Research Identifies Student Pathways to Academic Success

Academic Success

Posted Tuesday, February 6, 2024 @ 3:42 PM

Student Success Story


Research underway by Center for Higher Education Innovation (CHEI) fellows is producing key insights into how to help students with adversity in their backgrounds find academic success. 

The Life Happens project is led by the multi-disciplinary team of Professor Kim Anderson (Social Work), Associate Professor Alison Cares (Sociology), and Associate Professor Amie Newins (Psychology). The team collaborates with partners across campus to follow undergraduate students over their college careers, combining survey data, interviews, and academic records to better understand pathways to student success.  

It is supported by CHEI, the University Innovation Alliance, the College of Undergraduate Studies, the Department of Sociology, and an Interdisciplinary SEED funding grant.  

The first year of Life Happens focused on the experiences of first time in college (FTIC) students before and in the transition to college. Researchers identified some of the top adverse life experiences students had, including:   

  • Natural disasters,  
  • Serious mental or physical illness  
  • Loss of a loved one 
  • Witnessing violence  

Survey data showed such experiences were widespread in students’ lives before they came to college, and many of these experiences involved sexual violence or actual or threatened death or serious injury (i.e., a traumatic life event). Almost all students had experienced at least one adverse life experience in childhood, and over half had experienced at least one traumatic life event.   

Reflecting national patterns, almost half of students reported symptoms that met the criteria for a likely mental health diagnosis, and this was more likely for those who had a traumatic life event in childhood. As evidence of their resilience, these students were accepted to UCF as first-time in college (FTIC) students and then largely did well in terms of first year GPA.   

Additionally, interviews revealed the supports used and challenges faced during college access and entry for Black/African American FTIC students at UCF.  In particular, the team explored how students develop a college-going identity, along with resources supporting their college-going aspirations. The research produced three growth stages for nurturing a future college self: 

  1. The first stage begins in early childhood when parents and family introduce expectations of going to college. 
  2. Those expectations are nurtured in the second stage when a student’s self-motivation and career interests are strengthened by families and school in high school.  
  3. The third stage also happens in high school when decisions are made more concrete though college applications, potential fields of study, financial aid applications, and final decisions.   

 These three growth stages were not mutually exclusive or straightforward, as intervening conditions created either optimal (e.g., educational and family support) or adverse (e.g., COVID-19 pandemic, family stressors, mental health challenges) growth environments. 

Findings from the first year of the study were shared with key stakeholders in the Division of Student Success and Well-Being and College of Undergraduate Studies. The project is currently focused on continuing to examine student experiences, both before and during college, and how those relate to student academic outcomes, as well as understanding these experiences for additional groups of students, including LGBTQ+ students and Hispanic and Latino/a/x students.   

Research from faculty fellows like the Life Happens team provides an evidence-based foundation for new initiatives that promote student success. The outcomes of trained researchers working in their areas of expertise provide pivotal grounding for big ideas, explained Ryan Goodwin, CHEI’s founding director. 

“Life Happens represents the intersection of innovation and research,” Goodwin says. “The insights provided by our faculty fellows are an invaluable resource as we build and grow student success initiatives.”   

Get to know the Life Happens research team, who were recently named CHEI faculty fellows. 

Faculty Bios 

Dr. Kim Anderson is a Professor in the School of Social Work and a member of the Violence Against Women faculty cluster.  She explores the impact of trauma-informed professional development training for educational professionals assisting underserved youth and young adults. Dr. Anderson’s research also promotes the voices of racially minoritized students to inform educational practices, programs, and policies that support their social-emotional well-being. Her current research aims to illuminate the context and nature of college access and attainment for minoritized students to inform prevention and intervention efforts for academic success.   

Dr. Alison Cares is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, a member of the Violence Against Women faculty cluster, and an affiliate of the Women’s and Gender Studies program, as well as a visiting scholar at the Justice and Gender Based Violence Research Initiative at Wellesley Centers for Women. She has spent the past quarter century working to reduce sexual and intimate partner violence, with a heavy focus on campus sexual assault and dating violence. This has led to her current research focus on the role of adverse and traumatic life experiences on the lives of college students, including how those experiences are related to student academic success. 

Dr. Amie Newins is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, the Associate Program Director for the Clinical Psychology PhD program, and the Director of Clinical Operations for UCF RESTORES. Her research focuses on trauma, anxiety, and substance use. She has conducted research on risk factors and outcomes of sexual assault and substance use among college students and veterans. She has also helped to design research studies examining the effectiveness of exposure-based treatments for PTSD. An overarching goal of her research is to identify ways to reduce health risk and increase well-being, which led to her current interests in identifying ways of improving academic outcomes among college students.  

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