UTEP Uses Technology, Human Touch to Earn National Award

Starfish Retention Solutions recognized The University of Texas at El Paso with its 2014 Starfish 360 Award for creating a program that celebrates how a personal touch and interactive technology can play a role in student success and retention.

UTEP was honored for its utilization of the Starfish Zoomin program where faculty members send email messages of encouragement or support to students enrolled in the larger introductory classes with 100-plus students. Many UTEP students are first-generation college students.

“This is a great accomplishment for our institution and an example of what a top research institution does,” said William Robertson, Ph.D., associate provost for Academic Technologies. “We work in an evidence-based culture for teaching and learning, and the pass rates in those sections have increased. The better grades were proven through experimental design. We think this validates the practice and models what you want faculty to do.”

Charles Ambler, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School and professor of history, started the process in 2008 to research ways to reduce attrition and increase success in larger classes. His freshman history courses often enrolled up to 300 students.

He personally tried to stay on top of the students by requiring attendance, sharing PowerPoint study strategies and insisting students retake tests when they did poorly until they showed they understood the material.

“These efforts kept them in the game and gave them a shot at passing the course,” he said.

Ambler understood his efforts were not sustainable and he would need a technological solution to track student progress. He developed a dashboard that became Zoomin with the help of colleagues, a three-year University of Texas System grant awarded in 2009, and technology from Arlington, Virginia-based Starfish.

Research shows the effort paid off. For example, the level of failures and withdrawals in one course section fell from 30 percent to 15 percent, and sections using Zoomin increased the likelihood that students would earn an “A” grade by almost 10 percent.

Participating faculty also credit Zoomin for the significant improvement in pass rate among students who could be categorized as “high risk.” With the support of University leaders, more faculty who teach larger classes plan to integrate Zoomin into their learning management systems.

Junius J. Gonzales, UTEP provost and vice president for academic affairs, supports Zoomin and using rigorous designs to assess its effectiveness. He has worked to recruit more faculty members to use it in their classrooms. Gonzales also plans to institutionalize Zoomin with a new $2.6 million Title V grant that was recently awarded to the University to improve first-year retention rates.

“Technology has allowed us to better identify very specific sub-groups of students to target for interventions, and to create programs that address the particular needs of these at-risk groups,” Gonzales said.

The recognition comes with a $1,000 prize, which will be used to support a campus student success program.

“We are proud of our partnerships with all our clients, and the results each and every institution has achieved,” said David Yaskin, Starfish CEO.