John N. Gardner
Well, of course, we should assume any post secondary institution that wants to be more successful with its new—either first-time or transfer—students, would have a plan to accomplish this. But in my four decades plus experience, I find that very few institutions do. And, while most all institutions have a strategic plan, my work tells me that many are weak on the execution of such aspirational plans.
I am thinking about this because June 30 is my non-profit organization’s annual deadline for applications for a process we have been offering for 10 years, known as Foundations of Excellence® (FoE, for short). Very succinctly stated, FoE is a comprehensive, institution-wide, assessment, planning and action process to improve student success and retention. While I wish I could tell you that student success was the number one driver, it is really more selfishly from the institution’s perspective, an effort to improve student retention, which really means institutional retention. And that’s exactly what it does! That is FoE significantly improves retention if you do two very simple, but important things: 1) develop an aspirational plan for improvement; and 2) then execute that plan to a high degree.
A foundation of Excellence was made possible by grants from three foundations: The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Atlantic Philanthropies, and Lumina Foundation for Education.
From 2003-2005 we had 219 four-year institutions involved in a pilot and 88 community colleges involved in another pilot, to produce what we called “Founding Institutions.”
Since 2003 we have had 245 post secondary institutions go through the Foundations of Excellence process. Of this total, 136 have been four-year institutions and 109 community colleges. All but four of the cohorts have been from the continental US. But four institutions came from Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. What we had originally set out to do was to develop a process that would be applicable, effective, and work anywhere in the world where post secondary institutions wanted to be more effective with their students.
So what’s the secret sauce to go through a process like this to increase student retention? At the risk of oversimplification, the recipe includes:
- You have to have a set of aspirational standards of excellence. You can use ours, gratis. They are out there on our website.
- You have to create a task force to conduct a thorough assessment of the effectiveness of your first year.
- You should measure your institution’s current effectiveness against some standards of excellence for the first year or transfer student experience. For each of the standards you need a set of questions to be asking yourselves in order to apply these standards to your unique institutional circumstances. Our process provides these and we call them “Performance Indicators.”
- You need to involve a substantial proportion of faculty to be engaged in this process if you want the outcomes to be institutionalized. In addition to faculty, you want to bring together academic administrators, student affairs professionals, IR and assessment experts, and students.
- Your process needs to be data driven whereby you produce recommended action items for institutional improvement based on the evidence you have marshaled about your current levels of performance.
- The process needs to result in an action plan.
- You then have to execute that plan to a high degree.
The external assessment on Foundations of Excellence, very briefly, with respect to retention over the four-year period post participating in Foundations of Excellence, has found that:
- All institutions combined, including open admissions community colleges on one end of the continuum and selective four-year institutions on the other end, in the aggregate, regardless of degree of implementation of the FoE action plan, realize a 3% increase in retention over four years.
- But when we look at level of implementation as the discriminating variable we find that the “high” implementers, two and four-year institutions combined, realize an 8.2% increase in retention.
- The greatest gains have been realized in private four-year institutions with a 17.2% increase for high implementers.
- And even in open admissions community colleges the gains are as great as 3.5% for full-time students, and amazingly, 2% for the hardest population of all in which to increase retention, part-time students.
There is no way I can do justice to this work in a relatively short blog posting. But, if you want to learn more: consider participating in a one hour gratis webinar. Of course we also have a great deal of information on our website.
Over the next six weeks or so it is going to be very exciting to pull together our next national cohort of Foundations of Excellence institutions. Nothing I have done in 46 years has taught me more than FoE about what to do to improve student success. I am privileged to have this opportunity not only to be a life long learner in this field of student success and completion, but to be able to continue to work with my higher education peers to help our students.
It is commencement season again, that is for those of us on the semester system, and for our colleagues on the quarter system, their turn will soon come. It is the season of final exams, make-up exams, grading, submitting final grade reports, award ceremonies, final advising for course selection for next academic year, end-of-term department meetings, faculty development activities, and other kinds of closure events for both students and their higher educators.
Understandably, the academy is more focused on providing closure events, rituals, ceremonies, as it should be, for our students.
But we need these too. And these are getting harder to come by because more and more of all us don’t really have the summer “off” as in the traditional agrarian model of schooling from K-16. And you add to that consideration the fact that our masters can keep demanding our attention through technology, which for most of us is never “off”, and it really is harder and harder to have closure at the end of an academic year or cycle.
