Many arms of Starfish support

UND faculty, advisors laud student success system for opening communication

Chris Felege

Chris Felege (above center) teaches biology students about invasive animal species in his classroom at UND. He is one the growing list of faculty, advisors and staff who are spreading the word about Starfish: the future of communication and academic planning for UND’s next class of leaders in action. UND archival photo.

University of North Dakota Biology Instructor Chris Felege knows he’s not a scary guy.

But he also knows that not everybody knows that.

“A lot of my students are from small-town Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, and there’s an intimidation factor to approaching me directly,” he said. “Starfish is a way for me to get a conversation going with these students, and that’s how I use it.”

Felege is one on the growing list of faculty, advisors and staff who are spreading the word: Starfish is the future of communication and academic planning for UND’s next class of leaders in action.

The online student success platform was introduced to campus in 2014. Three years later, UND’s use of the system has become more robust as a tool to notify students when they’re missing the mark, when they’re excelling, and how they can continue to be successful through graduation.

The program’s main functions are sending out early alert flags between the third and fourth week of the semester to inform students of attendance or grade concerns, as well as a midterm progress survey that warns them about midterm deficiencies. Instructors can also send “kudos” – acknowledgement of a job well done.

But it’s becoming much more – a conduit for conversation.

“I find that about 90 percent of the problems that I have ultimately are a result of some kind of communication breakdown,” Felege said. “This is an opportunity for me to say come talk to me, face-to-face, one-on-one. We’re going to figure out what works for you.”

Part of the plan

Hesham El-Rewini; dean;

Dean of the College of Engineering & Mines and Strategic Plan Goal No. 2 Captain Hesham El-Rewini

Starfish is an integral part of UND’s Strategic Plan in terms of retaining students and helping them graduate on time. It’s one of nine action items the Goal No. 2 implementation team is employing to achieve that mission.

“Starfish cites data that shows it can help increase student retention between the first and second year by 5 to 15 percentage points,” said Goal No. 2 Captain Hesham El-Rewini. “The number of faculty who decided to utilize the tool has been increasing noticeably for the last couple of years. They see the value to early intervention and positive feedback.”

Although Starfish is picking up steam, Shari Nelson, assessment and systems administrator for Student Academic Services, wants to see even more using it. Last spring, her team set a course participation goal of 65 percent by the end of the semester. They met that goal, and hope to increase usage to 70 percent by summer 2018, with an additional increase of 5 percent every year through 2022.

The ultimate aim is having nearly all faculty use it for at least two notifications a year – early alerts and midterm deficiencies.

“Eventually, we’d also love to see all advisors use at least some sort of tool out of Starfish, whether it’s reaching out to their advisees with resources, having their advising hours available to schedule, or even taking down notes. Our hope is, once you get in there and start using it, you’ll see how great it can be,” Nelson said.

Support network

Katie Burns, academic advisor in the College of Business & Public Administration, knows how great it can be. Burns is one of three advisors supporting 1,700 students, and Starfish has helped them save time with appointment scheduling, advising notes, and paperless to-do lists.

Katie Burns

College of Business & Public Administration Academic Advisor Katie Burns

“The early alert system has really helped us do our jobs more effectively,” Burns said, adding that Starfish’s progress surveys and flags allow her to see if (and how) a student is struggling, and to reach out directly to discuss what is impacting their success.

Last semester Burns received an email from a transfer student who appreciated her notifying him of an academic flag. “He felt that somebody here on campus actually cared about him, and he didn’t feel that at his previous school,” Burns said.

It’s not just faculty and advisors working together through Starfish. When student service staff utilize the system, it creates a three-point system of information sharing.

Director of Multicultural Programs & Services Stacey Borboa-Peterson said her staff uses the platform to schedule appointments and create success plans for Cultural Diversity Tuition Waiver students, making this specific aid process clearer and paper-free. They are notified when a student receives a flag for an academic concern, allowing staff to send out an invitation to come chat.

“If I were visiting with a faculty member, I would say, ‘Please, please use Starfish.’ That allows us to see what kind of messages are out there to the student,” Borboa-Peterson said. “I see the benefit every day, when I see a student who has a support network that really uses Starfish. It makes my ability to help that student that much greater.”

Students on board

Student buy-in will also be important in developing a Starfish culture at UND. Strategic Plan Goal No. 2 calls for every new student to be trained in Starfish at their orientation session.

“If we’re going to increase use, it’s really going to be students wanting the information, and requesting the information,” Nelson said.

Nelson is now focusing on outreach and training for faculty, staff and advisors. She says stories like those from Borboa-Peterson, Burns, and Felege demonstrate that Starfish will not only make student support faster, but more effective.

Some of Felege’s newest students may be intimidated by him, but he says faculty should not be intimidated by Starfish.

“There’s no wrong or bad way to use this,” he said. “Get into it, kick the tires and play. Don’t be afraid of it.”