Dr. David McMillen and Dr. Ty Abernathy review Pathfinders data with Residence Hall personnel
Dr. David McMillen and Dr. Ty Abernathy (center) go over Pathfinders data with residence hall academic assistants at the Social Science Research Center. (Photo by Megan Bean)

By Alan Burns

For over two decades, the award-winning Pathfinders staff has been working to increase awareness among faculty and students of the importance regular class attendance for freshmen success. They believe their work has been essential in changing the culture at Mississippi State University (MSU) regarding the importance of regular class attendance thus leading to better academic performance.

The programs’ staff has been consistent throughout its 21-year tenure. Pathfinders started with Dr. David McMillen as the Director and two graduate students, Ty Abernathy and John Edwards. After a few years, Dr. John Edwards left the project to coordinate the Wolfgang Frese Survey Research Lab, while Dr. Ty Abernathy became the On-Campus Coordinator. The team is also joined by Nell Valentine, Technical support and Project Coordinator at the Social Science Research Center (SSRC).

The program began in the fall semester of 1998 as an internal research project. The basis for the project was data which indicated that missing as few as four classes in one course was predictive of poor academic performance in the freshman year.

“We began the program at the SSRC to intervene with freshmen early in the semester if they start missing class,” said McMillen. “We found in our research that absences early in the semester were highly predictive of not only academic success in the freshman year, but graduation rates six years later.”

Pathfinders relies on the timely and accurate reporting of absences by instructors and professors. In the early years, accurate absence data was difficult to obtain for large classes where calling the roll was a challenge. Small classes, such as English, provided the best means of identifying freshmen needing help. With the recent addition of scanners in classes of 70 or more, it has become less likely that Pathfinders would fail to identify students needing help.

Housing and Residence Life has been supportive of the Pathfinders program since its beginning and has allowed Pathfinders to utilize Residence Hall Academic Assistants (RAs) to interact directly with freshmen missing class. Pathfinders selects, trains, and supervises RAs in approaching students in the student’s residence hall for face-to-face contact. This intervention provides the RAs an opportunity to discuss the importance of class attendance with the students, provide information about free and available academic resources they can utilize, and emphasize the importance of personal responsibility in success during college.

“One of the things that we tell students is missing class is the first sign of problems,” said Abernathy. “We discuss the important of class attendance and discuss resources that area available for them. Those are messages that we really try to communicate to the students.”

“I feel like part of what we do is meaningful because it has the opportunity to change the trajectory of people’s lives. When we have this opportunity to help, it’s not just professionally rewarding, it’s personally rewarding,” he continued.

Throughout the history of the program, there have been definitive results that make a clear case for emphasizing the importance of class attendance. MSU has seen the 6-year graduation rate increase from 50% before the program to 60% several years after the launch of Pathfinders, even while academic qualifications and ACT scores of freshmen remained the same. However, the years from 2014 to the present have shown a marked increase in the academic credentials of the freshman class, which Pathfinders believes will have an impact on graduation rate data that will become available in 2020.

In recent years, McMillen had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Rodney Pearson, Director of the Center for Student Success (CSS) at MSU. The two urged the university to better keep track of student attendance, which led to the card scanning systems. This system provided the university with the ability to have more accurate attendance data.

“At first, the card scanners were only used in the larger auditoriums; however now we also use them in the medium size classrooms, while smaller use classic roll calling,” McMillen said.
McMillen is also very enthusiastic about the potential for another increase in graduation rate due to the rise of average ACT scores and high school core grade point averages (GPA) among incoming freshmen that began in 2014.

“In 2014, the average ACT score of freshmen rose to over 24 for the first time. In 2018, it went up again to 25, also 18% of the freshman class had a high school core GPA of 4.00. We believe the increases in academic qualifications will have a positive impact in the future,” he continued. “We’re two years away from seeing the full impact of the 2014 ACT increase, but we’re predicting that it will have a substantial impact on the 6-year graduation rate.”

While McMillen says MSU’s increase in more academically qualified freshmen is one of the main reasons for improved academic success, he also believes the increase in the number of programs available to assist students has been important. In the last five years, more programs became available targeted at helping first-year students (e.g. Freshman Year Navigators in the CSS and supplemental instruction in some math and science classes by the Learning Center). These two reasons, coupled with the administration’s support of Pathfinders, have been drivers of its success.

“With the support of Dr. Mark Keenum, as well as current provost, Dr. Judy Bonner, and past provost, Dr. Jerry Gilbert, we’ve been able to grow as a university. Not only have they helped us attract talented students at the university and created a climate around succeeding, but they’ve given this program a chance to flourish and really help students,” McMillen stated.

McMillen says that the years of association with the SSRC have been crucial to the success.

“The technical support, infrastructure, and supportive attitudes at the SSRC have been outstanding,” McMillen said.

For more information on Pathfinders, visit www.pathfinders.msstate.edu.

Pathfinders: Going to Class Matters
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