For the past two spring terms, I ended them, so to speak, by going with my wife to Europe, and immersing myself in very different cultures than those in which I live and work in the States. These periods have been helpful to me in reflecting what have I accomplished in the academic year just finished and what new directions shall I forge ahead in for the coming year. Perhaps the most important things I do are simply changing my daily pace and separating myself in time and space from my regular demands and especially from my dominant US cultural influences.
But realizing that the majority of my readers are practicing academics who do work in post secondary education settings, what are some generic strategies that I could suggest for end-of-term closure for us? Here’s a possible check list:
- Try writing a commencement address, one that you could actually give to students? Or give to yourself? Your adult significant other(s)? Make this partially a perspectives check. How do you see the academy functioning these days for your students? And for you this year? I have written a number of this fabled genre and find it to be an interesting and productive intellectual exercise.
- Ask for some formal feedback from someone you report to about how your year has gone?
- More importantly, and much lower stakes, have a series of conversations with colleagues, either individually or in groups about the year we have just finished. Reflect on it and ourselves during its passage.
- Engage in reflection yourself, in solitary fashion. Create some guiding questions. Record some observations. Decide if you will share any of these with anyone? Consider: what did you learn this year? What worked well for you, and the opposite? Who were your most successful students? What were your most successful activities, accomplishments?
- And what about your institution? How do you think it performed this year in the ways that matter most to you and that you are best able to judge? What is the impact on you of your institution’s performance this year?
- Use your reflections to set some goals for the coming year. Decide what you need to do over the coming summer hiatus, should you be so fortunate to have one, to pursue the implementation of your goals for next year.
- Is there some ritual that you should engage in, either in solitary fashion or with others, to mark the passing of this academic year? An evening out perhaps with colleagues? A departmental luncheon? Visiting someone who did something especially helpful to you this year to present her/him with a token of appreciation? There are endless possibilities.
In 1998 my co-authored book, The Senior Year Experience, was published by Jossey-Bass. We gave that book a subtitle to the effect suggesting that this closing period of undergraduate education was, ideally, a period for reflection, integration, closure, and transition. As this year comes to a close, it is important for each of us to reflect and take stock; mentally integrate what we have experienced and learned; join others in activities for closure, professionally and personally; and look forward to the transitions that lie ahead, particularly those that we have some control over and will improve our lives and thus those of our significant others and the students we serve.
John N. Gardner
Since I began my other life as a part-time, but still serial, blogger a few years ago, I have considered myself more and more to be a reporter of sorts, a foreign correspondent for the US higher education student success movement when I travel abroad. There is no better way for me to reflect on my own country and its higher education system than through foreign travel. And because I work for an independent non-profit organization which is not dependent on the traditional academic calendar, I have much better control of my calendar and can finally take vacations at the best times for my wife and me, which are most often those times that many other higher educators are still “in session.” So we become accustomed to taking vacations in the “shoulder” seasons: just after the official summer has ended and schools have resumed, say the first two weeks in September; or early to mid January just after school has resumed again; and/or late April, early May, before the official summer holiday season. Sounds like we don’t like kids doesn’t it and are taking vacations at times when we can most likely avoid them! Not true. We love kids. But these shoulder reasons are really superb for travel because the weather is ideal, temperate; destinations are less crowded; often rates have not yet gone up for peak season, etc.
So the latest trip of this travelling blogger correspondent was very briefly in Milan, Italy, to visit the world famous LaScala opera house (for a ballet!) and then on to the Cote d’Azur in southern France, April 26-May 10, 2013. Some thoughts from this time out of country:
- The Italians are even more disillusioned with their government than we are with ours. Youth unemployment is a huge problem and many university graduates are having to leave home and country to find work elsewhere especially in the EU. Younger Italians know that they will not enjoy the same level of benefits from their country’s social safety net system as have their parents.
- Every generation of parents want their children to live better than they have. This is less likely to be the ultimate outcome in Italy, France, and the US, the three countries in reference. So are we educating our students to live lives the quality of which may be measured by indicators other than material accumulation?
- The European train system is a marvel. It would represent a huge difference in the US way of life if we were to commit to mass transit other than providing the most governmental support for the aviation industry.
- It is apparent why the Europeans live longer than we Americans; they have profoundly different dietary habits; they exercise more; lead lives of lower stress; vacation more; spend more times with their families.
- While both Italy and France have become very secular, France, for example, celebrates a national holiday forty days after Easter to mark what is believed to be the ascension of Christ. . We have no such holiday in the United States. This year that date fell immediately following the annual French holiday commemorating the end of World War II (always May 8). While we too officially sanctify the idea of separation of church and state, we too have official holidays for events central to the Christian tradition: Christmas and Easter.
