While we at DIA certainly have a vision for the impact we want to have on colleges and universities, articulating that vision is not always easy. Every institution is different with regards to culture, strategy, structure, personnel, the students they serve, the pains they are feeling, their successes and failures in their past… the list goes on. Thus, when we sit down and try to articulate the ideal state in which we’d like to see every institution operating, it’s not always the same message. To paraphrase the old student affairs adage, we need to meet institutions where they are before we can take them where they need to be. Meeting them, in this context, means understanding institutional differences and building a path to success that works for them.
Then I had an epiphany a few weeks ago. I realized it all boiled down to four questions. They’re not simple questions, mind you. As far as survey items go, they’re complex, occasionally double or even triple-barreled, and there’s a particular way to go about answering them that doesn’t just involve a few sentences cobbled together.
But if an institution can meaningfully answer these questions – both internally (amongst faculty, staff, and administrators) and externally (to students, parents, and other constituents) - they are doing everything we could ask for when it comes to student success strategy. These questions are indicative of a holistic, multi-faceted, student-centered approach that maximizes what we know about noncognitive skills and their ability to support students’ academic success and persistence. A college or university that can effectively answer each of these questions has a culture of student success that we would want our institutional partners to emulate.
Yet when we talk about noncognitive factors, many schools will tell us, “We just don’t have time for that in advising conversations.” My question – sometimes quietly through internal dialogue and, in weaker moments, blurted out oud – is always, “what could be more important than this?!” The empirical relevance of noncognitive factors in predicting a variety of student success outcomes has shown us the essential nature of the behavioral, motivational, emotional, and social domains.
Before revealing these questions to you, I should confess that, while I called out “advising” in the title of this post, I know that advisors may or may not be the appropriate constituency for each institution. I use the term advising here to refer generally to student support efforts. When I say “advising” I mean all those conversations – had by faculty, advisors, counselors, coaches, mentors, and others – that support student learning and development outside of the pedagogical relationship.
Thus, it perhaps best to say that these are four questions any institution should be able to answer through its student success strategy, but if I put that in the title, who owns it? Who is called to action to take these questions back to the institutional leadership and say, “can we address these?” So if you’re an advisor or someone who oversees advising at your institution, I hope you have answers. If not, I hope you can engage the appropriate leaders to determine how your institution would go about answering these. If that effort is also futile, then you can reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ok, NOW on to the questions…
Question 1: How do we know students at our school can meet the expectations of college-level courses?
The term “college readiness” is one of the most insidious labels ever used in the world of student success. Unfortunately, this term has almost always connoted a holistic level of preparation that includes both academic preparation, motivation, and organization. However, it has almost always been operationally defined by measures of intelligence. This is not a term we use often when referring to measures like the SAT and ACT, but the fact of the matter is that this is what they are. Estimates of the correlation between SAT/ACT scores and measures of general cognitive ability (“g”) have been estimated between .8 and .9 (Frey, 2019; Frey & Detterman, 2012). (For those of you not familiar with correlational benchmarks in the social sciences, this basically means that they are measuring the same thing).
But how many people would say that students fail a class or drop out of college simply because they aren’t smart enough? Indeed, large-scale studies have shown that measures of academic preparation are by no means the strongest predictor of academic success and are a relatively weak predictor of retention (Markle et al., 2013; Robbins et al, 2004).
What these studies (and our work) emphasize is the importance of the behavioral skills and strategies that facilitate success in the classroom. Attendance, timeliness, assignment completion, participation in discussions (or discussion boards in virtual settings)… these are the things that students really need to understand and be able to do in order to be ready for college. Moreover, an excellent study by Kevin Li and colleagues (2013) shows how these behavioral factors compensate for any lack of academic preparation students might bring to college.
Fortunately, there are often resources available to help students develop these strategies, regardless of institutional size, mission, or population. Resources can range from walk-in tutoring to mandatory student success courses, with a host of other levels of intervention in-between.
Yet the ability of schools to answer this question still varies. Without an assessment like our ISSAQ Student Survey – which addresses the behavioral factors of Organization, Engagement, and Quality Focus – institutions have little awareness of students’ general propensity for engaging in these behaviors.
2. How do we help students at our school see direction, value, and relevance in their goal?
Whenever I have the chance to speak with a parent who is about to send their children off to college, I often chuckle at the certainty of their reply. “Yep, my child is going off to Auburn to be an engineer!” My amusement comes from my long-standing knowledge of (a) how often college students change their major, (b) how often they transfer, and (c) the frequent disconnects between one’s major or degree and the career they pursue. I, for one, went off to college to study pre-med and become a psychiatrist. Frankly, where I sit now (having a Ph.D. in psychology… though nowhere close to psychiatric practice) is close to that goal, relative to what most students experience.
