OCAIR Best Practice Winning Proposal – Early Alert System in a Qualitative Way

Yang Zhang, Ph.D.

Kelly Jung-Ts Lin, Ph.D.


Early alert systems are not new in university settings. Many universities have developed effective early alert programs that target at-risk student populations, and created offices and staff who are dedicated to help students who have shown early signs of struggling. Because of the difficulty in collecting and processing large amounts of early alert information in a short time, early alert and prevention systems usually focus on certain student populations, such as first-time, full-time students, or a group of students who are identified as “at-risk” by regression models.

A small IR office in a large flagship university took the challenge to explore IR’s role in bridging students’ voices to offices that can help students succeed. The question to be addressed is how an IR office can quickly turn the meaningful information on students’ mid-semester experiences into easy-to-navigate and digestible business intelligence

In early October, the IR office administered a mid-semester campus experience survey that include five open-ended questions and two multiple choice questions. These questions ask students what went well and not so well during the first half of their semester, and how the university can help them succeed. With the previous experience of analyzing qualitative survey data, the IR office refined the process of data cleaning by quickly identifying specific responses, and converted them, so that data confidentiality was secured and important information was maintained, as well as a world cloud system that displays keywords by the frequency of being mentioned. The IR office organized a “reading team” comprised of faculty and staff to review the responses and provide their feedback on whether any additional responses should be converted.

Using a home-grown interactive online data reporting tool, campus user can view relevant responses under different topics (such as advising, campus climate, parking, etc.). Within 2 weeks after the open ended survey data were collected, by the end of October, the campus leadership and staff of key areas gained access to the online reporting tool, where they can get timely data regarding students’ challenges and develop action plans to fix them.

This data tool immediately received overwhelmingly positive feedback and appreciation. IR staff were invited to conduct presentation, demonstration, and discussion sessions to dozens of offices, committees, and academic units across the campus, including the Vice Chancellor’s offices, the enrollment and planning committee, the campus climate and diversity committee, the monthly Deans and Directors’ meeting, the academic procedures committee, and the office and student life. This survey tool and data display web app allow campus decision makers at all levels quickly gain feedback from students to make improvements and create actionable strategies. Based on the survey results, the Office of Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs reached out to students who indicated being lonely and homesick to connect them with faculty and staff volunteers, who can provide local support; the library extended opening hours based on students’ feedback; initiatives are being developed to help students improve time management and prioritization skills due to high percent of students reported that as one of their major challenge to have a successful semester.

Our approach focuses on the issues themselves rather than specific individuals. Feedback from one student can bring awareness to campus leadership of an important issue that has been overlooked for years. Fixing these issues can avoid struggles for current and future students, and hence, can help the university improve its service and help students succeed. With students’ permission, the positive responses can be used to validate initiatives and new programs, recognize best practices, and aid in the institution’s PR efforts.

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