- In every town in France, no matter what the size, there is a prominently placed monument recording the names of the dead who served France in both World Wars, especially World War One. This would not be true of the United States. Most American college students have little if any idea what the long term effects of the American participation in World War II were in terms of how we live now (for example, as a racially integrated society thanks to the Civil Rights movement which was given huge impetus by the return home of African American veterans who had fought to defeat racist fascism and could no longer tolerate it at home).
- Even if we required every American college student to take required courses in art history and art appreciation, it is hard for me to imagine my fellow citizens ever having the level of interest in, respect for, and willingness to invest public funds to display art. On this trip we found significant displays of public art even in public parking garages, the most uninteresting, uninspiring public spaces in America!
- It is finally becoming apparent to an ever widening sector of the population in all three countries that the official governmental policies of “austerity” are not working; are making citizens suffer needlessly; are not contributing to economic recovery; are actually delaying a full and more normal recovery; and were the products of unproven dogma inflicted upon the rest of us by conservative ideologues.
- The average French citizens we talked to weren’t happy with their government either, one whose leadership was elected on May 6, 2012, when we were also in France. Poor Prime Minister Hollande: he can’t please his own Socialist party on the left; and he certainly can’t please those on the right. His poll numbers are terrible and he is perceived as lacking leadership direction. But these same citizens love our Obama!
- In the tourist service economy, we met young, university educated students working in the hospitality industry. They truly are much more mobile and bi-lingual than our students. They have an enormous advantage of being members of the 17 nation European Community which enables them to work on their passport, and receive social welfare benefits, anywhere in the EU. Just imagine if our students had such freedoms!
- We met plenty of obviously middle class citizens who drove upscale taxi cabs, a more prized occupation by far in Europe than the US. These individual transportation entrepreneurs can afford to not be employees of major corporations and/or government agencies because they enjoy the benefits of universal health care regardless of their occupations. These workers travel widely themselves and all we met had the money to visit the US regularly—and do.
- Higher education institutions are not nearly so visible. You do not notice nearly the same extent of public space and signage devoted to pose secondary education as you would customarily see in the US.
- For men, in France, it remains a much higher status occupation to be a career restaurant server, in upscale establishments, than would be the case in the US. And it is obvious that women are discriminated against and much less likely to serve in these roles. These men see themselves as members of a long standing “profession” which gives a whole different meaning to the concept of “service” than in the US. And, again, as with the taxi drivers, these workers can pursue this profession and be eligible for universal health benefits.
- In establishments where we experienced cultural elements of France unimaginable in the US, such as contemporary stylish architecture in public spaces, abundant lavish use of colors, a love for high fashion in clothing, amazing varieties of wines, cheeses, deserts, —all examples of prized French cultural achievement, we would still hear ubiquitous American music.
- Gross illustrations of economic inequality such as homelessness, people living in substandard housing, panhandling, were much, much less visible to me than in my own country. I was in France almost two weeks and only once did I see a French version of a “trailer park” and their version looked much more stabile in terms of the structural appearance of the modular homes than I would see in my American south.
Two of the disciplines that were most intellectually liberating for me as a college student were sociology and anthropology. Nothing else I studied yielded for me a fuller appreciation for the range of possible human behaviors and creations that we have come to know as “culture”, broadly defined. I am reminded on each trip abroad, how much more I have yet to learn and how when I do, it puts my own country in perspective. And that perspective reminds me of the socially redeeming value of my profession of higher educator.
This posting is inspired by my attendance recently at a play at Blue Ridge Community College, in Hendersonville, N.C., which is about 20 miles from my and my wife’s home. This was a production of the British drama classic, Pride and Prejudice. We had gone originally to see a friend and spouse of one of our office colleagues, Rick Huhn, perform in his rendition of the father character.
Of course, my readers would fully appreciate the commitment of our nation’s community college to open door access and to the education of some of our least advantaged and least fortunate students. Typically these prior circumstances of our students are defined in terms of socio-economic status and level of academic preparation.
But in this particular performance what most caught my attention was that two of the five daughters in the plot were students with visible special conditions.
One female student acted as she sat in a wheel chair, the mechanical sophistication of which surely would not have been possible in the 19th century period she was portraying. And one of the ways she carried off her performance was to dance, literally, from her rapidly spinning, twirling wheel chair pirouetting around her happy male partner. Her face conveyed that mode of mobility could not possibly be construed as anything other than perfectly normal, which for her it was. And her face and entire body conveyed the maximum possible bliss that anyone could derive from dancing. I later learned that this student had a spinal injury from an automobile accident.
And simultaneously there was another student actress, sister, who performed with a special partner, namely, a trained dog, the kind used to protect people with a history of seizures.
