In the ongoing quest to retain freshman students at Northern Arizona University, technology is no replacement for face-to-face contact. But a tool that enhances communication between faculty and students is proving that technology can make a meaningful difference.

The tool, an application known as Grade Performance Status, allows faculty to send students constructive comments or offer a peek at their grade at any time during the semester.

And a recent analysis shows real benefits: First-time, full-time students who received a GPS message from their instructors in the fall 2010 semester had a 4.4 percent higher retention rate compared with students who did not receive a message.

“To move a single percentage point in retention is huge,” said Zane Shewalter, business analyst for ePlanning at NAU. “Communication on a consistent basis allows faculty to contact students before it’s too late.” Or, as Shewalter put it, “formative assessment” is far better than “getting blind-sided with a D at midterms.”

Such surprises can be a major deterrent to first-year students. While plenty of faculty-student contact takes place right after class or during office hours, Shewalter said, “You can’t catch everyone.”

GPS, however, shows the reach that technology can offer. In the fall 2011 semester, 379 instructors in 644 classes sent GPS emails to 7,280 students. Not only did more of those students return for the spring semester because of the contact, but 70 percent of them, according to a survey, actually took action because of the messages they received.

The GPS software was developed by NAU faculty and staff, who continue to contribute to its evolution. It’s available to all faculty who teach undergraduate courses, and accessing it takes just a mouse click. From there, much of the system is automated: faculty can send individualized messages to select students, and can make grades available to all or a select portion of a class; for example, to all students at a C or below.

According to Mikhael Star, project lead of ePlanning at NAU, the hidden power of GPS is behind the scenes, in that it documents highly relevant instructor feedback and makes it available to the appropriate network of advisers, student support personnel and administrators.

“Since GPS can centralize feedback from multiple instructors,” Star said, “advisers can now see trends in student behaviors and connect students with the appropriate NAU resources needed to ensure success.”

Shewalter said that GPS is superior to email because it creates official documentation that can be viewed by approved staff and advisers. “Now everyone can get a much better composite view” of the student’s progress, Shewalter said.

As of fall 2011, students logging in to their MyNAU portal are notified when a GPS message has been sent to them. The outreach is effective, Shewalter noted, because more than 25,000 students are actively using the portal.

Now the focus is to increase faculty usage of the system. As of spring 2012, about 20 percent of faculty are using GPS. Shewalter said that increasing that number is mostly a matter of educating faculty about the benefits of GPS and its ease of use.

The next steps for GPS, according to Shewalter, are to launch a graduate student version and make GPS usage a part of the NAU academic culture so as to deliver even greater numbers of targeted alerts about real-time grades.