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John Burdick, Tony Chiaravelotti, and Alice Martin, New York University

Editor’s Note: Find more on this topic—and this team’s contribution—in the recently published NACADA Pocket Guide, Advising Students on Academic Probation, 2nd edition.

Martin, Burdick & Chiaravelotti.jpgNew York University’s (NYU) institutional commitments to student success include lofty new goals for retention and six-year graduation rates. As part of these goals, NYU is interested in what David Kalsbeek calls “the institutional promise” (Kalsbeek, 2013). Kalsbeek defines the institutional promise as the notion that students expect their college to deliver a particular kind of educational and social experience. Student attrition, to an extent, is a function of unmet student expectations. However, this promise must function as a two-way street. Just as we expect our students to fulfill the promise they made to the institution by working hard toward graduation, we as an institution must strive to fulfill the promise we make to every student upon admission. Our promise is that we will help all admitted students, regardless of the difficulties they face academically or personally, reach graduation and develop into mature, intellectually curious and capable adults.

Compared to the overall institutional six-year graduation rate of 84%, the six-year graduation rate of students on academic probation in the College of Arts and Science (CAS) was significantly lower and a number of students facing academic difficulty remained on academic probation for multiple semesters. To address this repeat population and consider how we could better fulfill our institutional promise to these academically at-risk students, the Academic Support Team within NYU CAS developed the Back on Track Program (BoT), a comprehensive academic support program that attempts to increase student resilience and retention for first-time probation students who have accrued fewer than 64 credits (typically first-year and second-year students). Our goal in telling the narrative of BoT’s development is to identify concrete tools that could be adopted in whole or part elsewhere with a variety of populations and budgets.

Inter-Departmental Partnerships. Our first step, in order to consolidate cost and manpower, was to develop a partnership with the University Learning Center, our on-campus tutoring center. Together, we identified four key areas where probation students struggle academically: goal setting/motivation, time management, study strategies, and career/interest exploration. We developed specific academic skills workshops to address these areas of concern and encouraged our BoT students to attend. Nevertheless, we remain aware that there is a large range of non-academic factors that contribute to academic difficulty (long commutes, financial responsibilities, mental health concerns, etc.). This fall, we began offering optional sessions with counselors from our Health and Wellness Center. These sessions address general anxiety as well as help students incorporate more mindfulness into their everyday routine. Furthermore, they help connect students to long-term counseling services for more continuous engagement.

Consistent Communications and Compliance. Probation students are incentivized not to voluntarily submit to additional instructional opportunities because (a) they feel they should focus on their mandatory coursework to raise their GPA and (b) there is a stigma around probation that encourages them to avoid programming associated with the term. For this reason, we found it necessary to make BoT mandatory. To increase compliance, we use the completion of the BoT program as a factor in whether and when students’ registration blocks are lifted to allow pre-registration for the next semester. We also believe that consistent communication helps to increase compliance within this population. We send out a weekly newsletter to remind students of upcoming deadlines, promote useful campus resources, answer frequently asked questions, and provide them with concrete tips for motivation, relaxation, and work habits. Rather than make official overtures from university officials, we deliver the message in the form of positive, supportive encouragement, situated in a newsletter filled with resources.

Multi-Platform Engagement. There are logistical challenges to getting BoT students to attend the ULC’s workshops. To allow students to complete these workshops on their own schedule, we worked with our institution’s Office of Educational Technology to develop online workbooks, called modules, which provide students with digital versions of the academic skills workshops. We found interactivity and gamification to be the most successful methods to transmit this knowledge in a condensed period of time. Gamification can be described as “a series of design principles, processes and systems used to influence, engage and motivate individuals” (Hsin-Yuan Huang & Soman, 2013, p. 6). It has been shown to increase motivation and engagement, particularly on online platforms where there is not an in-person presence to reassert attention and participation (Hsin-Yuan Huang & Soman, 2013). Future modules will utilize the aesthetic design of programs like DuoLingo to engage students using progress bars, unlocked achievements, and interactive interfaces.

We still felt it was important to incorporate group, in-person meetings as these sessions (1) help students put the content of their modules into context, (2) provide students with a support network of peers, and (3) destigmatize probation, particularly at a high-achieving institution. We now require two in-person sessions (an orientation and a mid-semester workshop) and three online modules (Goal Setting/Motivation, Time Management, and Study Strategies).