So there these two students were, at the same time, having the times of their lives and giving the same to an appreciative audience.
I came away from this even more fully appreciating so many things about our students: their diversity, courage, abilities, optimism, tenacity, perseverance and joie de vivre.
And I came away really appreciating this open door college for having an obviously not well funded theater program at all, but at least they had one; and for giving these students such an affirming developmental experience, that was truly educational and inspirational for many members of the audience I am sure.
John N. Gardner
Everything in my training as an academic developed in me this irrepressible urge to give complete, well developed, well supported answers. I developed this passion for substance. I came to love compound/complex sentences. Ask me to write 100 words and that is much more challenging than writing 10,000 or even 1000.
No doubt about it, the internet has leveled the playing field between the extroverts like me and those at the opposite end of the introversion/extroversion scale. I am happy to see the introverts liberated but I now feel lonely as the commercialized Maytag Repairman.
Recently my staff and I participated in a very important academic meeting as we have for many previous year. At this meeting we will have multiple presentation sessions and an exhibit booth. This year we had a significant reduction in booth traffic during which people could have come by and talked to us/me real time. But our website traffic during the same period as the conference went up dramatically, so much so I found it almost hard to believe. And that is what was the final straw inspiring this post. I am convinced. People would much rather, for many reasons, get their information on the web than have to interact real time, in conversation, with others. This process, now the norm, is much easier for the information seeker to control; it is perceived to be faster, more convenient and allowing privacy if the seeker doesn’t want the information provider to know that the information is being sought. There are many people who must like it this way better, even though they can remember the old way of seeking information real time, in person, via conversation. And then there are many younger people who have never known any other way. Increasingly, those will be the only people populating our classes.
So what’s a talker like me to do? Adjust. Find other outlets for talking. Enjoy the opportunities I still have with even more intentionality. And work hard to provide information for people now in the ways they most seem to want it. Of course, this is change. And my occupation is also about helping colleges change. But is it progress…?
The academic in me would answer: “Well, it all depends…” And then I would be tempted to write a very long answer making sure I attempted to look at all possible sides of the question.
John N. Gardner
I never had any idea that I could earn my living by talking, literally, until my squadron commander in the Air Force ordered me to perform community service, which he defined as being an adjunct college teacher for the University of South Carolina’s budding extension system back in the 1960’s. Higher educators weren’t exactly rushing into South Carolina 3 years after the Civil Rights Act and so there were lots of vacancies.
When I got over my nervousness about teaching during the first six-eight weeks or so of my first college course, I realized that I was having a ball. And like a true academic, rather than just enjoying it I decided I would analyze my reactions. I had never had any career planning in college because it didn’t exist then at small liberal arts colleges like the one I attended. So I had never been through any kid of exercise to get me thinking about the intersection of my values, activities that gave me pleasure, and possible vocational options. It didn’t take too much thinking on my part though to realize that I had discovered in college teaching the four things I loved to do: talk, read, write and help people. And so I have earned my living for the past 46 years by talking.
But I find now people don’t want to talk to me nearly as much. They don’t call me anymore.
Instead, they either write me an e-mail or they go to the website hosted by the non-profit organization which I lead (www.jngi.org). This is a difficult adjustment for me!
I get lots of e-mail messages asking me truly profound questions, to which any thoughtful reply would ideally take a book, or at least a book chapter. And I get these messages from people who would never call me. This is either because they are too far away—from all over the globe and its different time zones; or younger and much less senior people to me in terms of professional achievements and hence they perceive social distance. Actually, I would be happy to have anyone call me. I have always loved the telephone. This love affair began as a teenager when I used the phone to talk to my adolescent heart throbs, said conversations which my mother tried (often unsuccessfully) to monitor and curtail to get me to do my homework.
Seriously, it is common for me to get e-mail requests which say “Please tell me what needs to be done to improve the first-year experience.” Great question. I have been working my whole adult life on it. (To be continued…)
I visit campuses for a living. I visit campuses for fun. I visit campuses while on vacation, too.
Let me comment first on the latter point. Occasionally, when my wife, Betsy Barefoot and I are on vacation, driving somewhere, and we see a road sign for a college or a university that we have not visited officially (between us we have been on about 700 campuses), just for the fun of it we will get off the thoroughfare on which we were headed before impulsively deciding to check this new place out and we will go mystery shopping.
Usually that involves, for starters, walking into the Admissions Office and seeing how we are treated as we maintain our anonymity. This is sometimes very revealing. You ought to try it.
