June 3, 2008

The Freshman Seminar and Academic Success of at-Risk Students

By Potts, Glenn Schultz, Brian

The goals of increasing student retention and developing effective learning communities led the College of Business and Economics faculty to experiment with freshmen learning communities. In this study we investigate the effects of combining academic cohorts with a freshman seminar. Academic performance and retention of this group are compared to those of a control group that received no special retention efforts. No statistically significant effects were identified. However, when the analysis is focused on students who may be at risk as identified by characteristics at the point of admission, the positive academic effect of the freshman seminar and academic cohort groups is large and statistically significant. The retention literature clearly indicates that formation of peer groups, identification with the major and with faculty in the major have positive effects on student performance and retention. In this respect, faculty in the business college have had a sense for some time that business students were at a distinct disadvantage to students in other majors because they did not have the opportunity to take courses from business faculty early in their college experience. A typical business student may study economics in the freshman year and accounting in the sophomore year, but the courses in the business major do not start until the fourth or fifth semester. This lack of contact with business faculty and with fellow business students may delay the formation of peer learning communities. The students may be on campus for three or four semesters before they form a business student peer group. As a result, business students may be slower to develop groups for learning and peer support in their majors. Consequently, they may experience higher than necessary attrition and may be late to experience the more effective group learning structure. This effect is consistent with Tinto's (1993) concept of social and academic integration as being the process through which an individual establishes membership in the college community. The importance of early connection with faculty in the major is also supported by Graunke and Woolsey (2005). When looking at the academic success of sophomores, they found that commitment to an academic major and satisfaction with faculty interaction were important for student success.

We believe that every student admitted to our University can be a successful college student. We recognize that many of our students are not successful for a variety of reasons that are beyond our control, but intervention may help some of the unsuccessful students. As a result, we have created several academic support structures to help increase student retention and improve academic performance. We have intensified the academic advising process by forcing increased interaction between the student and the academic advisor. We have implemented early intervention strategies and tools to identify problems while they are still manageable.

In the fall of 1998-99, the business college created "cohort groups" for our incoming freshmen. The groups often students were given a set of common courses and received various levels of interaction with a cohort advisor. These groups fit within the broad concept of a "learning community" as defined by Gabelnick, MacGregor, Mathews, and Smith (1990).

Any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several existing courses - or actually restructure the material entirely - so that students have opportunities for deeper understanding and interaction of the material they are learning, and more interaction with one another and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning enterprise. (p. 19)

Unfortunately the cohort process produced fewer positive academic results than we had expected (Potts et al., 2003-2004). The academic cohorts and advising structure resulted in no statistically significant improvements in retention or academic performance as measured by GPA. We did discover that good first semester performance and a residence hall experience did improve retention. These results suggest that early intervention and providing students with an experience to supplement or substitute for the residence hall experience may be useful. To strengthen our retention efforts we added a required Freshman Orientation class to our cohort learning communities for the incoming freshman class of Fall Semester 2000-01.

We believe that giving business students a classroom experience with business faculty during their first semester will increase the sense of belonging that can, in turn, result in positive academic outcomes. We believe that bringing business students together in an academic setting can help them to form the peer attachments and a supportive environment that will increase academic performance. Finally, we believe that the Freshman Orientation course gives us the opportunity to help students acquire the everyday tools necessary for easier navigation of the college environment. The seminar is used to present information regarding academic planning, information and suggestions on when and how to access academic assistance, early career planning to enhance a sense of purpose, use of the library, and the academic content and career opportunities with the various academic majors offered in the college. The ultimate goals are to improve retention and academic performance. This belief is supported by Johnson (1997) who wrote "Faculty- and staff - student interaction and connection was found to be the most important characteristic distinguishing the retained from the dropout student" (p. 323). Gohn, Schwartz, & Donnelly (2000) found that student satisfaction with instructors within the major is important to establish the positive sense of belonging that contributes to retention. Sidle & McReynolds (1999) stated "Studies confirm that students who enroll in freshmen-year experience courses tend to complete more credit hours, earn higher cumulative grade point averages, and return to the university at higher rates than students who do not enroll in such first-term courses" (p. 1). Williford et al (2000-2001) examined the effect of a graded extended orientation course for which students could voluntarily enroll. The results suggest that participants have higher retention, academic performance, and graduation rates; however, most of these differences are not statistically significant. In a study similar to ours, Schnell & Doetkott (2002-2003) found statistically significant improvements in retention for students who participated in a first- year seminar.

