By Katharine Webster
It’s the trip of a lifetime! You consult a travel agent, decide where to go and buy your ticket. The day of your flight you arrive at the airport, pass through passenger screening and board your plane. The plane pulls away from the gate, taxis down the runway and lifts off.
If the mechanics, pilots and air-traffic controllers have all done their jobs, the airplane ascends smoothly and levels off at cruising altitude, although the pilots keep an eye out for turbulence.
The first-year student experience at SNHU’s College of Online and Continuing Education is a lot like that trip. Over the past two years, administrators, staff and faculty have worked hard to ensure that entering undergraduates enjoy a smooth flight, safely en route to their goal: a college degree. The result: SNHU now offers one of the most comprehensive and deliberately designed first-year experiences of any online school, and continues to refine the experience every day.
Particular attention has been focused on meeting incoming students where they are academically and helping them to build their self-confidence and skills. Whether the student has never taken a college-level course previously, or continues to strive toward or is nearing degree completion, the singular focus is to help students achieve their goals. That means that if a student puts in the effort, SNHU will provide everything from academic and logistical support to personal encouragement to help them succeed.
“They’re in climbing mode the first three terms,” says Dr. Gregory Fowler, chief academic officer and vice president of Academic Affairs. “The challenge is, how do we get them up to cruising altitude during that first year?”
While two-thirds of students transfer to SNHU with at least 12 credits already in hand, some still may need some help adjusting to SNHU’s academic rigor and online learning environment. And even the best-prepared students have other pressures – jobs, family responsibilities and/or health problems – that can send them off course.
“You need to keep airflow under those wings. They’ve got to deal with headwinds, gravity and turbulence,” Fowler says.
Many initiatives help keep first-year students aloft: dedicated new student advisors, an in-house writing center, and a virtual student union, the SNHUconnect social networking space, which enables online students to form clubs, seek help and support one another in ways similar to the on-campus experience. Under Fowler, the academic team also has redesigned many of its introductory, general education and program gateway courses to build students’ academic skills step by step. Now Matthew Belanger, associate dean of the First Year Experience, is coordinating efforts across departments to improve student success and retention in the first six terms.
“Our students are at greatest risk to life’s elements during their first year. This is the time they are most likely to leave,” Fowler says.
Belanger is still implementing initiatives supported by research and institutional data. Recent initiatives include “learning communities” within SNHUconnect for some of the most popular introductory courses, embedded writing and academic tutors in some first-year experience classes, better diagnostic tools, smaller class sizes and redesigned gateway courses for every program of study. A graduate student orientation course also is in the works.
Travel Agents: Admission, Financial Aid and Enrollment Support Services
A prospective student’s first contact is with an admission counselor who tries to understand an applicant’s motivation for seeking a college education and helps him or her figure out whether SNHU can meet their needs. Some students already know exactly what they want to study, while others need help choosing a program, says Christine Hardy, assistant vice president of undergraduate admission. Admission counselors shepherd prospective students through the application process, help them figure out how to pay for their education and enroll them in their first term of classes.
Ciara Lee, 28, of Florence, South Carolina, said she chose SNHU because the first admission counselor she spoke with was so friendly and was able to explain exactly how she could earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history. The admission counselor also put Lee, who suffers from severe fibromyalgia, in touch with Disability Services, which arranged for her to have extra time to complete her assignments when needed.
“They were just so helpful, and everything makes sense,” Lee says. “They seemed to want to do whatever they could to help me be successful there.”
Amy Witt, a 39-year-old mother of three in Bethesda, Ohio, sought advice about financial aid.
“SNHU just seemed like the best fit for me,” says Witt, who is pursuing a history degree with a concentration in European history. “And once I got on the phone with financial aid, that was it for me. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Admission counselors guide students as they compile the information they need to apply to COCE. Enrollment Support Services then decides whether to accept the student, figures out how many credits – if any – they can transfer, and recommends early course work. Based on those recommendations, admission counselors then help each student select and enroll in their first class or classes.
Admission now is working even more closely with the academic team “to make sure students take courses that meet the need of a great first year and first term,” Hardy says. “We’re making sure we are, one, recommending the proper courses to our students, and two, that they understand what each of those courses may entail.”
The Airport: New Student Advisors and Orientation Videos
New student advisors are the navigators, meeting students at check-in and supporting them for their first three terms. They work to establish a warm personal relationship while digging more deeply into the information gathered by admission counselors: What kind of support do students have at home? What did they excel at or struggle with at school in the past? What motivates them? Then they check in frequently to make sure students have what they need to succeed. Do they need an appointment with a writing consultant?