In fact, that is some advice that should apply to all of us in higher education, namely, that we ought to get out and see as many institutions as possible, for the primary purpose of putting our own institution in perspective.
Unfortunately, in large part, only the senior members of the academy get to travel much because they have access to funds to support such travel. This also varies by institutional type. In my experience there are two types of institutions where the faculty and professional staff tend to travel the least: 1) small, private, non-selective liberal arts colleges; and 2) community colleges. Financial resources plays a major role in both these contexts. Many of the small privates that I work with are especially insular. This is too bad. It means they lack sufficient insights into the nature of the institutions, particularly the public ones, which are their formidable competitors. As for the community colleges, they have inherited the secondary school culture from which so many of them emerged half a century ago and that predecessor culture uses what are known as “in-service” to provide faculty/staff development. What this means basically is that the educators, below the ranks of senior leaders, don’t get to go anywhere and are “developed” by imported talent brought in to provide “in-service days”, and also using in-house talent quite appropriately to perform the same function.
One possible strategy for alleviating this institutionalized and self perpetuating insularity would be to encourage the development of faculty/staff “exchanges” especially between institutional types.
As a higher educator I practice my profession in a very atypical manner in that I get to visit many campuses on a very regular basis. Many of these visits are with the institutions that are engaged in the signature work on our non-profit organization, a self-study, planning and improvement process. This enables me to be constantly learning by noting the similarities and differences between the institutions I visit. I will share just a few from my recent travels, none of which were of the “mystery shopping” genre.
I am so used to noting in student union buildings/centers a plethora of businesses, what our business and finance colleagues call “auxiliary enterprises” that seem to be trying to sell our students just about anything, that when I went in a student center recently where they weren’t doing that, it really struck me as notable and commendable. This was a beautiful new student center at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove Illinois. My hat was off to the planners of this facility who actually left the overwhelming portion of the space to non-commercial purposes, such as a one stop shopping administrative commons for student services and really spacious seating areas for students to relax, eat, study, socialize, do group study at tables, etc. Good for these people.
I am so used to seeing the physical facilities which serve are lowest SES students, especially community colleges and truly “urban” campuses, looking almost as poor as the students they serve, that when I saw the opposite recently I just couldn’t get over my shock. Again, this was at a visit at Waubonsee Community College, which does serve a significant cohort of economically disadvantaged students, but you could never tell that from its facilities, some of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere, at any type of post secondary institution.
Very recently I visited a university, Salem State University in Massachusetts where I joined approximately 130 faculty and administrators to explore the current practice of collaboration on campus. Now I have participated in all sorts of retreats, summits, colloquia, symposia in my career; but the idea of pulling together a university community to explore how well we are collaborating with each other and how we could improve that, struck me as very novel, needed, and commendable. What a model for students too. Imagine what it might be like if they could live in communities and work in organizations that focused more on collaboration than the cherished American norm of collaboration.
I participated recently in a meeting of college and university presidents in New England where I heard a stunning description by a president of that president’s fellow CEO’s from an institutional type presidential gathering. The description was that “they were primarily a group of aging white men hoping to get to the point of retirement without having to make the tough decisions that needed to be made right now!” Now, that really caught my attention, not so much for the demographic generalization, but for the observation about abstaining from critical decision making. I would have to say that in my experience, that does not describe the majority of presidents/chancellors that I interact with from any institutional sector. Being a college/university president strikes me as a job that is getting tougher and tougher. I admire many of them.
Twice in a month I have been on campuses (CUNY’s York College and Waubonsee Community College) where I heard moving testimonials from students as to the powerful influence on their learning, skill and self concept development, from being involved in co-curricular activities, particularly interest affinity groups. Most recently I heard students at Waubonsee Community College describe life-changing lessons they had learned from being founders of new student organizations.
I could go on but I won’t, at least not in this posting. You have to get the idea. There are other ways I continue my learning about different campus cultures and practices but this is the manner in which I think I learn the most. What about you? How do you learn, especially about your own campus culture and its impact on students and educators alike?
Almost always when I visit a campus and have a scheduled meeting with a group of students, there has been some vetting involved in whom I meet with. It would be very uncommon for a host for my visit to schedule me with a group of the most unsuccessful students. But that’s exactly whom I need to talk to on occasion, and not only to remind me of my own very inauspicious beginnings in college.
Like all of us who went to college I have an alma mater. Mine is Marietta College. And I am pleased to see and say that they are doing more for students who are academically deficient in the first term of college than many places I know about. These students are either offered, or in some cases required, to take a two-credit college success course during their second term of college. I was placed on academic probation after my first term at Marietta and all I received was a letter to that effect giving me one semester only to get my act together. And I did and got off academic probation. That was a life changing and life saving transition experience.