In addition to the potentially important effects on retention and academic performance, we also believe our cohort and freshman seminar efforts are consistent with the material we teach. Team building and team work are important parts of effective management. The increased interaction among business students in the cohort groups and the Freshman Orientation course helps our students to form supportive teams.

Our 2000-2001 Efforts

During new student orientation and registration in June 2000, 100 entering business and accounting students were placed into one of 10 different cohorts. Some entering students were not placed into cohorts due to scheduling difficulties. Each cohort originally had 10 students. Each cohort group was given a set of three common courses: freshman English, general education economics, and an appropriate math course. The cohort members independently selected other courses to complete their schedules.

In addition, 131 of the incoming freshmen were placed in a one- credit Freshman Seminar within the business college. Most of the students in cohorts were also in the freshman seminar, but some were unable to enroll due to scheduling difficulty, part time schedules, and various other conflicts. The course was organized and conducted by a faculty member from the college with assistance from the academic advisor for the college. The course met once per week for the entire semester with required attendance. The specific course objectives were to:

1. Help students become familiar with University and college services and resources.

2. Help students become familiar with academic majors in the college.

3. Help students understand University policies regarding course scheduling, registration, adding and dropping courses, etc.

4. Help students start a professional portfolio.

The course consisted of several guest presentations from University service departments and from faculty representing the various majors. Students completed a research project regarding career opportunities in the major and conducted an interview of someone with that career. Approximately one-third of students changed their major within the college after completing this assignment. A second project was to develop an academic plan for graduation including the courses they would need to complete. This plan became the basis for interaction with their academic advisor.

Our Study

Our final sample included 223 of the 1,126 students who entered the University as new freshmen in September 2000. The 223 students were divided between the learning communities in the College and a "no-treatment" group of students. Some of the students in the seminar were not in academic cohort groups, so we used the groups: freshman seminar but no academic cohort, freshman seminar and academic cohort, and no treatment control group. The two business student groups meet the definition of a learning community as defined by Cross (1998, p. 4) "...groups of people engaged in intellectual interaction for the purpose of learning." Sixty-nine of the 223 students were in both the business academic cohorts and enrolled in the Freshman Seminar. Thirty students were in the Freshman Seminar but not in cohort groups. The remaining 124 students in the sample were our no-treatment control group and were randomly selected from the remaining freshman class students.

A Brief Profile of the university

The university is a public comprehensive institution. In the Fall Semester 2000-2001 the university had 5835 headcount enrollment with 93% of these being undergraduates. The university is located near the state border and is part of a large metropolitan area. Approximately 45% of the university's students are from the bordering state. The business college has approximately 1200 undergraduate students.

In this study we follow a group of students who entered the university in the fall of 2000 as new freshmen. The new freshman headcount at the university in 2000 was 1,126 students. Of these 92.8% self-identified as white; 61.4% were female; 97.3% were full time students; 97.7% age 19 or younger. Of these freshmen 43.4% were in the top quartile of their high school class and 87.3% were in the top half. The average ACT score for the entering students was 22.5 and the average high school rank was 30.2% (0% is highest and 100% is lowest).

Literature Review

Research on the topics of college student retention and academic performance began many years ago, but took on added importance as the demographic profile of freshmen has changed, as the financial climate for public universities has deteriorated in most parts of the United States, and as demands for accountability have increased (McInnis, 2001, p. 2). Johnson (2000-2001) identified important factors to be "...decreasing enrollments, greater competition among colleges for students, and the demand for accountability in institutions of higher education" (p. 219).

Research has shown that retention is significantly affected by the "sense of belonging" that develops in a student when students in learning communities "interact around common challenges and stressors". It results in support among peers (Hoffman et al, 2002- 2003). Many studies have been conducted and reveal that factors such as early academic performance, attitudes toward higher education, goal and institutional commitment, social and academic interaction, residence life experiences, faculty and staff interaction with the student, and the student's sense of community affect retention. (Angelo, 1997; Berger, 1997; Braunstein, McGrath, & Pescatrice, 2000; Cabrera, 1992; Crissman, 2001; Deberard, Spielmans, & Julka; Johnson & Romanoff, 1999; Johnson, 2000; Kahn & Nauta, 2001; Malletta, 1991; McGrath & Braunstein 1997; Murtaugh, 1999; Pescarella & Terenzini, 1991; Soldneretal, 1999;Tinto, 1988; Tinto, 1997; Tinto, 1998; Zhao & Kuh, 2004).

