Designing Student Success Through Empathy

Photo Bethany Stolle
Bethany Stolle
Adjust the
text size

“It’s a struggle, to be honest. But it’s reality, and you can’t escape it. Sometimes you can’t eat. But nothing else matters now. Try not to fail or get probation. To be honest, education now isn’t about learning. It’s about passing.”

These words were spoken by a student named Tsong. Every morning, Tsong woke at 4 a.m. to work as a mechanic at an auto shop. From there, he went to his college work-study job from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., before attending classes and returning to the auto shop to work some more. He finally went home at 7 p.m., where he lived with his parents and several siblings. During midterms and finals, he took time off work to study, and then made up the loss of income through overtime after exams were finished.

Tsong was studying Computer Information Technology part-time at an urban public university that caters to non-traditional students. He transferred there from a more expensive university so he could contribute to his family’s finances and accumulate less debt. As a first-generation college student and the child of refugees, Tsong did his best to manage a grueling schedule, support his family, and get by in his classes. He would have loved to earn A’s and B’s, but his metric of success was passing with a C or better—and he tried to be gentle on himself given his schedule and general stress level.

Photo Bethany Stolle, Blackboard Product Design
Bethany Stolle, Blackboard Product Design

Much of the focus in North American higher education has been centered on how to support students across their academic journey. The ‘traditional undergraduate student’ no longer looks like someone between the ages of 18-24 who is enrolled in classes full-time and lives on campus.

In 1999-2000, 73% of first-time, first-year college students in the United States had one or more of the following characteristics which would place them somewhere on the continuum of ‘non-traditional’ students: financially independent, over age 25, delayed entry into college, full time work, attending school part-time, have dependents, single parent, no high school diploma.1

While a Learning Management System (LMS) like Blackboard has typically centered on engaging learners in the classroom experience, contemporary students’ needs are evolving, and a digital learning environment should consider the learner’s broader context.

That’s why last spring, several members of Blackboard’s Product Design team visited colleges across the country as part of an immersive, qualitative research project. We met Tsong and dozens of other students, advisors, and faculty to hear their stories, empathize with their experiences, and better understand the non-classroom dimensions of student success and engagement.

Some key questions guided our inquiry: How did students navigate their academic journey? What was the role of advisors along the way? What happened during an advising session? What milestones and interventions kept students on track to graduation? How did students define success—and how did their definitions compare to college staff and faculty? Where did they run into barriers or pain points? What victories did they experience?

We took all the photos, notes, milestone activities, and recordings from the research sessions and synthesized them into a set of core insights—provocative statements of truth about human behavior, that may be wrong.2


Inspiring A Love for Learning

Student Success Research Insights

  • Everything is a financial decision
  • A student’s real problem is always hidden—until it explodes
  • Students trust the person they see the most
  • Advisors lack agency to make real change
  • Referrals are micro-rejections


The intent is not to study a small group to make statistically-significant observations and predict the behavior of a larger population. Rather, we focus on developing empathy, finding inspiration, and keeping the insights and stories in front of us to provoke new design ideas. What follows are some stories to ground each insight and point toward possibilities.

Everything Is a Financial Decision

James had been working as a financial aid advisor for seven years, and his best advice to help students save money was to graduate from college in four years. He and his colleagues had seen firsthand how a lack of basic financial literacy led students to make decisions based on their immediate monetary needs and not consider alternative approaches. Unfortunately, their academic and non-academic choices often had a cascading effect.

Isabel was enrolled in a private liberal arts college and expected to accumulate $150,000 in personal debt by graduation. She moved off campus and used public transportation to save money, but her involvement with the campus newspaper, clubs, and theater meant she spent $3050 per week on a rideshare app to get home when activities ran late at night.

Elizabeth, another financial aid counselor, told us about a student who withdrew after completing 58.3% of a class. Because he withdrew during the 4060% completion window, the course would appear on his transcript without affecting his GPA. However, he would be on the hook for repaying federal and state aid money, but ineligible for tuition reimbursement from the college. The staff member lamented the fact that the student never met with an advisor to consider his options or the consequences of his choice.

Other students we met worked to pay tuition and living expenses, but their income level or grades affected scholarship and financial aid eligibility. For Daniel, car troubles and expensive repairs made it difficult to get between campuses, “My car would just break down, break down, break down. And then I would break down with the car.” Students who felt helpless, overwhelmed, or confused by their financial situations didn’t necessarily seek on-campus resources for support.

Other students we met worked to pay tuition and living expenses, but their income level or grades affected scholarship and financial aid eligibility.

A Student’s Problem Is Always Hidden—Until it Explodes

We heard from students who were one crisis away from potentially dropping out of college, and advisors with limited to no visibility into the challenges students faced.

Pamela had been an academic advisor for over 20 years and recalled one student who was on the verge of suspension for failing classes over multiple terms. Pamela learned the student had epilepsy and skipped class because she feared having a seizure; the student never met with her professors to work out a solution. Pamela was able to help the young woman get accommodations, enroll in online classes and independent studies, and access tutoring. The student ended up graduating with a 3.8 GPA and pursuing a master’s degree. What looked like a hopeless situation had a happy ending, but it required a proactive advisor who was willing to look beyond the presenting problem.

At one point, Isabel was working four jobs on top of a full course load. One night, she started to feel weak and shaky and was sent home from work early. She ended up hospitalized, and her father flew in from out-of-state to help her recover for several days. Isabel ended up quitting one of her jobs, but it took a serious crisis to force a change.

