John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Fall: A Good Season for Benchmarking and Transforming

November 5, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

One of the aspects of the fall season for an academic like me is that it is a time when I get to renew annually as I work with a new cohort of students (my students are now the colleges and universities I advise). I am never, of course, a tabula rasa, but the slate is cleaned somewhat.

And mid way through the fall is a time-tested tradition of “mid-terms” when students, especially new students, can ideally benchmark their performance. And this is a most common time for institutions reporting mid-term grades and for early warning systems to kick in for sure, if the institution has one at all. I would argue that initiating early warning interventions half way through the term is much too late, but still better than not at all.

I remember my first mid-term results in college very, very clearly. My grades were 3F’s, 2D’s and 1 A (the A was in physical education which was an automatic A because I was a varsity athlete!). This called for a conference with my academic advisor. He pronounced “Mr. Gardner, you are the stupidest kid I have ever advised.” After letting that description sink in I decided to get a new academic advisor. I give the new one part of the credit for my academic transformation and ultimate graduation from college.

Those first mid term grades were sent home to my parents. This was not a cause for celebration. And this was 13 years before the Buckley Amendment to the Privacy Act, which now prohibits such sharing of performance reports with parents unless the student has waived privacy rights.

So today we could be asking our students…..

  • to reflect on how they thought at the beginning of the term they would do?
  • and in contrast how are they actually doing?
  • what adjustments might be in order to improve performance?
  • how might they adjust time commitments and other priorities?
  • what kinds of assistance are available on campus and could they be seeking?
  • have they talked to the professor(s)?
  • have they talked to their academic advisor?
  • are they in a study group?
  • how are they going about learning study skills?
  • are they spending any time trying to learn from successful students?

Going through a self examination process like this could lead to transformative behavior. I began to improve after that mid term because a sophomore student serendipitously taught me to take lecture notes. I doubt I would ever have made it off probation and through college without this non- divine intervention.

The fall has always been a time of major transition(s) for me.

When I was nine years old my father moved our family to Canada in time to start the fall term in a Canadian school. That experience was transformative for me.

Five years later we returned to the US just in time for the fall term in a Connecticut high school. That was not transformative.

Three years later I started college in the fall. And that was truly transformative.

Four years later I started graduate school and that was not transformative.

One year later I joined the Air Force in October of 1966, and that was transformative…because the Air Force ordered me to become an adjunct faculty member for the University of South Carolina. And I discovered my life’s work.

Four years later after being honorably discharged, I launched my career at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. And that was transformative.

Twenty-nine years later I took early retirement from the University and moved to North Carolina, with Betsy Barefoot, on October 1; and that was transformative!

Eighteen days later we launched our non-profit organization; and that has been transformative for our work and for many of the institutions we have worked for and with.

I conclude from this history that the fall has been a period of transformation for me, and for many of my students.

What are you doing for your students this fall that they can ultimately describe as “transformative?”

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