“Our big thing is building relationships,” says Nitya Dhakar, director of New Student Advising. “It’s all about getting them connected, making sure they have the resources they need right away.”
Bonnie Stokes, 61, of Augusta, Georgia, completed two years of college before raising a family and working full time. But that was decades ago, and she had rarely used a computer. Her new student advisor spent hours helping get her online and into Blackboard before classes began.
“She never lost patience with me,” says Stokes, who is pursuing a psychology degree.
Advisors also know a lot about the content of early classes: SNHU 107, the New Student Core courses and every gateway course. They also collaborate closely with instructors to support students, says Amelia Manning, vice president of Advising and Student Success.
“In most institutions of higher education, instructors are focused on academics, advisors on student support, and while both have standouts who instinctively know how to leverage the other in supporting students, it doesn’t tend to be core of what they do,” she says. “We built a model where collaboration is not only encouraged, but required. They work together as a team, with clearly defined roles.”
Lift-Off: SNHU 107, Learning Communities and Embedded Writing Tutors
SNHU 107 Success Strategies for Online Learning is the fuel for the plane that gets newer students off the ground. It introduces students to SNHU’s academic expectations, policies and resources; evaluates their learning styles, strengths and weaknesses; helps them clarify their goals and figure out how to reach them; and educates them in writing, time management and study skills.
“It’s critical that, despite having proven academic success elsewhere, we arm them with everything they need to continue that success here at SNHU,” Belanger says.
SNHU 107 is now required for undergraduate students who enter COCE with fewer than 12 college credits, and is strongly recommended for those who are returning to college after a long absence and those who are not familiar with the online learning environment. Everyone can get something out of it. For James Olivier, 41, of Madison Heights, Michigan, it was a time management system.
“If you don’t have control of your time, you’re not going to have control of yourself in your college life,” says Olivier, who has a full-time IT job and a sideline computer repair business. “I set up a calendar, I keep a time log and I make out a daily task list for myself. That’s really been one of the most helpful things I’ve learned so far.”
For Lee, whose fibromyalgia forced her to withdraw from a traditional college a decade ago, it was a purpose: Her SNHU 107 instructor encouraged her to consider a career as an online history professor.
“Now I have something to look forward to in life,” she says.
SNHU 107 is at the core of Belanger’s focus. A former online course designer, he was hired by Fowler two years ago to enhance the orientation for new students. Over two complete redesigns, SNHU 107’s emphasis has changed from presenting students with a ton of (perhaps too much) information – including three different academic citation styles – to teaching them the skills that will be most useful in their college careers, particularly their first few classes. Students now use an interactive e-textbook with just-in-time tutorials and practice questions, and they can submit some assignments multiple times, creating teachable moments rather than sink-or-swim situations.
“The focus is on mastery learning,” Belanger says. “They’re given a concept and they can answer questions until they’ve mastered it.”
That’s because one of the biggest obstacles facing many working adults who have been out of school for some time is a lack of confidence in their academic abilities. Instructors are selected for their ability to be good coaches and mentors.
“A lot of students feel intimidated because they haven’t taken college classes, or haven’t taken them for a while,” says instructor and team lead Kate Masley.
Revital Turgman, another SNHU 107 instructor and team lead, gives personal feedback and encourages students to contact her with concerns or questions.
“We try to inspire them, and we also challenge them to do better each day than they did the day before,” she says. “Once they get to that next level, they feel euphoric, they have more confidence. When they’re done with that course, they’re ready to take on the world.”
Belanger continues to enhance and revise the course, which had grown to 150 sections last term. Recent changes include assigning a tutor from the online Writing Center and expanding the unit on career services to include resources such as the Smarthinking tutoring service and Shapiro Library. Belanger also developed an academic preparedness activity, which is the backbone of the course, and moved an academic skills test from Week 7 to Week 2 and made it mandatory. That enables instructors to recommend help, such as a writing or math tutor, much earlier.
New students also can be plagued by a sense of isolation. SNHUconnect, which was designed to combat that, now includes a “learning community” for SNHU 107 where students can share their ideas and questions. It is overseen by a faculty facilitator who posts study tips, ideas and motivational messages for upcoming units; two new student advisors who can point students toward resources; and two peer leaders to provide encouragement. Within three weeks of launch, it already had 214 followers, and it continues to grow, says SNHUconnect Manager Tiffany Fifer.
“Complementing the Blackboard course, it’s a less formal and somewhat more social learning space for students,” Fifer says. “They can interact with students from all sections. Their opportunities for learning from each other will multiply.”
Witt wishes she’d had SNHUconnect when she began her studies two years ago. She happily agreed to be a peer leader.
