Improving Student Grades Using Dedicated Support

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Key Takeaways

  • With the objective of improving both accessibility and student retention, the Office of Disability Services at Tennessee Tech developed a plan to improve both the undergraduate experience and retention rates.
  • Students appreciate the one-on-one academic coaching, which provided academic and sometimes social coaching depending on the needs of each student.
  • Appropriate technology aids completed the academic support program by giving students tools they can use to achieve academic success.
  • For students with disabilities, technological resources can play a crucial role in whether basic information presented in a classroom or lab setting is accessible or usable.

The transition from high school to college presents real challenges for many students. Shifting from smaller classrooms to the large lecture hall setting, along with the increased pressures of becoming an independent learner, can take a toll on even the most able students. The Disability Services Office at Tennessee Tech University recently implemented a program designed to determine and remedy one central challenge for students registered with the office. Very quickly, it became obvious that the office should focus its resources on note-taking skills. We all remember classes where just getting the notes during the lecture became an immense challenge. Some classes move very fast, requiring students to write notes so rapidly that they end up with virtually illegible notes and little recall of the information delivered in class. That means students wind up with virtually none of the essential tools for success. Conditions like dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and other learning disabilities greatly exacerbate this issue. In some cases, it is nearly impossible for students with these conditions to acquire quality notes from their classroom lectures.

There are approximately 12,000 students enrolled at Tennessee Tech University. The Office of Disability Services serves just over 400 of those students. That equates to about three percent of the campus population. The number of students served by the office, however, has risen dramatically since the passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 expanded the legal definition of disability. Since 2009 the number of students has increased from 65 to 400 — an incredible six-fold increase. Considering the World Health Organization estimates approximately 15 percent of the world's population has a disability and the National Council on Education Statistics asserts that, on average, 11 percent of an American college campus population has a disability, the number of students served by the Disability Services Office will most likely continue to rise. Using the percentages listed above, the numbers at Tennessee Tech University could rise to somewhere between 1,320 to 1,800 students. That is significant because the National Council on Disability (NCD) says more than half of students with disabilities are at risk of failure and/or dropping out of college. Tennessee Tech University students served by the Office of Disability Services having a learning disability typically sits around 50 percent. In real numbers, that means Tennessee Tech University currently has 200 students at risk of leaving the campus without a degree unless they receive proper support. That number could rise to as high as 900 students at risk of leaving the university.

Tennessee Tech University recently began the Flight Plan, an overall campus initiative to help improve student retention rates by providing academic and technological support. The board of regents also recently adopted an accessibility initiative designed to make the higher education setting more accessible to everyone, including students with disabilities. The Office of Disability Services seized on overall goals of both projects to implement something specific that could be offered to students and produce concrete results. Co-authors Assistant Director Ed Beason and Academic Coach Laura Horton began the ACTS program (Academic Coaching Technology Support).The goal behind the ACTS program was to incorporate a model that had the potential to benefit the entire campus — not necessarily only students registered with the Office of Disability Services. We hoped that the program could be used to increase accessibility to course content and provide support for any student who struggles with taking useful, effective notes as they settle into the college environment.

Traditional Note-Taking Accommodation

Historically, the Office of Disability Services at Tennessee Tech typically used voluntary note takers as an accommodation to support students who required additional note-taking assistance. The major disadvantage with that approach is that it makes students seeking note-taking assistance dependent on external factors. If, for example, the volunteer note-taker doesn't drop off their notes by the time the student needs them, additional trips to the Office of Disability Services are required. Also, the office is open only from 8:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m., and some students have academic and/or work schedules that do not allow for pick-up or drop-off during those hours. Our goal was to increase the independence of our students seeking note-taking assistance; we wanted them to feel more in control of their own academic destiny. In our experience, that increases the student's sense of investment in the college experience.

Another issue with the volunteer note-taker approach involved the difference in academic level between the student and the volunteer. For example, in certain situations the student who needed the notes was coming into their first year of engineering and the volunteer note-taker was in their third year. It would seem the junior-level note-taker would be able to capture better notes than an incoming freshman. In those cases, however, the notes sometimes contained only information the elder volunteer felt was new, interesting, and important; they took some information for granted, and the student needing the service wasn't receiving the details needed for quality notes. Taken as a whole, these issues led some students to report that this method created a sense of vulnerability and triggered a disconnect with the academic setting.

The Support Program

In the early phase, the ACTS program had very little stand-alone funding. The purpose behind the new program was for the Office of Disability Services to be able to develop a technology-rich, one-on-one academic coaching program designed to identify individual student needs and then target the crucial areas where students struggle the most. We understood that would require monetary support. The provost at Tennessee Tech recently began offering competitive grants designed to fund worthy causes related to innovative technology and academic supports. The Office of Disability Services presented the case described above to the Office of the Provost, and the program was accepted as a worthy project.

Approximately 30 students participated in the initial ACTS program; this article features five representative samples. The academic coaching provided to students through this program seemed to provide the structure some students needed to lay the foundation for success. Typical feedback obtained through our student survey at the end of the program tended to echo what one of the students reported: "She keeps me on track. I can text her day or night with questions. It helps to talk things out with her."

Students who meet with the coach are identified by the professional staff in the office as potentials for coaching. The coach then sets up an initial meeting to determine what role he or she can serve to best address the particular student's needs. The coach essentially serves as an academic and, in some cases, social coach, which can be an extensive task. This article, however, focuses mainly on the academic coach's role in pairing students with the technological supports we hoped would produce a measureable outcome at the end of the program.