Students Trust the Person They See the Most

At one private university, we interviewed several advisors affiliated with the TRiO program (a federally-funded program to support students from underserved populations). These advisors met with their students at least monthly, and Kao noted, “When you’re able to build relationships with students and they’re not in crisis mode, [it allows you to help them when] crisis does happen.” Robert, a faculty advisor at the same school, observed that, “If a student seeks me out, something is happening or they need help.”

Students tended to seek input from family and peers, especially when faculty and advisors seemed less accessible. Family and friends were well suited to offer emotional support, but often their advice was outdated, lacked a nuanced understanding of academics or financial aid, or didn’t appropriately consider the student’s context and experiences. This led students to make choices that didn’t align with their personal goals.

For example, Sofia continually registered for community college classes each semester. Right before the term began, she would drop the classes in order to work. For two years, she considered herself a college student but never attended courses or progressed toward a degree. Her father called the question, which prompted her to get serious about going to school. Sofia enrolled part-time and synced her schedule with a friend so they could study together and support each other. This kept Sofia enrolled, but the friend’s progress was delayed because she modified her plan to match Sofia.

Jason was going to a flagship four-year public university on a baseball scholarship. To keep players’ grades up for team eligibility, the school offered a robust support network of tutors and advisors who held sessions two or three times per week. Sometimes the advisors knew what Jason needed to do before he did. Even with highly-accessible, trusted advisors, when Jason wanted advice about school, he turned to his brother—a senior at a different public university and studying a different major.

Customer snapshot

Digital Exams Enable Fast and Effective Grading Outcomes

Advisors Lack Agency to Make Real Change

“We advise, you decide,” was the mantra printed across posters in multiple advisors’ offices, reinforcing the fact that students are ultimately responsible for their own success. Advisors wanted to offer guidance but were hindered by caseloads ranging from 300700 students, legal and school policies, self-disclosure requirements around students’ personal information, and outdated technology and communication methods.

Jessica was assigned to 700 students and estimated that the top third of her advisees were proactive, the middle third were not competitive but kept trying, and the bottom third generally didn’t respond and sought her out only when suspended or in crisis. She turned to templated emails, automated responses, and academic alerts to manage her workload. Jessica wished she could increase proactive interventions and 1-on-1 time with students before they were in serious trouble.

A military veteran and Chemistry major, Jennifer excelled academically but was deeply unhappy with her major because she wanted to be an actor. After a chance encounter with a friend, Jennifer looked into switching to a Public Relations major. She had to work with at least six advisors to change majors without losing her GI Bill benefits. Jennifer was glad to be moving closer to her desired career, but she had to take the initiative herself. Because she earned good grades, there were no objective measures or system alerts to trigger an advisor to intervene.

Referrals Are Micro-Rejections

Joan worked at the one-stop counter on campus where students could ask questions about anything from registration to financial aid, to student accounts and more. She fluidly navigated between seven computer systems to respond to student questions and made sure she didn’t advise beyond her areas of expertise. Sometimes this meant referring students to other departments or even outside the institution.

While referrals were intended to be helpful, they became opportunities for students to be misadvised—or to get lost in the system. Referrals put the burden on students to follow up and make sense of sometimes-differing or conflicting advice. The problem was compounded when the institution didn’t have the tools or structure in place to track and find students who got lost along the way.

This was a major point of frustration for Robert, a faculty member with advising responsibilities. At his university, the note taking part of the school’s Student Information System (SIS) was used inconsistently (if at all), and he didn’t know who else might be supporting a student. In lieu of this information, he either spoke directly to the student or issued an academic alert to activate help. Academic alerts were embarrassing to the student, and he couldn’t track the outcome. Robert was especially concerned about the dangers of poorly managed referrals for students with mental health issues, especially when there were already 85 students on a waiting list for on-campus counseling services.

“We’ve thought a lot about how to help students succeed…but the connection between [individual efforts] is unknown.” This quote from Robert articulates the challenge, but also an opportunity for a company like Blackboard to support students not only inside the classroom, but across the educational journey.

Our qualitative research revealed a few key areas that could have a large impact when it comes to improving student outcomes:

1. Connecting students and advisors
Advisors play a critical role in helping students navigate college, but the onus is on students to seek out advising services. Plus, students are frequently derailed by non-school issues. We see an opportunity to build trust and facilitate access between students and a team of advisors, aided by qualitative and quantitative data about the student’s challenges. This breaks the reactive system that contributes to a culture of crisis.

2. Providing context and nudging toward action
Students are immersed in managing day-to-day life, which can keep them from attending to occasional milestones and big-picture goals. This becomes risky when action (or inaction) has a cascading effect. We think this is a chance to help students articulate their goals and nudge them to stay on top of key dates, while showing advisors progress so they can assess risk and intervene if necessary.

3. Developing financial literacy
Students have a general lack of financial literacy, and changing financial and academic circumstances and complicated paperwork exacerbate the problem. We envision tools to help students understand their finances, consider options to pay for school, and run scenarios, so they can make smarter choices and feel less anxiety about financing their education.

The challenges we identified through this research project are large and systemic, but they are not insurmountable. On the Blackboard Product Design team, we continue to work closely with students, advisors, and faculty to inform and ground our work as we aim to support not only learner engagement in the classroom, but also student success across the academic journey.


Bethany Stolle is Design Research Lead for the Blackboard Product Design team.


AFP Jason Redmond


1, also

2 For the purposes of product design, we use Jon Kolko’s definition of an insight as “a provocative statement of truth about human behavior that may be wrong.”

End of Comments