The University of Arizona

Removing the Guesswork From Academic Progress

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications | January 10, 2012

A new service will allow UA students to track, credit-by-credit, their program requirements over the course of their academic careers, while another new service is being offered to perspective students and their families.

Two new services, Degree Search and Degree Tracker, were designed with UA, high school and transfer students along with parents, advisers and counselors in mind. Those involved in the development and implementation of the services include both academic and student affairs staff members and also advisers, marketing teams and UA students. (Photo credit: FJ Gaylor Photography)
Two new services, Degree Search and Degree Tracker, were designed with UA, high school and transfer students along with parents, advisers and counselors in mind. Those involved in the development and implementation of the services include both academic and student affairs staff members and also advisers, marketing teams and UA students. (Photo credit: FJ Gaylor Photography)
In assessing the need for what resulted in Degree Search, students and advisers still report valuing one-on-one time.
In assessing the need for what resulted in Degree Search, students and advisers still report valuing one-on-one time. "However, the goal of this is to make more information available to both students and advisers so that their relationship can become more than nuts and bolts and approving degree programs, but can now allow for more time to talk about different majors, potential career opportunities, internships and generally be a deeper relationship," UA Vice President for Student Affairs Melissa Vito said.

It inevitably happens: An ill-informed graduating senior sits stunned having just been notified by an academic adviser of unfinished units required to earn a degree. 

For students, this can result in an additional semester or more, and extra higher education costs. 

To help avoid that situation, a University of Arizona team has created, designed and now is delivering two Web-based services – one to aid in major exploration, and the other to track academic progress. 

Degree Search offers a meticulous, neatly organized detail of the more than 200 major programs at the UA and their requirements. And Degree Tracker, residing within the password-protected UAccess student portal, follows student progress, credit by credit.

"There has not really been a transparency of curriculum out there," said Shelley McGrath, senior director for academic programs and transfer coordination in the UA Office of Academic Affairs. "So this is like having a personal GPS so students can track their way through."

The improvements were born out of an initiative advanced by Gail Burd, vice provost for academic affairs; Michele Norin, the chief information officer and executive director of University Information Technology Services, or UITS; and Melissa Vito, vice president for student affairs

While Degree Search is now live, Degree Tracker will be piloted with a roll out planned over the course of the next academic year, including a pilot roll out beginning this month.

The Web-based services are a collective leap ahead of the advisement report, which currently offers limited functionality and no capabilities to track course demand into the future.  

"There is a sense of both urgency and opportunity that have ignited this project," Vito said. "We are building out clear transfer paths, including which courses articulate with ours. This will be the first time that so much information is in one place." 

For example, let's say you have an equal interest in art education and entrepreneurship but can't decide what major to declare.

Through Degree Search, users can explore degree programs based on core requirements and individual interests like having a social orientation versus artistic tendencies. Thus, it will be especially helpful for high school, transfer and exploratory students, and also families.

"You see that there are different areas of campus, but you aren't necessarily aware of what's available unless you know someone in that area," said Lindsay Hartgraves, an English and elementary education junior. 

Hartgraves has relied on academic catalogs in the past but found it at times difficult to navigate: "It's just a lot of text, so you don't always know what you're looking for."

She has begun encouraging friends to use Degree Search, even showing her 16-year-old brother to use it.

"He didn't know there were all these options for him," said Hartgraves, also the academic affairs director for the Associated Students of the University of Arizona. "It's great." 

Degree Tracker, which feeds into the same database as Degree Search, offers visible cues for UA students, indicating when they are enrolled in correct classes and offering alerts when they get off track during their four-year plan.

Team members designed logic, coding and algorithms within PeopleSoft to suggests courses based on the recommended sequence of a given major. The team also captured nuances in its code; for example, if lecture and lab courses should be taken together, the program will suggest exactly that. 

Also, students can set preferences within the system about plans to graduate earlier or later or intentions to take time off. The system also will indicate to students when it is recommended they take certain classes, said Kathy Godwin, who is credited with figuring out how to build that type of advising capability into Degree Tracker's functions. 

"The program cannot replicate a person, but the point is that if you want a quick glance of where you are, now you have it," said Godwin, a business analyst for UITS who helped develop the system.

But because the services provide detailed information about deadlines and course requirements while making degree checks easier, it should free up time for students and advisers and academic counselors to talk about other important academic issues.

In fact, coordinators said they believe the two services will shift the student-adviser relationship, but not replace it. 

"Right now, if a student has been here two years and isn't necessarily on the right track, unless they are on academic probation, we don't necessarily know there is a problem," Godwin said.

"It's definitely more proactive, so if you see an adviser it should make it a richer process," said Godwin, also a graduate student studying higher education.

Another benefit: The service will enable faculty members, department heads and enrollment managers to better predict demand for seats years in advance and with greater probability. 

"Our ability to predict course enrollments is a continually difficulty issue," Vito said, adding that "tools that help students stay on track and in sequence would also help us better predict course demand and better deploy resources to meet demand."

Vito said she has been working actively with Burd and Norin to determine ways to advance improvements in enrollment and retention, at times presenting at national conferences models the team has developed involving collaboration between academic and student affairs professionals through the use of technology. 

"This project while moving quickly has also had critical involvement from both advisers and students and reflects their input, "Vito said.

"At the end of the day," she added, "we hope to build a tool that will positively impact the student academic experience leading to better retention and graduation rates."

Contacts

Shelley McGrath

Office of Academic Affairs

520-621-9371

smcgrath@email.arizona.edu


Kathy Godwin

University Information Technology Services

520-621-5757

kgodwin@email.arizona.edu