Students in our study

In addition to the identified learning communities, there are many factors that could affect GPA and retention. To the extent possible, we have controlled the learning communities for two commonly used measures of ability: high school class rank and ACT scores. In order to establish a "benchmark" for new freshman students at our university, we examined the ACT Composite score and High School Rank for all 223 students in our sample. Table 1 presents the ability measures for our groups. The difference in ACT score of the no-treatment group and the freshman seminar group is statistically significant at the 1% level of significance; however, the magnitude of the difference is small. The difference in High School Rank is not statistically significant.

The slight conflict of evidence regarding ability level of the students may be problematic. But we do not have clear reason to believe that there is an existing difference in ability across groups that will affect retention or student academic performance. In addition, information presented in Potts et al (2003-2004) indicates that the ACT score may not be a good predictor of attrition, so the slight difference is unlikely to be important.

Hypotheses Regarding the Freshman Seminar

Placing incoming freshmen into a freshman seminar and academic cohorts provides us with two important hypotheses to test. First, the academic cohorts and freshman seminar may make the learning experience more effective as suggested by Baker & Pomerantz (2000). If this is true, we expect an increase in GPA for students in the freshman seminar and academic cohort treatment, all else equal. Second, the academic cohort and the freshman seminar are intended to help create a "sense of belonging to a group" that can provide support. This in turn is expected to increase retention (Elkins et al, 2000; Hoffman et al, 2002-2003). The hypotheses we tested are:

1. The mean GPA of students with across treatment groups is equal after eight semesters.

2. The mean GPA for individual retention treatments is greater than the control group (no-treatment) mean GPA.

3. The retention rate for individual retention treatments is greater than the control group (no-treatment) retention rate.

4. The mean total credits earned for individual retention treatments is greater than the control group (no-treatment) mean total credits earned.

Results for all students in study

As shown in Table 2, the numerical differences in mean GPA and credits earned and the retention rates are relatively small. ANOVA tests of means show no differences among the average credits earned and eighth semester GPA across treatment groups. T-tests of retention rate differences for the Freshman Seminar treatment and the no-treatment control group also show no statistically significant differences. This result is very similar to what was found in our previous study, Potts et al (2003-2004).

At Risk Identification

The potential impact of a positive residential experience is an important part of the social integration as described by Tinto (1993) and the academic learning communities provide a significant component of the academic integration. The previously mentioned study by Johnson (1997) looked at a group of students that meet our identification of commuters as being atrisk students. Stassen (2003) investigated reports that linked course-residential learning communities do have a significant effect on student performance and retention. This study is particularly important for our project as it uses a linked course structure similar to our cohorts. Derby & Smith (2004) identified that residential living enhances the physical and emotional investment on the community college campus and positively affects retention. Finally, our earlier study (Potts et al., 2003-2004) indicated that a residential experience had an important positive effect on retention. This supports our identification of non-residential freshman as being at-risk.

Engle et al (2003-2004) examined the effect of an intervention program designed to help at-risk students. They found that the program did help improve retention and student GPA. Their identification of "at risk" occurred after an unsuccessful semester at the university. Potts et al (20032004) also identified first semester academic performance as being very important. As a result, we believe that identification of "at-risk" at the point of admission may improve retention, since it allows intervention before an unsuccessful semester.

If we want to help students before they have a negative college experience, we must identify these students at admission. Since the admission criteria used to judge likelihood of success is the High School rank and the ACT score, it makes sense to judge a person as at-risk if they score below the level required for standard admission. In addition, residence halls create structures and conduct programming designed to help students adjust to college and be successful. As a result, students without a residence hall experience can be identified as at-risk. This last identifier of a student being at-risk is a particularly important one for the business college. Table 3 shows that the business students are far more likely to not have the residence hall experience at the university. While the reasons for this difference are not identified, the difference is large and potentially important for the business college.

For our study, the at-risk subgroups are determined according to three risk indicators that can be identified at the point of admission to the university.

