John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

How Do I Learn What I Need to Know?

October 28, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I think that is a question that all educators, including (I hope) the most senior leaders and managers of the academy need to be asking—in order to make the best possible decisions for student success. There are so many challenges to learning what we need to know, some of which are:

  • the information we need is constantly both changing and growing exponentially
  • our time to access and digest this information is limited
  • information sources are both qualitative and quantitative and somehow we need to obtain both
  • and now there is the developing use of analytics to enable prediction of student outcomes, and interventions related thereto
  • and then we need a synthesis, Who will provide this? And if the leader doesn’t create his/her own synthesis, there is always the danger of bias or worse (witness the creation of the “intelligence” used to justify the invasion of Iraq)
  • some leaders in smaller institutions still do not have a robust IR infrastructure. But even if they did they would still need to consult other sources of information. But thank goodness the rest of us have IR colleagues. The question then becomes how much use and what kind of use do we make of them?
  • I maintain that the best sources of information reside in people: their observations, knowledge, perspective, experiences, histories with the institution.

OK, so how do we get at that? To whom do we talk? Do we talk with the supervisors and highest levels of direct reports (for example, do CEO’s primarily gather their information from their cabinet officers) and thus receive some information that is filtered? How far down the chain do we go?

Oh, so many challenges in learning what we need to know to make good decisions.

I will use the case in point that I know the best: myself. I am in the business of giving advice to institutions. And to do that I have to learn about the institution what I need to know to offer perspectives to institutional decision makers. So where do I go for the information I need to know.

First of all, I am a recovering former historian: I go to the primary (written) sources. By a review of boiler plate institutional primary sources one can glean a great deal about both the institutional culture, history, policies, practices, and more, such documents as:

  • catalog
  • strategic plan
  • CEO/CAO’s latest addresses to the faculty or whole institutional community
  • Admissions viewbooks
  • institutional website
  • latest report to the regional accreditor
  • IR Fact Book
  • student newspapers
  • assessment data: NSSE, CCSSE, etc

But what about the qualitative data that resides inside people’s heads—some of that also being quantitative data? Who do I most want to talk to, observe, draw out?

students: I have never asked to meet with a group of students and had the institution pull together a focus group of its least engaged, least successful students. So, yes, you do need to talk to those that are “involved” and high performing academically, but you also need to talk to the opposite end of the spectrum. And where will you find them? One place is in special classes targeted at those populations, such as in college success classes. You will find some of them getting assistance in learning labs (although there you will be more likely to encounter the B+ students who are working hard to become A students!) And there are other places too, perhaps at random.

student athletes(particularly in the “revenue” sports, football and basketball): But I would go beyond that so you can get a sense for the different cultures of the different teams by both sport and gender. Which of these teams are more or less integrated academically?

the professionals and peers who provide academic support in learning and academic support centers. On a recent campus visit in discussion with a center director I learned exactly which majors are under or over represented in the center’s census data. This confirmed for me why one engineering related major were the institution’s high performers but left me with questions about why so many majors were underrepresented.

the professionals who do “counseling” with students for emotional, social, behavioral issues. They have keen observations on the most common patterns of student and institutionally generated stressors. On a recent visit to a campus I asked one counselor what was the most common problem she saw. The response: “generalized anxiety.” The question then became what were the triggers for these anxiety levels and how many of those were under the control or at least influence of the institution.

financial aid counselors and administrators: We know that “financial problems” are the most socially accepted answers given by students as to why they leave an institution. But we have to get a lot further than that in our understanding.

academic advisors: perhaps better than any other class of educator, these often unsung heroes understand how the policies of institutions impinge upon students and either promote or discourage student success. But they are rarely asked for their insights by senior level leaders.

career counselors: who better to understand the vocational aspirations of students and their families, and often the mismatch between student performance and those aspirations

librarians: we are primarily in the business of preparing workers for the 21st century knowledge economy. Who better to understand the information literacy skills possessed by our students

faculty who teach first-year composition: Readers will recall the terrible shootings of over 30 students at Virginia Tec of a few years ago. Who knew the most about that troubled shooter student? Not a counselor/therapist, residence hall staff member, but faculty in the English department. In first-year composition, students are often allowed to write about what they know best: themselves. Their writings reveal much about the “baggage” they bring from their pre-college lives as well as the level of development of their writing and critical thinking skills.

faculty in general education courses: these are, we know, the courses students most want to “get out of the way” and in which problems of student motivation may be the most apparent. Our faculty are the experts on this critical dimension of the first-year, retention or attrition generating experience. It is these “gateway” courses that I am now prone to say comprise “the real first-year experience.”

instructional staff of first-year seminars: this is one of my truly best sources of information on today’s students,  and how college is or is not affecting them.

residence hall staff, both resident assistants and resident directors: these students live both in and above the store. This is the environment where residential students spend the

student discipline administrators: while admittedly this is somewhat of a biased sample in terms of the perceptions these officers have of “student life”, nevertheless, it is often noteworthy to have these perceptions.

student health professionals: it wasn’t until the arrival of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980’s that those of us who direct first-year seminar courses started including issues of health and wellness, particularly related to sexually transmitted illnesses, into the content of college success courses. But now this is a staple. And those who deliver health care are excellent sources of information on factors that affect the success of many of our students

family/parents: I have known since the first administration of the YFCY survey, Your First College Year, that when we ask first-year students to whom they turn for advice with college problems, their first line of defense is other students; and coming in second is family members. Families offer for our understanding a  combination of knowledge about their family member’s college experiences, a source of support, and also comprise one of the factors of stress on those same college students.

And I am just getting started on a list like the above. I never intended for this to be an exhaustive or complete litany.

There are so many sources of knowledge and insight to help us understand the dynamics of the student success experience on our campuses. All we have to do is seek these colleagues (including the students) out and invite them to share, listen, digest, synthesize, and then act ourselves. It’s all right there for us to see. As my first University president and mentor said to me once with respect to the student riot that transformed his presidency and led my university to create the University 101 course: “The students have given me an opportunity for reflection on the meaning of student behavior.” And then he acted on the power of that reflection and created the college success course as we have now come to know it and thus helped millions of future college students.

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