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Project Description

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Project Director: David McMillen

On-Campus Coordinator: Ty Abernathy

Technical: Nell Valentine


Project Description

The Pathfinders program at Mississippi State University began in the fall semester of 1998. It was funded as an internal research project in 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 by the Office of Academic Affairs. The purpose of the program is to enhance the academic performance of freshmen and to increase the number of freshmen continuing their education the sophomore year. The program is an outgrowth of academic performance research conducted by a professor of psychology and several of his graduate students. After two years as a research project, the program was sufficiently successful to convince the university president and provost to make Pathfinders a continuing program.

The Pathfinders program is based on several assumptions that are supported by research at Mississippi State University and many other institutions:

The general purpose of Pathfinders is to assist freshmen in becoming personally responsible and self-directed in an environment that is academically more demanding and less regulated than high school. We attempt to achieve this purpose by promoting responsible class attendance. Special emphasis is placed on the first 6 weeks of the freshman year because this is the time most academic problems begin.

  1. During Freshman Orientation, group leaders and the Vice President for Student Affairs emphasize to incoming freshmen and their parents the importance of regular class attendance.
  2. At the beginning of the fall semester, the President of Mississippi State University sends a letter to the parents of all entering freshmen. The importance of class attendance to academic success is stressed in this letter.
  3. Faculty teaching freshmen are asked to monitor class attendance and inform Pathfinders via e-mail or our website of freshmen missing two or more classes during first six weeks of the semester. Weekly reporting by faculty is encouraged.
  4. Pathfinders’ staff working with Residence Life Academic Assistants contact freshmen having attendance problems after the student is reported to Pathfinders. For on-campus freshmen the contact is in the student’s dormitory room; off-campus freshmen are contacted by telephone. Contact is brief (approximately two minutes) and positive but designed to encourage class attendance and consultation with the teachers concerning academic difficulties.

An essential part of the program has been the cooperation and assistance of Student Affairs staff. At Mississippi State University over 95% of the freshmen live in dormitories. By working with residence hall academic assistants employed by Student Affairs, it is possible to make face-to-face contact with most freshmen with attendance problems. Student Affairs allowed Pathfinders staff to train residence assistants regarding how to conduct the intervention and to supervise the residence assistants in this activity during the academic year. Student Affairs also allowed Pathfinders staff to train freshmen orientation leaders in how to emphasize the importance of class attendance while conducting their small group sessions with incoming freshmen. In practical terms this approach enabled the Pathfinders program to function without hiring additional personnel. In human terms, the approach led to positive, enthusiastic, caring upperclassmen delivering the attendance message to freshmen.

Pathfinder’s focus is clearly on class attendance; however, the brief intervention conducted by residence hall academic assistants has several other functions. Students are encouraged to talk to their instructors if they have questions or academic problems. Students are also encouraged to talk to their advisor about problems. In addition to the message about academic issues, the student is left with the feeling: “although this is a large university, there are people that care about me as an individual”. One of our goals is to make the student feel more connected to the university.