“I can still remember exactly how it felt to be starting college, doing something completely out of my element, having no idea where to start or what to do, and I really wanted to be there to motivate other students and help them understand, ‘You’re not alone, and it’s going to be okay,’” she says.
All the changes and enhancements to SNHU 107 are paying off. When Belanger took over, only about half of all students finished the course successfully. In the fall, 76 percent successfully completed it. Belanger hopes to improve those numbers even more: Starting this winter, section sizes will be reduced from an average of 24 students to 20 so instructors can devote more time to interacting with and helping prepare students.
Steady Ascent: New Student Core Courses, Full-Time Faculty and Content Tutors
To keep students climbing, SNHU 107 is followed by a choice of six New Student Core courses that continue to build academic skills and offer more resources for inexperienced students.
“Students should be wrapped in several layers of support, so they’re well shielded from some of the turbulence that’s going to come along,” Fowler says.
The core courses in English, humanities and history focus on reading for comprehension and writing a longer academic paper, including evaluating sources for credibility and citing them properly. Courses in psychology, sociology and organizational leadership incorporate more quantitative or scientific thinking, but also work on students’ reading, writing and citation. All the New Student Core courses emphasize critical thinking, time management and study skills. Some serve as an introduction to a student’s academic program; all of them satisfy general education requirements.
New student advisors stay closely involved, making sure students progress steadily and tweaking their schedules if needed. Lee balked at taking English Composition I right after SNHU 107: She thought she might need a remedial, noncredit writing class first. Her advisor sent her a diagnostic quiz, which indicated she was ready. English Composition I also helped her write a much better paper in her first U.S. history course, which she took at the same time.
“It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be,” Lee says. “I was learning it and putting it into use in the same term.”
Cruising Altitude: Gateway Courses, Academic Advisors and Program Pathways
The next stage for inexperienced students – and the first class for many transfer students – is a gateway course for their program of study. That’s because research shows students are more likely to stick with college if they can jump into their programs early and incorporate the skills they acquire in their general education courses as they progress.
Gateway courses, like the New Student Core courses, employ a mastery approach. But they also include more academic content, research and critical thinking, as well as longer papers or more difficult assessments. Lee, who is on her third history class, says she’s been challenged more each term, but also has been better prepared.
“I can see the evolution in the classes,” she says. “I feel like if I can handle the first year, then I can handle the rest of it.”
Once students have finished three terms, they progress from a new student advisor to an academic advisor for their program, whose main focus is ensuring students are taking the right courses, in the right order, to earn their degrees. Fowler says the academic team has worked hard to create logical program pathways so students learn to approach more complex problems with more nuanced thinking as they progress.
“First you help students find their voices, then you give them content knowledge, then you give them the opportunity to make a contribution to the larger school of academic thought,” he says.
Fowler also says students should take more responsibility for their learning and study habits as they progress into their second, third and fourth years.
“If you still need the same levels of support, then we have not served you well,” he says.
Staying Aloft: Ongoing Support
Still, students will encounter turbulence: their own illness or that of a loved one, a job loss or a promotion that brings greater responsibility, or isolation and flagging motivation. When they do, SNHU aims to be there for them.
Martha Hendrickson, 54, of Decatur, Georgia, said her advisor helped her persist after a family crisis. She spent more than a week in Detroit caring for her ailing father; meanwhile, her grade in sociology dropped from an A to failing. With advice and continual pep talks from her advisor, she finished the term with a C+.
“When I came back I was distraught, and Katie talked to me and encouraged me,” Hendrickson says. “She always made me feel as though I was the only student at SNHU, even though I know she was busy.”
Javier Olivarez, 44, of San Antonio, Texas, is a full-time marketing student with a full-time job. He has used nearly every COCE resource, from tutoring to tech support. He especially appreciates the extracurricular offerings, including SNHUconnect, where he follows three groups, and SNHU Career, which presents webcasts that allow students to ask questions.
Most rewarding, SNHU recently opened a chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, and Olivarez was appointed president because of his previous experience with the organization at another institution. The SNHU chapter, for students who maintain at least a 3.4 GPA, already has more than 300 members who “meet” by videoconference. Olivarez encourages them to take advantage of all the resources SNHU offers. But he also knows that, ultimately, his educational success is his own responsibility.
“I believe that while I have all these amazing resources, I’m the pilot of my education,” he says.
That, says Fowler, is the ultimate goal of the COCE: to create lifelong, independent learners.
“There’s always more to know. Education isn’t about getting the answer; it’s about knowing how to find the answers,” he says. “Getting students to engage and say, ‘You don’t stop learning when you get your degree’ – once that becomes habit, then we’ve actually done our job.”