Narrative Learning. We have found narrative learning to be instrumental in helping our students put their situations into a larger context and develop a growth mindset. Our mid-semester workshop focuses on this narrative approach with an activity in which we provide students with a few case studies of fictional students. In these scenarios, we include many of the challenges we see in our own population. We ask the students to act as advisors to identify conflicts and solutions. Students are much more likely to voluntarily and publicly reflect on their own experiences if they feel they are speaking about another student. We are also recording videos in which previous BoT students reflect on their own narratives to help lead this session in the future. Narratives are particularly useful to this population as they help students see obstacles as useful challenges instead of setbacks. Narratives also work to de-stigmatize and motivate the population.

Non-Punitive/Support Programming. BoT has always been based on shifting probation away from the concept of blame or failure and toward a more productive process of feedback and response. Our programming encourages students to replace the idea of “can’t” with “not yet.” Countless studies on probation populations and retention (Andujo Hanger, Goldenson, & Weinberg, 2011; Salinitri, 2005; Thayer, 2000; Tinto, 2000; Walters, 2004) support the idea that “assuming irresponsibility or ineptness on the part of the student . . . evokes feelings of guilt and shame” and does not result in long-term change (Andujo Hanger et al., 2011, p. 210). Thus, our program is most effective when it enhances an atmosphere of caring and support, rather than punishment or disappointment.

In our orientation, we ask students to assess their own goals and motivators: What are they personally proud of? What do they want people to remember most about them? This type of self-reflection re-orients the idea of probation from being an institutionalized, impersonal punishment, to being an opportunity for personal outreach and growth. On a more granular level, we also focus on the concept of positive self-talk. Much of the punitive nature of probation comes from our verbiage around it. Students are “put” on probation, removing their agency in the process. Often these students are referred to, at least internally, as “difficult” students. Just as we expect students to re-orient their self-talk, we should re-orient our own vocabulary about probation by remembering that probation is a warning to the institution, as well as the student.

Because the current incarnation of BoT has only been in place for one year, our quantitative data is not yet conclusive. Nevertheless, we have seen high levels of compliance and satisfaction so far with 86.7% of students attending the orientation, 92.9% of students attending the workshop, and 98.2% of students finding the program at least somewhat helpful. Orientation surveys reported 90% of students being at least somewhat comfortable being in a group of other students to discuss probation and academic difficulty. We have also seen positive qualitative feedback. One student said, “I liked talking to other students in the same boat as I am,” and another student described the atmosphere as “inviting and with a lack of judgment.” Similarly, in feedback on the mid-semester workshop, one student said, “this program was helpful because it helped me not feel isolated,” while another explained that, “it was comforting to be put in a setting where I didn’t have to fear being judged for sitting here.”

Overall, this kind of feedback has led us to believe that BoT is most successful in destigmatizing academic difficulty, creating a warm, welcoming and safe space, and engaging students in a connected network of holistic support. Given these outcomes, we want to emphasize that the promise of an institution is not just to help students graduate in 4–6 years and find a job, but to assist them in developing as confident, independent thinkers, who believe they can overcome adversity and tackle any challenges they may face post-graduation.

John Burdick
Associate Director of Academic Support
NYU College of Arts & Science
[email protected]

Anthony Chiaravelotti
Academic Advisor
NYU College of Arts & Science Advising Center
[email protected]

Alice Martin
Academic Advisor
NYU College of Arts & Science Advising Center
[email protected]


Andujo Hanger, M., Goldenson, J., Weinberg, M. (2011). The bounce back retention program: One-year follow-up study. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 13(2), 205–227.

Hsin-Yuan Huang, W., & Soman, D. (2013). A practitioner’s guide to: Gamification of education. Research Report Series: Behavioural Economics in Action. Toronto, Canada: Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

Kalsbeek, D. (2013). Reframing retention strategy for institutional improvement: New directions for higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Salinitri, G. (2005). The effects of formal mentoring on the retention rates for first-year, low achieving students. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l'education, 28(4), 853–873.

Thayer, P. B. (2000). Retention of students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds. Opportunity Outlook. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED446633.pdf

Tinto, V. (2000). Linking learning and leaving: Exploring the role of the college classroom in student departure. In M. J. Braxton (Ed.), Reworking the student departure puzzle (pp. 81–84). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Walters, E. (2004). Enhancing student learning and retention through the merger of the academic and student affairs unit: The Olivet Plan. Journal of College Student Retention, 5(1), 23–26.

Cite this article using APA style as: Burdick, J., Chiaravelotti, T., & Martin, A. (2019, June). Learning from their stories: The development of a comprehensive support program for academically at risk students. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2019 June 42:2


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