John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

15 Triggers for Discussion

Recently a special colleague of mine who was organizing the First Annual Conference on Student Success held at the University of Massachusetts, about which I wrote recently, asked me to provide a talk but in a new and very challenging context for me: with a very strict time limit. The idea was I was to have only fifteen minutes. And further, I was to present catalysts, “triggers” for interaction, conversation to follow.

So I had to ask myself what I could say very concisely that reflected ideas/topics I was thinking about, working on in my professional life. This turned out to be an interesting exercise for me to construct such a list. And I recommend that you consider doing the same. You could even shorten the list. What are the ten (or five or fifteen) big ideas that you are focusing on in your work; or that you think your institution should be focusing on. As an illustration, here is my list that I recently offered. I am sure that this would change on any given occasion that I might be given this opportunity. Your list also should always be dynamic. I invite you to compare yours with mine. Here goes:

Fifteen Minutes: Fifteen Triggers for a Dialogue on Improving Student Success
1. It all comes down to your values: The first-year matters!
2. And, yes, there is a sophomore slump!
3. The transfer student experience has become normative; transfer students are a cohort about which little is understood and towards which much prejudice is directed.
4. The Senior Year Experience is needed too! Some students are never over the hump.
5. Where does your campus stand with respect to offering the three most validated retention generating interventions: first-year seminars, learning communities, and Supplemental Instruction?
6. What is needed is “challenge and support,” and more of each! Engagement is all about raising expectations and achieving greater time on task.
7. All students are “developmental.” All are at risk. We must improve the status of “developmental education.”
8. What’s wrong with this picture? We search for the holy grail of retention, even though it is merely a minimum standard.
9. In contrast: pursuit of educational excellence and the need for aspirational standards.
10. Want to improve retention? The latest powerfully documented intervention – the latest big idea: you need a plan. And then you need to implement the plan to a high degree (yielding 8.2% increase in retention). “Programs” are necessary but not sufficient. We have to transcend mere “programs” and make these plans part of the overall vision, part of the institutional strategic plan.
11. Re-examine policies that at one time made eminent good sense but now may have outlived their usefulness: “Waiting for Napoleon” as an illustration of the need to do a “policy audit” and for focusing on what you can control
12. You have to have a manageable focus for improvement efforts. Try the five highest enrollment courses with parallel redesign for high DWFI rate courses
13. Show me your list of institutional standing committees and I will know what you value. Each campus needs a standing group to advocate for first-year students.
14. Go after the “low hanging fruit.”
15. One person can make a huge difference

-John N. Gardner

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