Recently I met via SKYPE with two groups of these students at Marietta College, about nine to a group. They were disproportionately male, minority, and student athlete. But they were all very approachable and I thought receptive to having a conversation with a interested stranger about their initial college experiences.
So what do you say to students who are on academic probation? What is to be learned from them? I am not sure what is the best thing to say to them but my approach was/is to practice some honest self-disclosure, share my own miserable first-term, and see what we might have in common. Often when I talk with students I note and reflect on the ways in which their experiences are different from mine; but in the case of students on probation, I find their experiences are much more likely to be the same or very similar to mine.
I will share a few observations on our conversations:
- Many of these students were overinvested in athletics. This did not surprise me. We all like to invest in those activities we are already good at and for which we get lots of attention and reinforcement, from both coaches and fellow players. If only more of us professors taught like coaches! A challenge is for institutions to give these students a commensurate amount of attention and support for their academic development. I could certainly relate to this, as I had been a varsity athlete too. As I told the students, my team sport experience was a motivator to stay in college to remain part of the group and to please a parent. They could relate to that. I also told them that ultimately to please myself I had to choose between being an athlete and a really good student. And I couldn’t do both and get enough sleep. So I gave up the sport. This all comes around to purpose.
- The real elephant in the room for all these students was/is purpose: why am I here, at this college, at this time, doing these things, with these people? I told them that if they could sort that out anything was possible. I also gave them suggestions as to the types of experiences and people who could help them do just that. And I shared with them that initially my purpose was to please my father with whom I had made a deal with to go to college for one year after which time I could quit if I wanted and he would get off my back! So this got the students to consider for whom were they in college?
- Another common theme was coming from urban/suburban areas to a rural, isolated place. And that’s really tough. I shared with them that women usually do better at that because of their greater ability to hunker down and create engaging and supportive relationships wherever they are. The students had mixed views of which gender might be better at doing this but I told them what the research has shown are the advantages that accrue to women. A key to success of course is being here now, making the most of where you are, especially with and through the people around you.
- This got us to homesickness. I told them I could write the book on that. I was really homesick, in part because of a romantic relationship back home. We considered the pros and cons of that. The instructor of the class asked each student to send me after our conversation some feedback about their reactions and what they might have learned, if anything. This point about the significant other back home really spoke to a number of them. For these students the on-campus residential college experience, geographically removed from their home of origin, had not yet clicked. Overall, on campus residence is a significant predictor for college success and completion, but not yet for these students.
- Students on academic probation are good at asking questions. They are, as they should be, questioning everything. Why am I here? How did I get in this mess? What can I do to get off? Do I have what it takes? What strengths do I have at all in my interests outside academics that might also apply to academics? I think that one of the things we need to do more intentionally is to put these students in group settings where they can explore precisely these questions, think about them, talk about them, write about them, and make some decisions about them.
- These students wanted to know, of course, what they did to get on academic probation and how to get off. The first part of that I explained by attribution to my homesickness, depression, not getting any help because none was available, missing my girlfriend back home, and lacking the right kind of college level study skills. How did I get off? By the serendipitous adoption of me by an older student who mentored me in the art and craft of study skills, especially note taking; by getting a new academic advisor, one who believed in and liked me; and by picking my courses by professors, upon the advice of my advisor and student mentor, professors who would be more likely to engage me intellectually, which is exactly what they did. I was pleasantly surprised by the feedback I received from the students on the subject of note taking. I had described for them my semi miraculous improvement of grades once I learned how to take lecture notes and use them to predict the examination questions. They wanted me to explain this could be the case and I explained that in explicit detail. It’s not rocket science but it really is important and they got it. Yes, we would all agree that many entering college students don’t have the requisite study skills. But that’s because they have been taught those skills. And when they are, they can learn them and be successful. And I’m living proof. So I told the students if I could do it, so could they.
- And, of course, these students wanted to discuss the challenges of picking a program of study and how to relate that to occupational choice. While many of us who teach in the liberal arts may wish our students were not so vocationally oriented, it is very understandable that they are. We really have to address this much earlier and more intentionally. This all relates to motivation.
- I was asked some very good questions. The one I liked the best was really a request to define what I would mean by “excellence” in the beginning college experience. The questioner learned that professors don’t often give simple or succinct answers to the most important questions. And I told them that in life the questions were often more important than the answers. I was also asked to reflect on my college experience and to report those experiences from which I had learned the most. That one was a tough one. But I told them that if forced to make the choice, the experience that was the greatest teacher was that of becoming a student activist in student government co-curricular activities, where I had many opportunities to put in place the thinking, writing, organizing, and visioning skills I was learning in the curriculum. I explained that it was in that context that I learned to do what I do now for a living: help colleges universities effect meaningful change.
