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James K. Winfield, University of South Carolina

James Winfield.jpgWith higher education reaching enrollment peaks of students from various backgrounds with diverse needs, a huge responsibility is upon colleges and universities. This increase in students warrants the necessity for more support. To meet this challenge, colleges and universities look to the development of early-alert mechanisms that identify students who are academically at-risk. Trending at many institutions, these programs have become institutional priorities to improve student retention. Processes typically involve an automated referral system that alerts faculty and staff to refer a student as signs of academic need occur. Institutions are investing thousands of dollars into launching and further developing efforts to monitor students and their behaviors, as they could exhibit signs of a need for intervention. These signs can include negative changes such as a decrease in class attendance; a lack of classroom participation; and, the most obvious indicator, poor grades.

It is imperative to note that regardless of the technological platform used to drive these retention initiatives, there is a human factor that proves vital in this process: the faculty who provide instruction to these students. Greenfield, Keup, and Gardner (2013) address the need to identify those “critical partners” upon implementing any early alert initiative, a list that typically includes advisors, counselors, peer mentors, tutors, and other academic success personnel. These are the common figures that one would expect to make up a panel of individuals to both develop and sustain these programs.

A National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE) report cites that faculty should consider themselves as an “integral cord in an institution’s safety net for students” (Cambridge, 2005, p. 2). The roles of faculty members and instructors are essential in providing effective and seamless interventions for academically at-risk students. Often it is the charge of an academic support unit to implement and sell an early-alert mechanism; the best way to foster that buy-in is to identify and engage faculty early who partner with services such as tutoring or supplemental instruction. These are the potential advocates who can mobilize and share these efforts for student success.

A 2013 report from The Higher Education Resource Institute (HERI) revealed the top three factors that contribute to student success and persistence in college are a sense of belonging, ease of academic adjustment, and faculty interaction (as cited in Pryor, 2013). Although all of these are interconnected, it is evident that faculty have a consistent role in fostering a sense of connectedness and support to the students whom they serve. As student services staff and advisors it is essential to share feedback with students to ensure that they know where they stand along with if they are meeting the expectations of the college classroom.  Grounded in the idea of Reynolds (2009) helping strategies and providing effective feedback, there are three best practices offered that can guide approaches to making effective referrals through these systems: identify the student’s needs early, make the student aware they are at-risk, and connect the student to relevant resources.

Here is the summation of these best practices and things to consider as faculty and instructors find the need to intervene with students:

Identify the Student’s Needs Early. Joe Cuseo (2011) identified academic disengagement, absenteeism, and mid-semester grades as some of the tangible indicators to warrant intervention for a student. These factors, if found at the right time, have been proven to have a positive effect on student performance in the classroom. “If we have learned anything over the years in our attempts to improve student retention, it is that the earlier one attends to a problem or potential problem, the easier it is to deal with that problem and the less likely it is that it will manifest itself in the form of student withdrawal” (Tinto, 1993, p. 171). These signs should be identified early to host the proper form of intervention, specifically within the first few weeks of the academic semester as these are prime times to address a student’s academic concerns.

Make the Student Aware That They Are At-Risk. According to Reynolds (2009), to be effective, “helpers must present the referral in the spirit of respect and collaboration arranging the initial contact between student and referral either by telephone, [email], or in person” (p. 160). This approach is a crucial point in the academic referral process”. The ability to disarm the student and convey a genuine sense of care can bridge the gap of trust and provide comfort between both faculty and student. In some cases, the intervention may become resolved solely based on the referrer or recommender showing care and concern for the student and the issue that they are trying to navigate. Reynolds even proceeds to outline the level of care and sensitivity that is required to inform students that they have been referred and cautions advisors to bear in mind that in these instances a student can likely convey an attitude or disposition of not wanting the help.

Connect Student to Relevant Resources. It is imperative that faculty members possess an awareness of institutional support opportunities that are in place to make the proper referral. Common practice for many institutions is that a student should become aware of campus support resources during admissions events and new student orientation, but most students only connect with these resources when there is a need for immediate assistance. In the event that the intervention is necessary, Reynolds (2009) goes on to say that helpers (faculty or staff) “must offer referrals with the same care as interpretations and confrontations, bearing in mind that the student may feel threatened by the suggestion that their dilemma requires expert or professional attention” (p. 160). Prepare for resistance from the student as they may be reluctant to accept the need for academic intervention.

Effective interventions for academically at-risk students are not possible without the buy-in and support of faculty members and academic departments. Early-alert programs are at their best when the pulse of student performance centers on faculty observations within the classroom. Such insights can strengthen the argument for the necessity of these programs along with showing that feedback and intervention can contribute to student success. Students are more likely to succeed in an environment where feedback about their performance is offered early and honestly, thus enabling all parties to adjust behaviors and approaches to enhance the likelihood of success. Additionally, providing training for faculty and instructors can ease comfort in identifying the signs of early-alert and bridge the gap between efforts to retain and support students.

James K. Winfield
Assistant Director for Faculty Development
University 101 Programs
University of South Carolina
[email protected]


Cambridge, B. L. (2005). Promoting student success: What new faculty need to know (NSSE DEEP Report, Occasional Paper No. 12). Retrieved from http://nsse.indiana.edu/institute/

Cueso, J. (2011). Early-alert (early-warning) programs: Definition, advantages, variations & illustrations. Retrieved from http://www.uwc.edu/sites/uwc.edu/files/imce-uploads/employees/academic-resources/esfy/_files/red_flags-behavioral_indicators_of_potential_student_attrition.pdf

Greenfield, G. M., Keup, J. R., & Gardner, J. N. (2013). Developing and sustaining successful first-year programs: a guide for practitioners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pryor, J. (2013, May). Preparing students to thrive in the 21st century- HERI CIRP Data. Presented at the annual ideaPOP Conference, Columbia, SC.

Reynolds, A. (2009). Helping college students: Developing essential support skills for student affairs practice. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cite this article using APA style as: Winfield, J.K. (2018, December). The art of intervention: Partnering with faculty for early academic alert. Academic Advising Today, 41(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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