1. First year students living off campus

2. Students scoring below the University's ACT admission standard

3. Students who are below the University's high school rank admission standard

For students entering the University in the Fall Semester 2000 - 2001, the admission standards were an ACT score of 22 or higher or a high school rank of 40% or higher (0% is highest and 100% is lowest). Students needed to meet one of these criteria. Students not meeting either criterion may have been admitted by the Director of Admissions, if special circumstances warranted it, such as a letter of recommendation from a guidance counselor or outstanding leadership or community service activities.

Table 4 presents the results for students identified as at-risk based on their living off-campus during their first semester. For the students living off-campus during their first semester and in the Freshman Seminar, the retention rate is 74.07% compared to 42.11% for the no retention treatment control group. The difference is statistically significant at 1%. Live-at-home students in both the Freshman Seminar and the academic cohort treatment had a retention rate of 80.95% which is also greater than the no retention treatment control group retention rate of 42.11 % with a 1 % significance level. The difference in number of credits earned after eight semesters between the business retention treatment groups and the no treatment control group is not statistically significant. The difference in the GPA after eight semesters is also not statistically significant for any of the groups. Table 5 presents the results for the students identified as at-risk based on a high school class rank below the University admission criteria (top 40% of high school class). For the admitted students in this atrisk category, the retention rate for the seminar group and the group with the freshman seminar and academic cohort are numerically greater than the no-treatment group by 15 to 20 percentage points, but a statistically significant difference can not be determined. The number of credits earned is higher for students in the freshman seminar and for those in both the seminar and academic cohort; however, the differences between these and the no treatment group are not statistically significant. The differences in GPA are not statistically significant.

The results presented in Table 6 show students who are identified as at-risk based on an ACT score below the University admission standard of 22. The retention rate for students in the freshman seminar or freshman seminar and academic cohort are equal or greater than for the no-treatment group, but the differences are not statistically significant. The means for GPA and credits earned show no statistically significant differences.


To improve the retention rate and academic performance of students admitted to the university, the business college has used academic cohorts and has also used a freshman seminar course. These efforts were applied in general to all students during their first semester regardless of ability as measured by our admissions criteria or housing arrangements. There were no statistically significant results to indicate that these efforts make a difference after eight semesters in retention or academic performance. These results are consistent with Potts et al (2003-2004).

When we look only at the students who at the point of admission have an identifiable characteristic that might be expected to indicate potential problems, the retention efforts of the business college do have an impact. This is particularly true for students who live at home during their first semester and as a result do not participate in the residence hall activities. The business student freshman seminar and the business student academic cohorts do have the desired effect of increasing retention. A similar, but not statistically significant, positive effect exists for students who can be predicted as potentially at risk due to a High School class rank below the standard admission criterion. Our results indicate that for students with one of these two "atrisk" identifiers the business learning community efforts improve the retention rate by 15 to 30 percentage points. Similar to the results in Potts et al (2003- 2004), the ACT admission test score does not do a good job predicting success in college.

This increase in retention for potentially at risk-students provides the university with a method to significantly change retention. At this university there were 224 entering students allowed to live off-campus in the Fall Semester 2000. The University's policy allows freshmen students from communities within about 30 miles of the university to live at home. If the freshman seminar and cohort groups used by the business college were used for all of these 224 students and the 15 to 30 percentage point increase in retention is applied, 33 to 67 additional students would have been retained to graduation. This is a 3 to 6 percentage point improvement of the retention rate for the 1126 new students admitted in 2000.

The university admitted 326 students who did not meet the admission standard of top 40% of high school class. If all of these students had been in the freshman seminar and cohort groups used by the business college and the 15 to 20 percentage point increase in retention is applied, 50 to 65 additional students of the 1,126 admitted would have been retained to graduation. This is a 4 to 6 percentage point increase in the university's retention rate.

The College of Business and Economics is particularly affected by these results since the students in the college are far more likely to live at home and have a lower high school class rank.


The results of this study are important. The study identifies that a freshman seminar and academic cohort scheduling will significantly improve retention among students who may be at higher risk of failure. The at-risk characteristics that are identified in this study are relatively low high school rank and, most importantly, living off campus during the first semester. An important advantage of using these two characteristics to identify students who are at risk of failing is that early retention efforts may be focused where they can have the greatest positive effect.


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College of Business and Economics

University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Copyright Project Innovation, Inc. Jun 2008

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