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UW ‘STEPs’ Up Efforts to Help Students Succeed

October 14, 2014
overhead view of students studying in library
University of Wyoming students have access to a variety of services to help them succeed through UW’s Student Success, Tutoring, Engagement and Personal Growth (STEP) initiative. (UW Photo)

Aiming to significantly boost its student retention and graduation rates, the University of Wyoming has increased its efforts to assist struggling students, improve academic and career advising, and help transfer and first-year students in the transition to UW.

The new initiative is called STEP -- which stands for Student Success, Tutoring, Engagement and Personal Growth.

“Helping students succeed has long been a priority for the university, but the STEP program represents a coordinated, multifaceted effort to give students all of the tools and assistance they need to successfully navigate college classes and the many transitions they experience,” says Vice President for Student Affairs Sara Axelson. “Increasing our retention and graduation requires a collaborative effort by the entire university community, and we’re excited to move forward with this initiative.”

A key piece of the STEP program was launched last spring, and the initial results are promising. Under the Early Alert program, students receiving D’s or F’s in first- and second-year courses -- after the fourth week of classes -- are contacted regarding their academic status. They are encouraged to meet with faculty members, confer with STEP advisers, and take advantage of supplemental instruction services.

UW officials believe the program made a difference in its pilot phase, as the university saw an 18.3 percent decrease in the number of students suspended and a 13.8 percent drop in those placed on academic probation. Encouraged by those initial results, the Offices of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs are seeking even more participation by faculty members who teach first- and second-year courses -- and have a well-coordinated plan for increased follow-up with students who need additional assistance.

“We’re hoping, through STEP, to be able to give data to faculty and departments about who is succeeding in these classes and who is not, and how we can help students do better in some of the larger lecture classes,” says April Heaney, director of UW’s Learning Resource Network (LeaRN).

The goal of STEP was to increase UW’s freshman-to-sophomore retention rate from 74 percent to 76 percent this fall, which was achieved. By 2020, the university projects reaching a fall-to-fall retention rate of 80 percent. In addition, increasing UW’s graduation rate also is a major initiative, with a goal of raising the number of students who graduate by 2 percent in 2017.

The most significant change in the new academic year through STEP is an increase in tutoring and supplemental instruction for students. UW now provides free tutoring Sundays through Tuesdays from 6-10 p.m. in Coe Library on a drop-in basis. Students can check into the STEP Tutor Center at the library’s research help desk and receive help in a variety of courses, ranging from introductory chemistry, biology and math to second- and third-year courses in English, psychology, statistics, math and molecular biology.

Already this semester, 578 students have taken advantage of the service.

“I think STEP will reach a wide variety of students because of easy accessibility in Coe Library as well has having tutors for specific courses,” says Olivia Lim of Englewood, Colo., an experienced tutor who helps train and manage the tutors. “We want our tutors to be able to reinforce and elaborate on concepts learned in the classroom, in addition to teaching students new topics, time management, successful study habits and what it takes to become a better student.”

The STEP Tutor Center is offered in addition to the Student Learning Center in the basement of the Washakie Dining Center; the Math Lab in Ross Hall; the Writing Center in Coe Library; and the Oral Communication Center in Ross Hall. UW also offers out-of-class study sessions through the Supplemental Instruction Program and online tutoring through the e-Tutoring Program. And student success workshops are conducted every Wednesday from 5-6 p.m. in Room 121 of Coe Library to answer questions and offer general assistance on how to succeed in college.

The focus on tutoring and supplemental instruction is part of an attempt by UW to bring about a culture change in the way such programs are perceived by students. Rather than view such out-of-classroom help as a sign of struggle and lack of ability, students should see it as something desirable.

“Seeking help is a sign of a good student,” Heaney says. “It’s what successful students do.”

“Students need to know that just about all of them are going to struggle at times,” says Jo Chytka, director of UW’s Center for Advising and Career Services. “The key is to not give up and to get the help you need to overcome challenges.”

Additional pieces of STEP that are in the planning stages are development of four-year degree plans for students who start at UW, as well as defining clear paths to graduation for community college students planning to transfer to UW; improvement and more uniformity in the quality of student advising; first-year seminars to engage students with top faculty members early; and more transition programs for first-year and transfer students.

“This is a big effort happening in small stages,” Heaney says.

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