John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Need to Be Reminded of What You Already Know

September 25, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I have been working on the challenges of enhancing student retention for 46 years. And I live with a woman who has been working on the same issue for 25 years. Without meaning to sound, let alone be, cynical, I will confess that we often wonder if there are or can be any new ideas out there—ideas to improve student retention. What I have concluded matters more is what we already know and what we are—or are not—doing with what we already know.

Many higher educators already know what they and their institutions need to know about improving student retention. But they continue to look for new ideas, new approaches, as if they are insatiable and searching for the retention holy grail. If they would stop and reflect, I think they already know what they and their institutions need to be doing. The more important question is why aren’t they doing more intentionally and comprehensively what they know they need to be doing.

One reason may be because they aren’t being reminded enough. Or they may have forgotten. Or they may be distracted by all the new bells and whistles being pitched largely by the free enterprise system to higher educators charged with improving retention. I have to admit too to a fascination with some of these new approaches—for example, the use of predictive analytics, dashboards, and early warning intervention systems to predict, monitor, communicate and intervene with students.

I have long believed that you can’t hear often enough the most important things in life, these things we really do need to say to each other. We all need our mantras: institutions and individuals. We need to be reminded.

Recently, I had a conversation with an 18 year old college student who is also a relative. She reminded me of what I already knew but needed to hear again.

This young woman started college at a regional, public university as first-year student two days after Labor Day. She is a full-time, non-residential student, taking 15 hours; has an off-campus job working well over 20 hours a week. She is a second generation college student. Her father is a college graduate. Her mother a high school graduate. One of three children, she is the only female, and the only one to go to college. She aspires to be an elementary school teacher.  She has no course in which class size is larger than 25 (what a bargain considering her first choice school was a residential private college which proved to be unaffordable for her and her family).

Now if I could have written a more ideal script for her knowing what I know about what predicts for degree attainment, I would have wanted her to be:

  • residing on campus
  • working less than 20 hours a week
  • and working on campus as opposed to off
  • attending a first choice institution
  • attending a college with higher retention and graduation rates

Based on the conversation I had with her about what is working for her at her new public university home, this is what I noted, was reminded of, and concluded:

  • Even though she was a very successful high school student academically, she acknowledged she was very anxious upon starting at university, fearing that she might now be able to keep up, do the work, make friends, etc.
  • She “loves” two of her courses—psychology and Spanish—for reasons as best I could tell had everything to do with the combination of the personality and pedagogies of her faculty and their ages. Both faculty are relatively young, at most perhaps 15 years older than she, and also female. They use active teaching learning pedagogies and have the students engaged. One was praised for asking my niece to engage in thinking and activities that I would characterize as having “relevance” to my niece’s life.
  • She has two more classes both taught by women, one considerably older, with grandchildren, and for whom this course is the only non-graduate course she teaches. This is an introductory course to the major, elementary education. And this course is not engendering the kind of reaction I would want to create for students in their first major course. I suspect this faculty member is more appropriate to be teaching graduate students but for whatever reason was assigned to teach beginning undergraduates—not a good fit.
  • The other course taught by a female, and which my relative is not enthusiastic about is her English 101, in which she characterizes the professor as being “rude” and “not nice”. But my niece did allow that she is learning from woman being helped by this professor with her writing. I explained to her that one thing first-year students need to move beyond is thinking about whether or not professor so and so is “nice” or whether they “like” the professor.
  • The fifth course is taught by a “really young” man, who is “kind of out there.” My relative wasn’t sure she was going to like this course at all but the very first weekend of the term, her faculty member of this course and another professor took the 14 students in this course (which sounded to me like an academically focused topically based first-year seminar) on a weekend camping trip to climb the largest mountain in the region and to discover and identify various geological artifacts of relevance to the course learning objectives. But what happened on this experiential learning field trip that mattered most was that my relative met other new students not known before, bonded with them, and, most importantly, met a young man with whom she developed a friendship which has led to her first date in college a week after the field trip!
  • She likes the fact that even though she is starting a new chapter in life, nevertheless, some elements of her life are thankfully predictable: her part-time job in retail clothing store management, and her home life.
  • She reports liking being able to return to her home to study and to finding her loving father and mother. These last two items of course challenged my research based thinking about the disadvantages for college degree attainment purposes of being both a commuter student and one who spends more hours a week in an off-campus job than she spends in class.
  • This student’s first term course schedule was determined entirely by the institution. She never conferred with an academic advisor. The University sent her her class schedule.
  • Overall, she notes her improvement in her attitudes towards her new educational institution, not her first choice school, and her increasing comfort level with being in college.

So what was I reminded of that I need to keep in the forefront of my own work with institutions trying to improve student success:

  • Even the best prepared high school students are often anxious about starting college. Anxiety is both a motivator and an obstacle to learning. We must do things to reduce negative levels of anxiety.
  • Early experiences in college matter (a great deal)
  • Engaging pedagogies in the classroom matter too.
  • A co-curricular experience very early in the term may greatly accelerate engagement, adjustment, and enthusiasm.
  • Integrating experiential learning in a first-year course is a particularly powerful pedagogy, which increases interest in the official subject matter and bonding with faculty and fellow students.
  • Early interaction with faculty outside of class matters.
  • The selection of which professor teaches a student’s first course in the major, in this case an introductory course to a professional discipline like Education, matters in terms of the attitudes this engenders for the major.
  • A student’s sense of adjustment and personal comfort is inextricable from making friends with other peers.
  • If private, residential colleges think they are the only ones that can and do provide a beginning college experience comprised by small classes and high levels of engagement, they are deluding themselves.
  • For the money, regional, public universities are a bargain.
  • Gateway courses really matter—who teaches them and what kind of pedagogies are used.
  • For some students there may be distinct advantages of not living on a college campus, particularly if such students have experiences that get them engaged and offset perceived disadvantages of living off campus.
  • This student’s experience is the norm, not that of the residential college student which she had originally aspired to be.
  • Students will generally make the most of opportunities presented to them. But it is the institution’s responsibility to provide such opportunities that comprise educationally and personally engaging learning.

I am a smart guy and I already know a lot. But I can always profit by being reminded of what I already know that is most important. And by asking students to tell me about their experiences and being intentional about sorting out what the student and I can learn from those experiences, that may be generalizable to other settings.

I am glad I talked to this student today and asked her some leading questions and then just listened to whatever she cared to share with me. Moral of the story: you and I can’t interact and learn from our students too much. Reminders are necessary and empowering for both the giver and the receiver.

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