- I was also impressed by how many of the students wrote me subsequently to thank me for my candor—almost as if they aren’t used to that. I think what they were commenting on was more than I would self disclose at all. And I also found it noteworthy that a number of them thanked me for “serving our country.” This was in response to my telling them that I had been drafted after finishing college. My assumption is that few of them know anyone who has served recently in the armed forces. It also suggested to me that maybe they don’t hear enough from other adults about the importance of serving their country—and that when they do, they don’t find this aversive at all, to the contrary.
I guess the point of this piece is to suggest that you have your own dialog with some students on academic probation. I predict it will be salutary for them, and for you.
John N. Gardner
It’s important to check in with students on a regular basis. Given the pace of their change, we can get out of touch very fast. I have reflected on the fact that some of the higher education leaders that have the greatest impact on students through their policy making authority and other forms of influence may rarely actually talk to students.
Decades ago, I taught Sociology 101. And one of the core introductory topics was that of social stratification. I remember having my students read a case study on “student nurses.” One of the points of this reading was that many college students chose a major because of preconceptions about a professional occupation, in this case, nursing, thinking that it was going to be all about “helping people.” But they quickly have to learn that in college it’s all about the sciences. If you can’t hack it in the sciences, you aren’t going to get your degree. And then if they do earn a degree they have to learn that the paths to professional advancement take them further and further away from the people they initially wanted to help in the practice of nursing. That is to say they end up supervising others who are less well educated and may actually have little or no direct patient contact. The same parallels can be drawn with many other professions, including my own: higher education administration, change, and continuous improvement.
So, in my current role in higher education where I do strategic planning with colleges and universities to help them improve their performance with new and transfer students, I am no longer part of a single institution and thus do not have access to my own students. For me, that has been a very difficult adjustment, a form of withdrawal. Being the student-focused junkie that I am then, I have had to develop some counterbalancing strategies. One of them is asking my hosts for any campus I visit, often one a week, to arrange for me at least one session with students. This isn’t ideal but it is much better than no student contact at all.
A few weeks ago I was on the campus of York College of City University of New York. York is a four-year, regional university, non-residential and very diverse. Very inspiring. I met with four students who were all members of a co-curricular student organization, the National Society of Leadership and Success, about which I had known nothing before this visit.
But in talking to these students, it quickly became apparent to me that it was the most meaningful thing they had done in college. These students were at different levels, first-year, sophomore, junior, and senior. One had transferred in from a SUNY community college. They were pursuing different majors. Two were male, two female. None of them were WASP’s like me. But it struck me that all of them were having experiences in this group that were common, including:
- Very positive interaction with the faculty advisor, whom they mentioned frequently by name and with respect and affection. This professor has responsibility for the campus radio station.
- The aspiration, no matter what their ultimate occupation, to “give back” to their communities.
- A keener understanding of what exactly their “community” is, its needs and importance.
- A strong inclination to perform some form(s) of public service.
- The importance of developing “character”, and staying true to that character.
- A variety of success oriented activities that led them to practice reflection about the course of their lives.
- A set of experiences that had led them to take greater control of their lives.
- A commitment to sustain the group and provide support for their fellow students to persist in college.
- An achieved comfort level in interacting with higher education faculty and staff.
- The development of interpersonal communication and assertiveness skills that further facilitated the self esteem and comfort level necessary to interact with University officials; things like a good handshake and eye contact.
- The realization that becoming successful as a college student means striving for more than being “popular”.
As I interacted with these students I remembered that during the quarter century that I directed the University 101 first-year seminar at the University of South Carolina, many of the instructors, including me, would have as a course requirement, that the students were to join something—any group as long as it was sanctioned by the University and was engaging in legal behavior. We were aware of the research correlating group affiliation and college persistence and we wanted to intentionally bring about these outcomes. My visit to York was a much more recent example of the power of group affiliation and the importance of encouraging/facilitating students joining such groups. Several of the students made reference to a Student Affairs officer who had told them about or literally had led them to join the group. What a hugely influential role that is. Most of us could be doing exactly this for our students.
And this reminded me once again: during the college years, the greatest influence on students is the influence of other students. That is far too important for us to leave that to chance.
Thank you, York College, for the reminder and illustration.
