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This content was published: January 13, 2020. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

A new perspective on Course Progress Notifications

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This is a guest post from Roberto Suarez, the Online Admissions and Recruiting Coordinator and CG instructor. He’s been with Portland Community College for 23 years. Roberto Suarez

A few years ago I developed a pretty apathetic attitude towards Course Progress Notifications (CPNs). They seemed rather useless and ineffective. Halfway through the term I would look at my students’ current grade, select those with  Ds and Fs, and send them a CPN using the standard responses and selections available in our CPN tool.

The results were no results. I rarely heard back from any students receiving a CPN and most continued showing poor performance in class. It became such a meaningless and pointless process that for several terms I stopped using them altogether.

Then I had the opportunity to attend the National Conference on the First Year Experience in Atlanta, Georgia. I found myself at a session on Early Warning Systems and best practices for engaging struggling students. It was an eye-opening session that gave me the following strategies to try out which have made the process of using CPNs more helpful and meaningful to me and my students:

  1. Do not use the canned responses. The pre-written messages provided in the CPN tool are very impersonal and canned. And the warning message for struggling students can actually validate their doubts about being college material and further lead to disengagement from the class. Instead…
  2. Write your own custom responses, always beginning with a positive statement. I begin all of my messages with and expression of gratitude, letting students know how thankful I am that they chose to take my class. I also make sure to address them by name so that the messages have a more personal touch. From there I shift to their course performance, validating and praising those students who are doing well and showing heartfelt and genuine concern for students who are not. And all responses conclude by inviting students to reach out with any questions or concerns, regardless of how they are doing in class.
  3. Send CPNs to all students, not just those who are struggling or doing poorly. It feels good as a teacher to recognize the students who are doing well, even if it is just in this small way. And students are typically used to hearing from their instructors when there is a problem, so getting a message affirming their dedication to the course is a nice surprise.

Over the last couple of years the results have been incremental yet significant. Whereas before it was rare that I heard from any students receiving CPNs, I now get several students per term who respond and eventually re-engage with the class. Students are more open to talk about the reasons why they’ve been doing poorly, and the fact that I reached out in this way encouraged them to follow-up rather than admit defeat. In the best case scenarios, those students who have followed up and worked with me have been able to turn things around and successfully complete my class. And in some of the worst case scenarios where the grade wasn’t salvageable, I’ve been able to talk to students about alternatives (such as switching their grade to Pass/No Pass) or gotten them to retake the course in a future term.A hand holding a sign that says "You got this"

There is also great benefit to acknowledging the good work of students who’ve been doing well in class. Students will respond with a quick note of gratitude or a “thank you!” Since CPNs are usually sent around mid-terms, I’m sure students appreciate receiving some positive feedback during this stressful time.

Another benefit I found was that when these students responded, it encouraged me to engage with them and keep tabs on their progress as the term proceeded. I would occasionally check in on their progress and would point out how their grades were improving or acknowledge that I recognized their improvement and reignited determination to do well in class. The CPN became a catalyst for continuous engagement and positive reinforcement.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my Fall 2019 students who was failing at the time I sent my CPN notification yet persevered and passed the class. They shared the following during our last discussion:

To say that this wasn’t a difficult term would be lying. I had a rough start to most of my classes but I bounced back and did pretty well. I have nothing to say but amazing things about this class and the instructor. I don’t think that there is a single thing that could be added or criticized about this class. The fact that the instructor reached out during class to make sure I turned myself around meant a lot to me. Thanks for everything!

So if you have been disappointed with the CPN tool I encourage you to try these ideas. I have even developed a template of responses that you can use to formulate your own student messages. Feel free to use and modify them as you see fit!

Have a great Winter term,


Editor’s note: CPN is a valuable tool but it will eventually be replaced with another Early Warning practice that is being piloted now by Writing faculty and advisors as part of Advising Redesign. However, everything Roberto describes remains relevant regardless of tool we use. We’re excited to learn more about how to harness the power of early alerts and the power that a caring team of faculty and advisors can bring to student success. ~afreed

About Andy Freed

I'm the Director of Learning Technology & Innovation (LTI!), where I oversee our infrastructure, technical support, and online student services teams. I've been with the College since 2001 and have worked in several positions, from tech... more »

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x by Delpha Thomas 2 years ago

Great post! I have felt the same way about CPNs and the surveys that students get about your classes at the end of the term. I still struggle with these sometimes, but I also think that the way these systems are built are kind of complicit in their failure to provide meaningful communication between instructors and students. Like you noted, as soon as an instructor can learn how to utilize these platforms and individualize them, they can be game changers! The same goes for D2L. Last year I asked my self what value there was in NOT allowing students to see their grades cumulatively over the term and I couldn’t really find a good reason not to do it. By allowing them to view everything, my course has become far more transparent and students always know where they stand!

