John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Critical Junctures: A Way of Thinking about Where We Need to Intervene to Support Students

December 7, 2011John N. GardnerInsights0

John Gardner


I wish I could have any denomination of money for every time I have been asked “what is the most important reason or cause for student attrition?” Of course, I
usually waffle like a politician, but an academic one, and quibble about the
intellectual legitimacy of the idea of a “most important” cause. But clearly attrition is related to those aspects of the college experience around which
our students get in trouble, can’t handle, etc.

Recently, my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I did a workshop in which we decided to approach this matter of understanding student attrition from the perspective of what we called “critical junctures.” We defined “critical junctures” as “particular
events or decision points that occur throughout the undergraduate years” and as
“potential bumps in the road your students experience.” We asked the group to
consider our suggested notions of critical junctures and then come back to us
with their own, what had we missed, and what did they think should be added to
this list. The idea was to get them thinking about how to address the
challenges of enhancing student retention around designing intentional forms of
support and intervention around these critical junctures.

This approach is also based on the assumption that these critical junctures are:

  • predictable
  • common to large numbers of students
  • academic* personal/social

Andthese are the critical junctures we posed to them:
First, the ACADEMIC…

  • being at a “second choice” institution
  • initial placement examinations
  • moving in and out of developmental education courses and/or ESL curricula
  • succeeding in gateway courses
  • the overall “first-year experience”
  • declaring or changing a major
  • being forced to seek alternatives to a “first choice” major
  • reacting to being on “provisional” admissions status
  • moving on and/or off academic probation/suspension
  • moving from full-time to part-time status (and vice versa)
  • progression exams
  • transfer—intra institutionally
  • transfer—inter institutionally
  • graduate school entrance exams
  • the senior year experience
  • graduation

And now the SOCIAL critical junctures…

  • affiliation with social groups on campus—acceptance or rejection
  • elimination from an athletic team
  • roommate problems
  • “coming out”
  • romantic breakup (including divorce—the student’s or his/her parents)
  • problems at home—family issues
  • financial problems—loss of employmen or major financial reversal, unanticipated
    challenges, loosing/gaining financial aid or scholarships
  • stopping out
  • moving from dependent to independent tax status
  • moving from in-state (resident) to “non-resident” fee status

And when we opened these illustrations up to our group, here is what they
added—still more critical junctures:

  • the August train wreck (initial registration, class start—particularly if it is “late”
  • death in the immediate family
  • deployment—impact on both active duty military personnel and their dependents
  • diagnosis of learning disability and then related decisions/consequences
  • tuition due dates—simply “coming up with the money”
  • homesickness
  • life after the first year—the sophomore year experience

We offered these closing perspectives:

  • critical junctures can and do overlap and then have an even greater cumulative impact
  • you need to ask how is your institution organized—or not organized—to support
    students during these critical junctures?
  • for which juncture(s) is support the strongest?
  • and for which the weakest?
  • at which juncture do you loose the most students?

One of the greatest challenges we have faced in our decades of working with higher educators to address the problem of student retention is how to move from the more abstract theories that help us understand this phenomena to actually being able to focus concretely on the students’ experiences. We think this concept of “critical junctures” can be useful in this applied thinking and action and commend it to you for your consideration.

For starters, use my list(s) above as a template for your own institution. What’s
missing? Where do you fit in? And, by all means, don’t limit your discussion
here to just fellow educators. Have students (focus groups perhaps) tell you
what their critical junctures are. And further remember: every institution is
different and will have some of its own unique critical junctures due to unique
policies and practices that impinge on students.

One thing I know for sure: we can’t improve student retention until we get better
at helping students with their critical junctures.

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