John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Academic Probation: Getting On is Much Easier Than Getting Off!

John Gardner
President

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

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