Supporting Sophomore Year Retention and Student Success

Supporting Sophomore Year Retention and Student Success

Tyler L McClain

Assistant Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Discover effective retention practices developed in the CLA SOPHOMORE learning community through career-related coursework, co-curricular programming and job shadow opportunities. Research has found that developmental changes and institutional policies and support can impact students in their sophomore year (Gahagan and Hunter, 2006). Using the high impact model of the first-year learning communities and experiential learning, the College of Liberal Arts at University of Massachusetts Boston developed a sophomore learning community, CLA SophoMORE, enacting the same principles that provide support and resources for the second year through academic and career focused advising and curriculum.

Stephanie M. Fernandez has been working to increase access and persistence in higher education since 2008 through various experiences in educationally-focused non-profits and higher education institutions. Currently, she serves as an academic advisor in the College of Liberal Arts at University of Massachusetts Boston. As the coordinator and advisor for the CLA SophoMORE program, the college’s second-year learning community, she strives to integrate academic, social and career connections to achieve students’ goals toward graduation and beyond. Stephanie has been working with learning communities since 2010 at various institutions including residential programs at private institutions and public non-residential based campuses. She earned a bachelor of arts in Political Science from Boston College and a Master’s in Educational Policy, Planning and Administration from Boston University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Higher Education at UMass Boston. Her research focuses on the role of academic advising on student success, role of public policy and its impact on Latinos students, and historical context of higher education. She is currently involved in NACADA (National Association of Academic Advising) as a member of the Membership committee and ASHE (Association for the Study of Higher Education).

The Agenda

Over the next 40 minutes Stephanie provided attendees with a common understanding and context of the literature focused on sophomore retention and student success. As well as, an understanding of research on the sophomore year and research on high impact practices, specifically learning communities. Then she shared the sophomore success program developed at The University of Massachusetts Boston for liberal arts students, for which she provided institutional context, an overview of sophomore retention and the student success strategy that was developed. She concluded her presentation with preliminary findings on the impact of sophomore learning communities and future plans for research and practice.

Research on Sophomore Year

Much of the literature frames the sophomore year as a deficit often referred to as the “sophomore slump” defined as “a period of confusion and uncertainty” where there is a “lack of inertia or disorganization” according to Gahagan and Hunter. Furthermore, Richmond and Lemons found further concerning issues in the sophomore experience where sophomores felt “stranded in no-man’s land; the novelty of college associated with being a freshman has worn off, and often sophomores are not far enough along in their academic program to assess accurately or feel a part of their major field” (1985, p. 176). While the deficit based approach to the sophomore year is problematic, the reality is that the majority of institutional planning is given to the first year, therefore ignoring the important decisions and transitions that students encounter in their second year.

As we know these sophomore year narratives can have impacts on whether student feels supported and motivated to continue on with their education.

High Impact Practices

Stephanie shared that there is a substantial amount of research on ways that we as practitioners can support students throughout their college career, it is what George Kuh and the Leap initiatives has defined as High Impact Practices. Many of these practices have been relegated to the first year or the last year of college but many can transcend these parameters. AACU’s (American Association of Colleges and Universities) LEAP initiative to align goals for college learning and provide high impact practices which institutions can adopt provides a list of these practices.

In particular, learning communities have a broad definition that can be used in multiple contexts. Cross (1998) defines a learning community as “groups of people engaged in intellectual interaction for the purposes of learning.” Both the learner and teacher play key roles in learning communities where each contribute to the learning process. The linkage of courses to curriculum have been a common way to achieve the intellectual interactions essential to learning communities.

CLA Learning Communities

The college established a first year learning community called CLA First in 2010 to have students start on track and stay on track. Based on surveys and focus groups conducted with students in the college, there emerged a pattern that students wanted similar support to what they have experienced in the first year but with enhancements to address upper-class needs. Using the high impact model of the first-year learning communities and experiential learning, the college developed a sophomore learning community called CLA SophoMORE enacting the same principles that provide support and resources for the second year.

Conceptual Framework

The CLA SophoMORE learning community uses the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) conceptual framework created by Musues (2014) to better serve its students. A new understanding of the educational process can be best shown through the CECE model, which draws upon the student’s pre-college background, the importance of culturally engaging aspects of the college environment, and influences that allow students to succeed and persist in college. A key piece to the model requires institutions to allow for collaborative relationships between educators and students or learners in a way that culturally validates their experience inside and outside the college walls.

CLA SophoMORE Learning Community

The program has a curricular structure where students are enrolled in one common course which fulfills a graduation requirement and also using many of the high impact practice identified in LEAP. Such as participating in a writing intensive course which prepares them for our writing proficiency exam, which students usually complete in the beginning of their junior year. It also prepares them for writing in upper level coursework. The learning community also includes faculty connections, peer mentoring, advising and degree planning, as well as career advising and a job shadow experience.

Preliminary Findings

The learning community has had three cohorts of students, the first will be graduating this May. Stephanie shared the preliminary findings of the impact of the sophomore learning community and they are in the midst of a larger assessment of the sophomore year and hope to share those results in the fall after the first cohort has graduated. This will allow them to obtain longitudinal assessment of the impact during and after college.

Preliminary findings of their research has identified personal development, intellectual development, academic and career advising as teaching, and faculty and student connection as outcomes of students experience with the CLA SophoMORE program.


Research has shown that the sophomore year can have a large impact on a student's educational future where decisions are made about majors/minors, careers, classes and finding an identity in college (Hunter, Tobolowsky & Gardner, 2010). As institutions seek to increase graduation rates and create collaborative learning environments, sophomore learning communities are one way to take a high-impact practice traditionally used in the first year by elevating it for sophomores through the integration of experiential learning through engaged and liberatory pedagogies. Also further research from institutional and a national perspective is needed to shift the existing sophomore narrative.

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Tyler L McClain

Assistant Director, Office of Research & Strategic Initiatives, Campus Labs

Dallas, TX