Financial worries, a relationship breakup, feeling homesick or not seeing eye-to-eye with a professor are just some of the many factors that can cause a student’s GPA to slide downward.

To help these students, the academic advisors in UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) developed Academic Alert, an intervention program that has caught the attention of other UCF college advising offices and recently was awarded a certificate of merit by the National Academic Advising Association.

The objective of the CECS Academic Alert program is to identify struggling students as early as possible and assist them before they are placed on academic probation.

The program – which requires the student to take an online workshop or complete a contract with an academic advisor – helps students identify obstacles that impede their academic success, formulate solutions to those obstacles, and set goals and action steps for success. The program also directs students to appropriate resources depending on the obstacle, such as the UCF Counseling Center.

The program first identifies students through a query performed in the university’s main academic database. Students whose GPAs have fallen by three-tenths’ point each semester over two to three semesters, or whose GPAs have fallen to 2.24 or below, are flagged and put on “academic hold,” which means the student cannot register for additional courses until they seek advising assistance.

“Many times students whose GPAs are slipping don’t even realize anything is wrong,” said Melissa Dagley, director of CECS’s Academic Affairs Office.

Once a student is identified as being academically “at risk,” an advisor will determine whether that student will take the Academic Alert online workshop, or meet face-to-face with an advisor and enter into an Academic Alert contract.

The online workshop, which can be completed in less than an hour, allows the student to formulate their own solutions, whereas the contract is considered a more intrusive measure that helps the highest-risk students tackle their challenges in the presence of an academic advisor.

“The purpose of the Academic Alert program is to encourage students to engage in self-reflection and goal setting, such as increasing the number of study hours per week,” said Dagley. “The program pushes students to take ownership of their problems and take responsibility for enacting their own solutions.”

The online workshop – the first of its kind at UCF – has many benefits. For the student, the workshop can be taken conveniently at any time, and in complete privacy, which eliminates the embarrassment that may come with being placed on academic hold. For the five-person CECS advising staff, the online course reduces the workload in a college that has more than 7,000 students.

“The online workshop is fully populated with the same information and resources that an advisor would offer a student face-to-face, and addresses the most common problems,” said Dagley. “For example, if a student reveals online that they are struggling to balance the demands of a class, a student club and a part-time job, a pop-up window will appear on their computer screen that contains information and resources related to time management.”

The Academic Alert online workshop includes a pre-test, a short video presentation that explains what it means to be academically at risk, and a post-test. It also includes assignments: the obstacles and solutions assessment and a goals-setting exercise.

Once the student completes the online workshop, the students’ academic hold is lifted and they are once again allowed to register for classes. Students who have entered into an Academic Alert contract must meet with an advisor to discuss progress in their registered courses. The hold is released at the end of the advising appointment. At the end of the semester, an advisor follows up with the student via email.

CECS’s Academic Alert program, which has evolved over several years, appears to be working. Data from 2011 shows that the retention rate was 99 percent for students who completed the online Academic Alert workshop, and was 92 percent for students who entered into the Academic Alert contract.

The success can also be measured in the anonymous online feedback from students. More than 90 percent of students “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that the workshop was helpful. And their comments reflect the goals of the program.

“The Obstacles part of the workshop helped me to identify things I never really thought about that were a detriment to my success. By doing that self-searching, I find that I am much more able to understand how to achieve success,” an anonymous student said.

“The workshop really hit just about everything that led to my academic slide and also helped me realize what I need to do to fix my problems,” another anonymous student said. “It opened up my eyes as to how important it is to keep my GPA high and to make sure that my academics come first.”