Montana State University

National expert visits MSU to share strategies designed to keep students in school

December 17, 2015 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Omid Fotuhi, a national expert in methods to increase college students’ motivation, engagement and performance, spoke Dec. 16 about ways to improve student engagement and persistence during a visit to Montana State University. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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A national expert in methods to increase college students’ motivation, engagement and performance spoke about ways to improve student engagement and persistence – and ultimately help students stay in school and graduate – during a Dec. 16-17 visit to Montana State University.  

During presentations for MSU faculty and staff, Stanford University-based researcher Omid Fotuhi noted that the transition from high school to college can be hard and make some students wonder if they belong in college. Such uncertainty can make some students view challenges in college in a more negative way – which can lead to underperformance and increase their risk of dropping out, Fotuhi said.

Different reactions to a low grade illustrate how perspectives can influence students’ performances in college, Fotuhi said. For example, a student who feels confident about her abilities but who receives a “D” on an exam is more likely to seek out additional help from her instructor and a tutoring center before her next exam. But for a student who is already questioning whether she has what it takes to succeed in school, a low grade likely confirms her self doubts that she’s not smart enough for college, and she might decide to drop out.

However, Fotuhi emphasized that faculty and staff can help students succeed by shaping their perceptions of their abilities. Understanding that other students have experienced similar challenges and uncertainties related to college can also help students persevere.

“The message that ‘with time, (these challenges) passed’ helps students to endure,” Fotuhi said.

Fotuhi’s visit is just the most recent effort MSU has made at increasing the number of students who stay in school and graduate. Montana State has been making the largest gains in the state in terms of keeping students in school, increasing the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen who continue on to their sophomore year from 72.2 percent in 2009 to 76.8 percent in 2015. Additionally, MSU has made strides in the percentage of students who graduate in six years, from 48.3 percent in 2009 to 52.4 percent in 2015.

MSU’s strategic plan calls for student retention to reach 82 percent by 2019 and the 6-year graduation rate to reach 65 percent.

Other efforts MSU has made to help students stay in school and graduate include the following:

  • “Freshman 15” campaign. The campaign is largely based on educating students and their families that there is no additional tuition cost for any credits above the first 12 credits each semester. That means students pay the same tuition for 15, 18 or 21 credits as they pay for the basic 12 credits. For Montana residents, the maximum tuition cost per semester at MSU is $2,665 regardless of how many more credits a student takes after the first 12. Encouraging students to take more credits not only lowers the cost of education, but it also helps students stay on pace to graduate in four years.
  • Curricular innovations such as “flipped classrooms” – a teaching method in which the typical lecture and homework elements are reversed so that instruction is delivered online outside of class and “homework” is completed in the classroom – supplemental instruction, success coaching and peer mentoring to help students surpass hurdles in prerequisite and upper division courses.
  • Additional tutoring and help center space and staffing to meet student needs throughout the semester across the curriculum.
  • Financial counseling to minimize debt and encourage college completion for increased lifetime earnings. 
  • Increased involvement in and out of the classroom with the community to build relationships, provide additional hands-on experiences, develop workplace and civic skills and advance MSU's impact in the region.

Fotuhi is project manager for the College Transition Collaborative, a Stanford University-based research initiative that is designed to change students’ attitudes about learning. The collaborative helps universities develop tools and techniques that have been shown to significantly increase student persistence and performance by changing how students think about their education. The collaborative includes 20 partner schools, including Yale University and Indiana University.

Fotuhi’s visit to MSU was hosted by the MSU Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship. Additional sponsors included the MSU Center for Faculty Excellence and the Division of Student Success.

Contact: Kregg Aytes, (406) 994-4423 or kregg.aytes@montana.edu