In the most recent issue of The Chronicle there was a huge spread about the challenges of teaching developmental English in an urban, DC area community college. Very moving piece actually which included a profile on the instructor. He revealed to the reporter that early in his teaching career he became physically ill from his nervousness about teaching—as in sick to his stomach, vomiting. This reminded me of my mild anxiety attacks and accompanying nausea when I first started teaching. But it led to an epiphany.
In January of 1967 I arrived at my permanent Air Force duty assignment, as a psychiatric social worker, at Shaw AFB, South Carolina. As I have written about before in one of these postings, my squadron commander gave me a direct order to do college teaching and proceeded to arrange to make it happen. Two weeks later I started teaching my first college class, a night class, on a Friday night, at a regional two-year campus of the University of South Carolina. My class was at 7.30. My work day in the Psychiatric Clinic ended at 4.30 and I had to hit the road for a 65 mile drive on rural, two lane roads through what then I regarded as the heart of darkness. In those days there were still signs on restaurant doors pronouncing “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” and I knew that meant liberal Yankees like me.
For the first 6-8 weeks or so of teaching what was my first college course, I was so nervous, and I mean really anxious, that I had no appetite at all. I could not eat. Actually, I was nauseous. And I didn’t need therapy myself to know that was going on. My self-administered diagnosis was what the American Pyschiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM, my professional bible in that period of my life) labeled “adult situational reaction.” I was just one week ahead of my students every week in terms of my preparation. I felt I was clueless about what I was doing. I had not had any instruction at all about being an effective college teacher. All I knew were my own professors for models, and I remembered the best and worst of them vividly. Yes, college teaching was making me sick. Thank goodness I didn’t experience these symptoms any other time of the week except immediately before going to class.
And then suddenly, after 6-8 weeks or so, my symptoms abated and I became asymptomatic. I allowed myself to have dinner before I taught. And because this was 1967 almost 20 years before we raised the legal drinking age to 21, I also allowed myself to go out with some of my students after class ended at 10.00PM and, yes, drank with my students, and, of course, talked with them (that’s it).
So had happened to me? How had I overcome my anxiety?
I guess the first thing was that I learned that thorough preparation for a stress inducing event is one way to manage stress and its symptoms.
Secondly, recognizing that public speaking is one of Americans’ greatest fears, and remembering my grade in Speech 101 was a D, I realized that anxiety often accompanies feelings of lack of control. The assumption in this case is incorrect, and that is that the speaker, the professor, has no ability to control his audience and their reactions. I quickly was learning that there were all kinds of things I could legitimately do to, in effect, “control” the reactions of my students to my communication in the anxiety producing process of public speaking.
But I think that what was really most responsible for my loss of anxiety and nausea before teaching was that I had had an epiphany!
I had discovered the most pleasing thing of my life, college teaching. I had never before done anything that was so much fun. And I had discovered that was because college teaching involves the four things I loved to do the most. I put that observation in the context of being a 23 year old, healthy, red blooded, heterosexual, young, single, man. The one thing I loved to do the most was not a sexual act. I am being totally honest, maybe even TMI. Teaching brought me pleasure much longer than sex and I could do it guilt free with many people, simultaneously too. And it was teaching that led me to discover something I had never discovered in college or graduate school.
To teach, I had to do the four things I most loved to do.
First of all, in order to teach you have to have some knowledge, and information to impart to your students. Ideally you might throw in some wisdom and experience but at 23 years of age I am not sure I had a lot of wisdom or experience. But I did have knowledge which I had gotten from reading. So the first thing I loved to do in order to teach was read. And I was a reader. I had always been a reader. I loved reading. It had never occurred to me that I could be paid for reading. There was no such thing at my little liberal arts college known as “career planning” in which a career counselor might have helped me discover that ideal occupational choice involves doing something professionally and for remuneration that you love to do. OK, first thing then is reading.
Secondly, in order to teach you have to write something down after you have read—and that writing becomes the notes, the text, the manuscript, you use in teaching. And I loved to write. And I was getting paid, albeit modestly, $500 a course, to write.
Thirdly, teaching required first reading, then writing, and then speaking. I knew I was an extrovert. I knew I had always loved to talk. And teachers have to talk, after they have read (or done something) to acquire knowledge, and written down that knowledge.
And finally, the fourth component of teaching I discovered was helping students. And I really enjoyed helping my students. I had discovered that college teaching is a “helping” profession.
So there I had it. I had moved from doing something that made me sick to something that showed me how to put together the four things I most loved to do: reading, writing, talking and helping people.
How are you helping your students discover how to convert the things they most love to do into a legal way to eventually earn a living?