If You MAP the Way, They Will Follow

min read

Key Takeaways

  • My Academic Plan (MAP) — the latest tool in Sinclair Community College's Student Success Plan software suite — gives students a clear, individualized, and coherent pathway to complete their academic goals.
  • By registering for MAP-recommended courses, students can ensure that their classes both fit with their program and are well suited to their academic abilities.
  • MAPs encourage students to create long-term plans for degree completion and are also adaptive to the specific and often complex needs of each student.
  • MAPs aggregate data across plans to give academic administrators course-demand information that they can use to optimize course offerings for future terms.

Sinclair Community College is a large, urban institution serving more than 40,000 unique individuals in the greater Dayton, Ohio area each year. Over the past decade, Sinclair has designed a holistic student-support model dedicated to carrying students through to completion of their academic programs. Locally developed software solutions underpin this holistic student-support model. Starting with a federal Title III grant in the early 2000s, Sinclair developed Student Success Plan (SSP), a suite of software solutions. In 2011, through the generous support of the Gates Foundation–funded EDUCAUSE Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) program, Sinclair began making SSP available as open-source software through the Apereo Foundation.

The most recent SSP technology tool, the My Academic Plan (MAP) academic advising component, is our focus here. MAP combines the characteristics of prescriptive academic advising with the strengths of technology-supported record keeping to provide students with accessible, specific, long-range, and accurate plans for the completion of their academic goals (see figure 1). These plans guide the student's course selection term-by-term and continuously evaluates them against the student's stated goals.

Figure 1. The Student Success Plan's My Academic Plan component

Student Success Advisor Kai Shemsu explains how MAP can help students see the light at the end of their academic tunnel (24 seconds).


SSP includes six software components: Case Management, Early Alerts, Action Plans, Reference Guides for Referrals, Student Self-Help Tools, and MAP. SSP combines this robust set of technology tools to assist student-support professionals as they help students through to program completion. The technology tightly links approved curricula, current course offerings, program requirements, prerequisites, course sequencing, and the student's major and program to assure that students take the right course, in the right sequence, for the right purpose, thus saving time and money as they progress to their educational goals.

SSP goes beyond degree audit systems — which only show students' progress toward degree — and instead harnesses the expertise of a team of professionals (advisors, coaches, and faculty) to monitor student progress and intervene when students stray from planned pathways or encounter unanticipated hurdles to completion.


MAP provides each student with an individualized, clear, and coherent pathway to degree completion with the goal of preventing the course-selection confusion and degree misdirection that recent research shows comes from extensive options.1 When looking at students who successfully complete courses, Sinclair's preliminary data indicate that they typically follow the advice outlined on their MAPs. During the first full semester of implementation, more than 85 percent of the mapped students selected and registered for courses closely related to their MAP. When discussing MAP, one student in Visual Communications said, "I want to see what I can take in the future. [MAP] is a reminder to me."

MAP works to demystify and rationalize the jumble of issues — such as prerequisites, course sequences, and degree requirements — that students face during each course registration cycle. All of the vetting needed to assure that a course fits within a student's program and that the student is ready to take the course vis-à-vis other requirements occurs during a deliberative session with an advisor. The session's outcomes are retained in the software and presented back to the student at registration time. If students follow their MAP, they can be assured that their registered courses fit with their program and that they're prepared to take on the content of the course.

Academic Advisor Brian Borchers shares the macro view of MAP, which shows students the coursework needed for their program (1:15 minutes).

Record keeping in the MAP tool documents meetings with students, notes Shemsu (26 seconds).

MAP as Advising Tool

MAPs record a consistent, historical, and accurate degree-completion plan that can be used at any point in a student's degree path and can be referenced by any academic advisor, coach, or faculty member a student might encounter. MAPs allow for consistent advising and support college faculty and staff in forming meaningful relationships with students through formal and informal settings. "When a student in my class reported problems with financial aid that caused her to be deregistered from the course, I accessed her MAP," said Jennifer King-Cooper, professor of Psychology at Sinclair. "This allowed me to see that she had been an excellent student, who was right on-track to complete her degree. This information gave me confidence … [that I should work] to help her get back into the course." As another example, faculty members might notice that a student on their class roster is marked as "off plan" and could then find an appropriate setting to engage the student in a discussion of his or her academic goals.

MAP Adaptability

MAPs are adaptive to the idiosyncratic character of each student's completion pathway. Unlike traditional degree audits, MAP charts a student's path according to his or her desired attendance pattern and the specific need for academic remediation as decided together by the student and advisor. As a recent Sinclair graduate noted, "My MAP helped me make sure that I was taking all of the classes that I needed to graduate … [W]ith my MAP, I was able to see every class that I still needed to take. I just graduated with high honors with my degree in Early Childhood Education."

Many degree audit products do not integrate remedial work as part of the designated audit pathway. Instead, they assume students complete this work prior to entering the degree audit framework. This assumption might be valid from the strict viewpoint of an academic analysis of coursework, but it does not correlate with a student's real-world view of what must be taken and in what order. Likewise, most degree audit systems do not have a temporal dimension that reflects a student's unique life circumstance. For example, if a student's life circumstance requires that they take eight years to complete an associate degree, their MAP will reflect this pace by charting their courses over each academic term within the entire period.

