as a result of progress reporting feedback. In fall 2021, 5,369 flags directed to the student’s academic adviser were resolved because the student and academic adviser addressed the issue together, successfully drawing attention to the instructor’s concern. However, another 3,111 flags were closed because the student did not respond to adviser outreach, and the remaining flags directed to an adviser had no outreach recorded.  

“Developing trusting relationships with students takes time and effort before progress reporting even begins, and the exemplary work of instructors and academic advisers is making a difference for many students,” Smith said. “However, for a third of students who receive adviser outreach, we are still seeing a gap in that trust as some students opt not to respond to the outreach efforts by their advisers. Finding ways to build strong relationships with advisees prior to them needing help is a key factor in our ability to make a difference for more students.” 

The Division of Undergraduate Studies is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education