Starfish advising tool increases communication, promotes academic success

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new suite of academic advising tools is making it easier for students to remain on track as they advance in their coursework at the University.

Starfish provides benefits to all students, including those who are transferring to University Park from a Commonwealth campus or are transitioning to a different academic college.

“We have a single platform that allows for the evolution of a student’s history to be in one place and is accessible to various advisers that students may interact with,” said David Smith, the associate dean for advising and executive director of the Division of Undergraduate Studies (DUS).

This accessibility of advising notes wasn’t available on eLion, the previous student information system.

Smith added that this function is particularly important since Penn State is an institution “built on movement,” with 25 percent of students beginning their academic careers in DUS alone before declaring a major.

Hilleary Himes, the director of advising and senior DUS programs coordinator in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, said Starfish has helped her stay connected to her advisees far beyond the scheduling and progress reporting period.

She said she is able to see when professors “raise a flag” on the system, which indicates concern over a student’s lack of attendance, declining grades or personal matters. Students will be notified about the flag through an email alert.

These flags, Himes said, are a cue to initiate conversations with the professor and advisee.

“Starfish, from a student perspective, is a good tool for making sure you’re on track and maintaining contact with the people who can keep you on track if you ever get diverted,” Himes said.

Yet, Smith emphasized this early intervention will only be successful once people move beyond the initial “flag” alert. “The key is for students to be fully engaged and willing to discuss options for resolving the issue,” he said.

Students can also receive “kudos” alerts on Starfish to reinforce their academic successes.

Alexandra Kohr, a freshman studying history and political science, said she’s been sent several “kudos” to benchmark her performance.

“Especially in bigger classes of 150-plus students, it’s really nice to have that,” Kohr, of Williamstown, Pennsylvania, said. “As a first-semester freshman, it’s good to have that reassurance that I’m doing something right.”

The “navigable” online system has several other functions, including a portal for scheduling advising appointments. Starfish will send out multiple reminders to both students and advisers in anticipation of the meeting, Himes said.

The “My Success Network” on Starfish offers “an easy way to connect with people,” Himes said. It contains a listing of instructors, teaching assistants, and assigned adviser(s) specific to a student.

Upperclassmen who have declared a major can still take advantage of Starfish.        

“The alerts that can come through Starfish will ideally help juniors and seniors as much as anyone else when there’s an issue,” Smith said.

Though still a new tool at Penn State with evolving capabilities, Starfish has been successful at other universities, including Syracuse University, the University of Nebraska and the University of Toledo.

“I think it has a lot of positive things,” Smith said. “I’m excited about the ways we might be able to improve student success, connect with students, and build relationships.”

More information about Starfish, including updates, campus and college contacts, resources, and training materials, is available on the Starfish for Student Success website.        

The Division of Undergraduate Studies is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at

Last Updated November 11, 2016