Hands-on Pathway Development

MAPs have increased advisor efficiency and accuracy by incorporating "ideal degree completion" templates that serve as the starting point for interaction with students. Academic departments develop these templates to assure compliance with the latest program requirements. Using the software's drag-and-drop features, advisors and counselors can quickly convert templates into unique, student-specific completion plans. One unintended and positive outcome of this MAP feature is the discussions that have ensued within academic departments with respect to degree completion pathways. Because academic departments generate these templates, faculty actively engage in determining course sequences that not only satisfy degree requirements but also are tailored to efficient student progression through the program.

Borchers says the MAP tool has become the central component of his advising process (1:21 minutes).

MAPs encourage students to create long-term degree completion plans rather than narrowly focusing on the immediate task of registering for current courses. Students are active participants in plan creation, and they quickly understand how their individual registration actions can enhance or disrupt their goal attainment. This active involvement encourages students to take ownership of their plan and educational pathway. MAPs provide immediate, corrective feedback at the point where students are most susceptible to make off-course decisions — during registration.

Students can look up their recommended courses on their MAP, says Borchers, and evaluate course load without consulting an advisor every term (1:14 minutes).

Students come prepared to discuss barriers to their success with their advisor, says Shemsu; they already know their plan for taking courses (26 seconds).

MAPs are designed to be prescriptive but not stringent. The software reminds students, at registration time, of the courses identified on their plan and compares this list to the actual course selections a student has made. When there is variance, students receive a notice that their selection takes them off-plan. At the same time, for students who do not feel comfortable making a choice, the default choice is "no choice or decision," which registers them for the courses on their MAP and thus continues to move them forward. Students are not prevented from selecting courses that are off-plan, but MAP ensures that students know the consequences of such decisions.

Academic advisors can quickly adjust courses in MAP to adapt to a student's progress, explains Borchers. (36 seconds).

Borchers values the notes advisors can include in MAP about courses and non-course activities (1:36 minutes).

Institutional Benefits

MAPs provide administrative advantages, such as making it easy to identify who will be affected if a particular course is not offered in the future and what the anticipated staffing needs will be beyond the current scheduling horizon. MAP aggregates data across plans to provide course-demand information to academic administrators who decide on course quantity and scheduling for future terms. One unintended, but beneficial, effect is the institutional knowledge that is retained within academic administration when individuals vacate a position. Because future needs are stored and quantified, new entrants to positions can quickly come up to speed on their new staffing and scheduling responsibilities.

Status of SSP and MAP

Open-source SSP software is available now through the Apereo (formerly Jasig) Foundation at https://wiki.jasig.org/display/SSP/Home. Sinclair has been using SSP software since early 2003; the MAP component went into production in February 2011. Currently, more than 30,000 Sinclair students have active MAPs, and ideal curricular pathways have been created for more than 80 academic programs. The full SSP software suite is also in operation at six other community colleges. The MAP component is being implemented at another five institutions that are participating in North Carolina's Completion-By-Design cadre. It is highly likely that several additional institutions will be implementing MAP in the near future as part of anticipated grant funding.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Prior to NGLC grant funding, Sinclair's approach was to adopt a for-profit SSP software dissemination model. However, the institution quickly determined that it was not appropriately structured to support that model's requirements. The lesson learned was that, in addition to providing viable software, successful dissemination must also focus on the adopting institution's implementation and ongoing support needs. Institutions can be leery of adopting open-source software if these needs are not addressed. Consequently, when NGLC funding was awarded, Sinclair made sure that the open-source availability was linked with viable third-party support resources that could assist institutions as they installed the software and adapted it to their internal business processes.

A second lesson learned is that implementing prescriptive academic advising and creating ideal academic pathways is challenging. To implement prescriptive advising, institutions must face the difficult question of how much prescription is too much. That is, they must decide how much latitude to afford students in selecting electives within MAP, and how much leeway can be built into a MAP to allow for student academic exploration and inquiry. Answers to these questions are not easy, and Sinclair is addressing them in stages. In the case of electives, for example, the software has been modified so that, at registration time, students are presented with additional appropriate, advisor-identified elective options, any one of which will keep them on track to complete their academic plan. The advisor puts these options on the student's MAP to ensure that the selections are vetted to comply with the student's academic program requirements; multiple choices are offered to give students some flexibility as they progress through their academic program.

Known or Anticipated Impact

In fall 2012, Sinclair completed the first full semester in which MAP was available for all students.2 Preliminary analyses indicate that students generally follow the academic paths outlined on their MAPs. For those students who successfully completed coursework (that is, they achieved a passing grade at the semester's end), 85 percent who entered the semester with a MAP took courses during the term that were either explicitly called out on their MAP or were at the same department and level as a mapped course (for example, they took ENG 1102 instead of the mapped ENG 1101). We are eager to continue our data collection and research in this exciting new area and to validate the data's stability over time. For Sinclair, using SSP's MAP component strongly suggests that, "If you MAP it, they will follow."

More Information

Our SSP website includes general information on SSP, as well as an excellent analysis of why intrusive, prescriptive student-support-services are important to student success and completion. Also, Columbia University offers further information on Completion-by-Design initiatives.

  1. Judith Scott-Clayton, "The Shapeless River: Does a Lack of Structure Inhibit Students' Progress at Community Colleges?" CCRC Working Paper No. 25, Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University (January 2011).
  2. Prior to fall 2012, Sinclair was on the quarter system. MAP was originally designed to allow Sinclair to meet its pledge to students that they would not lose credits or increase expenses as a result of the academic calendar change as long as they followed a prescribed degree completion plan. Once in use, however, MAP became the default and preferred way for academic advisors to document their advice and to communicate this advice to students.