x by Peter Seaman 2 years ago

Thanks, Roberto, for your thoughtful post, which reminded me about Carol Dweck’s work on having a “growth mindset” (here’s a link to a video about it: https://youtu.be/hiiEeMN7vbQ). There is something really defeating about getting a message that says, essentially, “You are failing.” I’m convinced there is an art to reversing the downward spiral that some students find themselves on. Your strategies are a step in the right direction. Thanks again.

x by bryan 2 years ago

You can call me Mr. Wet Blanket, but I’m not sure you need a special software to do what you are talking about here, Roberto. Couldn’t you just use e-mail? It matters … because with each new license we pay for, we increase the cost of non-instructional line items, and I’d rather save all the money we can for faculty positions, advisors, and the like.

x by Andrea Hills 2 years ago

Thoughtful post Roberto; I enjoyed the variety of ideas of ways to make the CPN tool more personal, which seems especially helpful for online students who are the recipients of canned responses far too often. I send mid-term CPNs to students who are are not passing and add in my own personal comments, but I haven’t thought of just leaving off the pre-written messages, which show up first and set the “you’re failing” tone before a student sees my comments.

In response to bryan, there was just a discussion at my department meeting last week about CPNs, and many of us agreed that students will often read a CPN vs. an email as it catches their attention. Also, it seems like a more official format when a student on academic probation needs a progress report for an advisor.

I am curious about Andy’s end note that writing faculty are working on a new Early Warning pilot as I am a writing instructor (adjunct), and I have not heard anything about this project. Is there any other info available yet?

x by Kerry Pataki 2 years ago

That was certainly my experience: Since the canned options were too absolute and constraining. I wrote statements for my students who needed some sort of reminder, and some of them replied with thanks. I recall when the idea of CPNs was moved at the EAC (I was on it) a number of years ago, and there was considerable debate. Some did not want them at all, seeing it as a sort of criticism of the student. The need for constructive comments won, and we passed the motion. Et alors, CPNs.

x by Andy Freed 2 years ago

Hi Andrea, I’ll see if I can get an official update about the early alert pilot from Fall. Per Bryan’s concern, the software is something we already license called EAB Navigate. It does far more than just CPN/Early Alert and is a much more holistic student support tool that will at some point connect many (if not al) of the student support services and was adopted to support the Advising Redesign efforts.

Both CPN and Early Alert will still have the option to deliver the message via email (or text if the student opts for that). But it will do one step better in that the student’s assigned advisor will be able to see both kudos and notes of concern that instructors may be sending to the student. One goal of early alerts programs like this is that there can be collaborative support for a student that includes all of the student’s instructors, their advisor, tutors, and more. Faculty remain the most direct connection with the student during the term on a day to day basis, but the academic advisor is hopefully along for the student’s entire tenure with the college.

x by Andrea Hills 2 years ago

Thank you for that info Andy. At the same department meeting I noted in my first comment, a Cascade advisor was walking us through various student scenarios, and he pointed out that a big shortcoming of the CPNs was that they do not go to an advisor unless the student is in a particular program or passes the CPN along themselves. Having a system where the advisor is part of the equation from the beginning will be big improvement in offering more wrap-around support for students.

x by Roberto Suarez 2 years ago

Bryan, I agree that email would be equally effective. In fact what the CPN tool does is send an email to students. But just to clarify this isn’t any new software requiring licenses. This is the tool we built at PCC years ago that is currently available to all faculty. My issue is that I never felt it was an effective tool until I adopted these practices with it.

Thanks for your feedback!

x by Ron Bekey 2 years ago

Roberto, thank you for your thoughtful and helpful post. I have been doing something similar, reaching out early in the term (I just sent 3 CPNs this week to students who were missing most of the first assignment). I have one question: Would you be willing to share one of the messages you send early in the term to students who are not doing well? I am interested in seeing how you start with positive comments, and express your concern while still being encouraging. I have struggled with writing that kind of message.

x by Usha Ramanujam 2 years ago

Great post Roberto! I use CPNs during week 1 on Thursday evenings to those students who do not complete intro assignments. In the message I alert them that failure to submit the assignments will result in getting dropped as a ‘no show’.
Sending CPNs so early in the term, especially with a personal message, definitely gets better attention than emails and many students respond very quickly as well as complete the assignments. CPNs are very effective to reduce ‘no shows’. I do send congratulatory CPNs around the middle of the term and should be definitely sending more of them. Perhaps the subject line can be programmed to be different for a congratulatory vs. concerning CPN.

x by Jacinta Galeai 2 years ago

Great topic! I add my own comments and I’ve seen the difference- students responding to the personal comments rather than the canned ones. I also agree that students read these more than the emails as they do look official. I’ll keep experimenting with more personal comments rather than using the given ones. Thank you !

x by Roberto Suarez 2 years ago

Ron, in response to your comment, I included in the article a link to the templates I currently use when I reach out to students. If those examples don’t meet your needs then I’m happy to meet with you to help you craft a more suitable statement.