Tristan Denley: Building Smart Pathways for Student Success

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Sometimes to better understand a wicked problem, you have to start by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s exactly what mathematician and higher education leader Tristan Denley did, and the resulting effort — a course recommendation system called Degree Compass — has led to some surprising results.

It all began before Denley joined the Tennessee Board of Regents in its Office of Academic Affairs, when he served as Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Austin Peay State University.

As a precursor to Degree Compass, Denley sat down one day and deliberately selected a program outside of his discipline. Then, using only the university’s website and publicly available resources, he tried to develop a four-year degree plan.

“I spent a couple of hours trying to do this,” Denley said. “At the end, I had a plan, but I wasn’t sure if it made academic sense, if there was an advantage to one course over another, or if I’d selected the optimal course sequence. I was pretty sure I would graduate, but not sure if the registrar would recommend it. Now if I found it that difficult ,why would we imagine that a student with no higher education experience could do this autonomously?”

There was a severe information gap. Traditionally underserved populations, including those  first generation students, simply didn’t have access to the kind of information that could be considered insider knowledge. “It hasn’t been about them not knowing the answers; rather, they didn’t know what questions to ask,” Denley said.

Closing the Information Gap

He believed that there had to be ways to make pathways clearer and more straightforward — for first generation students in particular — help them to be more successful and navigate higher education.

Denley set out with a team of leaders and faculty at Austin Peay to develop what would become Degree Compass, a system that uses predictive analytics to strategically present information to students to build awareness of available choices and the outcomes of a variety of decisions. The system was developed with two purposes:

  • It would serve as a much better information source to both students and advisors regarding the most advantageous pathways to move through degree programs;
  • It would also present that information within a carefully designed choice architecture.

“That’s how we discovered just how much of a void existed,” Denley recalled. “The traditional approach to advising wasn’t specific enough; neither students nor advisors had very detailed data about more fluid degree program structures.”

When students employed the advice that the system provided, achievement gaps narrowed. They performed better academically. In a relatively short amount of time, the experiment ultimately proved successful. “By closing that initial information gap, it empowered our students to make more strategic choices from the beginning,” Denley noted.

Degree Compass was adopted full scale at Austin Peay State University; it’s now also in use at the University of Memphis.

Denley moved on to assume his current position with the Tennessee Board of Regents. Yet his mission to transform developmental education and advising at a system scale is far from over — although he admits that there are thornier challenges at this level.

Demystifying Degree Pathways

“Students across our postsecondary system face the challenges that Austin Peay students did,” Denley said. “Not knowing how to get from point A to point B left many lost in the academic scheduling maze. We worked with all schools across the system to create default pathways that would satisfy degree criteria, but also to ensure that there were combinations in which pathways would fit together — a harmonious pathway structure.”

They rationalized that it was possible to architect degree programs in such a way that recognizes that changing one’s mind is feasible. “We already know that many college students wind up switching majors; why shouldn’t we acknowledge that in the structure and build a design around discrete optimization principles?” Denley asked.

Faculty members worked alongside his team to ensure this could be accomplished without sacrificing academic rigor. If students were to change paths, the system would calculate options that would show as many transferable credits as mathematically possible.

“Say you’re in biochemistry and decide that you’d rather be a forensic chemistry major; it certainly seems as though you shouldn’t have to start over again,” Denley explained. “Naturally, the further afield the major, it may well be that some courses don’t mesh. But we tried to minimize that impact as much as possible.”

After putting that work in place, Denley’s team realized that they should follow another group of students who appeared to be struggling: those who arrived on campus undecided. The number of available options was causing a sort of premature decision fatigue. “If there are lots of choices and one of those choices is choose later, lots of people will decide to choose later,” Denley noted.

Supporting the Undecided

Those affected by an information gap encountered even more issues when deciding. Once the team began tracking the undecided students, they found that more than half dropped out of school before choosing a major. However, if they were able to choose something in that first year, their grad rates were conversely very high.”

It was time for another iteration, so the team changed the system’s choice architecture structure. Now, students are more closely guided. They have the option of enrolling in a specific academic program or selecting one of eight affinity groups of disciplines. Part of that onboarding process includes conversation with an advisor about their individual spectrum of interest.

“We asked students why they made choices they made; they offered a variety of reasons, including anticipated salary, personal interests, or past academic strengths,” Denley said. “Less than one percent told us that they chose because we required them to do so. That was a big step forward. They had a reason that made sense to them.”

By doing this, Denley’s team enabled a much larger portion of students to select a specific program. “I had no idea”  turned into “I generally like this, but am not sure exactly what to pursue.”

Then an advisor could have a more focused conversation that honed in on a few majors. Once they better understood the differences between various disciplines, students were able to decide. “It was really about clarifying that direction,” Denley explained. “As we study academic mindset, we see that knowing the purpose or the ‘why’ behind what it is you’re studying is a crucial facet to students actually progressing and flourishing toward graduation.”

Emphasizing Interests & Aptitudes

Denley noted that while “space to explore and wander is wonderful,” the use of a course recommendation system doesn’t preclude or prevent academic discovery. The established pathways now enable students to take a direction, and to shift into other disciplines as well in a smooth fashion. Rather than enrolling in classes and hoping that they satisfied degree requirements, his team created a sequence for those who needed more direction. “In that first semester, students are better prepared to make a more focused choice from the very beginning,” he said.

Denley is in the process of publishing a series of four technical briefs on this work, to include:

  • choice architecture and academic focus;
  • course redesign;
  • change in developmental education;
  • and academic mindset.

As for the program, the results speak for themselves. “Our three-year community college graduation rate has increased 40%, and the university four-year graduation rate has risen 25%,” Denley said. “It’s already the case that we’re starting to see a very significant positive impact.”

Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.