Using Technology to Transform Higher Education

Technology completely transforms our lives almost on a daily basis. Whether it is software helping us keep track of our daily activities or the digital thermostat that keeps the room just the perfect temperature, technology completely alters the way we live our lives, yet it is seamlessly infused into our daily routine. We hoped to find something that could have the same impact on the instructional experience for college students. For students with disabilities, technological resources can determine whether basic information presented in a classroom or lab setting is accessible or usable. That can mean the difference between a student continuing in a degree program or dropping out of college completely.

One visually impaired student shared how previous classes had trended: "Honestly, had I not taken [the class] with my best friend, I'd probably have dropped out. The class was in no way set up for me or any other visually impaired person." The material simply was not accessible to this student. Technologies such as magnifiers, instructional software that allows the professor to project their computer screen directly to that student's screen in a computer lab, and various other technologies have completely changed the trajectory of her college experience — she recently graduated with a bachelor's degree.

We wanted students with learning and processing issues to experience the same kind of learning experience as students without disabilities. As this program began to take shape, it became a learning experience for everyone involved. First, the academic coach had to learn the benefits of various assistive technologies. Our office had Livescribe smart pens available, and to a certain extent they do part of the job well. The smart pens allow students to record audio files as they take notes, so they don't have to worry about getting every word the lecturer says. This method does work for some students. It allows for independence from volunteer note takers and produces an audio recording. However, the Livescribe technology still requires students to hand-write notes and doesn't incorporate visuals such as images, PowerPoint slides, and video files, or other electronics that instructors tend to use in the classroom.

It certainly helps students to have an audio file of the lecture, but deciphering an hour's content, identifying the key points, and segmenting the information into relevant sections pose significant challenges for some students. At TTU, our definition of accessibility means that individuals with disabilities can independently acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services within the same time frame as individuals without disabilities, with substantially equivalent ease of use. For students who are more visual learners, we certainly saw room for improvement in our technological toolkit.

Current Solution

During a visit to the annual U.S.-based Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) conference we became acquainted with the accessibility tool Sonocent Audio Notetaker. This software allows a student to record classroom lectures and integrate PowerPoint slides or other graphics directly into the program, either before or after the recording is completed. As the audio is recorded, the program detects pauses in speech and can break it into easily digestible "phrases," which can be color-coded using a customizable color key. For example, a student can denote a segment as "important" by coloring it red and another section as a "task" by coloring it green. Or, students might choose to color code the information based on major figures discussed in class. In a physics class, for example, if the professor discusses the difference between Newtonian physics and Einsteinian relativity, the student can mark the sections dealing with Newton's ideas with red and Einstein's proposals with green. That way the student can easily retrieve the most relevant information as needed.

For students who need text-to-speech capabilities, the program will also extract the information contained within PowerPoint slides and read it aloud. This program has allowed us to provide our students with an all-in-one note-taking and information management package. We feel that a key benefit of this particular technology is that you don't need any other software to use it. It permits the incorporation of various file formats and offers a variety of other features, including the ability to transcribe recordings (if the user has Dragon Dictation [] software), and capturing still frames and audio from YouTube videos.

We ran a very basic training session for approximately 30 participating students, but because Audio Notetaker is intuitive and set up like a traditional Microsoft program, training requirements were minimal; that has been a big plus for us.


Statistics show students with disabilities are less likely to graduate from college than their non-disabled peers. Our Academic Coaching Technology Support (ACTS) program targeted the students within that group who we deemed to be most "at risk" for leaving campus without a degree.

Throughout the program student grades were tracked to determine the impact, if any, it might have. The overall program results show an average 1.7 percent increase across four subject areas. The chart in figure 1 highlights a sample of five students who participated in the program. The academic coach developed an individualized plan, including varying technological supports, for each student based on their particular needs. The most dramatic increase in GPA came from a student who used Audio Notetaker. That particular GPA soared from 0.6 to 3.41, an astonishing 2.81 rise in GPA. It is also worth noting that providing the individualized support retained every student — not one student in the ACTS program dropped out or transferred to another school. Also, all the students remained in the Academic Coaching program because they said it had become instrumental to their academic success.

Figure 1

Figure 1. ACTS program effect on five students' GPAs

We asked the students to fill out a survey at the end of the program to determine the effectiveness and the overall perception of the program. Approximately 20 of the students responded to the survey and said that historically they didn't know how to take effective notes as freshmen, let alone with their disability. They can now relax in class and listen to the lectures. When one student first used the Sonocent Audio Notetaker program, she said she felt emotionally overwhelmed by how the software could transform her learning experience and outcomes.

Next steps

For students registered with the Office of Disability Services, technology has created an atmosphere in which success can be independently attained and information independently accessed. As the project has progressed, it has become clear that support initiative fits squarely into Tennessee's larger higher education goals. All students can benefit from academic and technology support. Ultimately, we hope to consider Sonocent Audio Notetaker for a broader roll-out across all areas of the campus community.

Edward F. Beason is assistant director of the Office of Disability Services at Tennessee Technological University.

Laura Horton is an academic coach for the ACTS program in the Office of Disability Services at Tennessee Technological University.

© Edward F. Beason and Laura Horton. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 International.