I’ve written before about the misattribution of “motivation” among many educators. Much like “college ready,” it’s an exclusionary euphemism we use to talk about those that some people feel just aren’t meant to be here. It’s another one of those ways some of our colleagues look to blame students for not automatically seeing the value of a college degree, thus leading to a lack of effort and success. In other words, it’s passing the buck of student success onto others rather than ourselves.
The industry leaders in motivation right now are two folks I’d call friends and colleagues: Kenn Barron from James Madison University and Chris Hulleman from the University of Virginia. For more than a decade, I’ve heard Kenn and Chris talk about expectancy value theory (EVT) and seen them craft excellent interventions to help students understand the value of their efforts, the intrinsic importance of learning, and the overall need for educational attainment. Their work is a good example of thinking about students mindsets and working to support or change from our side of things, rather than expecting that it’s the student’s responsibility to overcome a lack of family support, a cultural loss-of-appetite for education (or seemingly intelligence for that matter), an educational system that has critically underserved our most vulnerable populations, or a host of other contextual factors that by no means should find an 18 or 19 year-old student as the primary culprit for a lack of engagement.
But I’m not a fan of just pointing to an intervention or theory and saying, “there’s the answer, go figure it out.” Instead, I return to my previously posed question to ask institutions how they are using their resources to ensure that motivation – and more specifically, setting and working toward a degree-goal – is part of their efforts to support students and improve success.
My purpose in specifying that institutions should be able help students see the direction, value, and relevance of their college goals is to emphasize that motivation (as my previous blog post explains) is not simply a “do they want it or not?” question. Theories like EVT make it clear motivation is a complex mindset that, depending on exactly which theory you ascribe to, has varying underlying dimensions that form effort and persistence. Direction refers to not only identifying an outcome (far too many students, like myself, walk into college with the simple declaration that they’re going to be doctors), but helping articulate the steps – curricular and otherwise – along the way, the challenges that they will meet (including things like income-to-tuition debt ratios), and what they can expect in the end.
Value, yes, includes things like helping students understand the variance in expected salaries by major or the prospective job market within each field, but also how a field of study or prospective career fits into that student’s entire life. For decades, Terry O’Banion’s model of advising has shown us how to help students progressively explore their life goals, career goals, and subsequently their choices around major, courses, and schedule. Yet most advising still focuses on class choice first and discussion of life goals only if there’s time (which there rarely ever is).
Finally, conversations about relevance are exceedingly important, difficult, and rare. The critical nature of high quality advising, coaching, and counseling is the individualized relationship it creates. Whereas value represents an overall importance (i.e., college degrees help people, in general, get a job), relevance couches that goodness within a person’s own context. Relevance asks, “why is this goal important for you, as an individual, given your background, situation, and goals?”
Unfortunately, we’re simply not good at this type of work. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but the same educational system that started some 400 years ago with one instructor and 30-100 students never really got the knack of how to work on a 1-to-1 basis. We love to bemoan our lack of financial, human, and chronological resources, but the major fact is that individualization is simply not in our DNA.
But there is perhaps no better way to ensure that a student works toward a goal than by helping them understand why it is important to them. Obanion’s model provides a philosophical guide to this work from an advising perspective, but Chris Hulleman (Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009) has also done work to show how individualized relevance can also foster learning in the classroom.
While addressing the behavioral needs of the classroom can be a relatively straightforward process of (1) identifying potential need through assessment and (2) providing interventions when needed, the motivational domain is a more complex and ongoing process. It requires initial assessment (which we address through several factors on the ISSAQ Student Survey, such as Goal Commitment, Persistence, and Self-Efficacy), yes, but the work to intervene is not so direct. It requires ongoing, interactive conversations among students, advisors, and faculty to ensure that – just as Terry O’Banion taught us more than forty years ago – each admitted student understands what they’re working toward, why they’re doing it, and just how important their efforts are.
3. How do we know students at our school can access resources to overcome the inescapable challenges that critically impede success in college?
I’m not sure of the exact date, but at some point, in the last five years or so, it seems we all woke up and realized the importance of student mental health. It was as if students had never experienced stress, anxiety, or depression prior to that day, but certainly after that day, we became collectively aware of the need for us, as educators, to consider student mental health and general well-being.
It’s also worth noting that those two issues – (1) mental health and (2) well-being – are in some ways differing efforts. Most notably, the interventional efforts to affect each can be somewhat different. When discussing student support structures, we often separate the functions of coaching and counseling. In our lexicon, “coaching” refers to a population-wide effort to support students’ holistic development, particularly as it related to student success.
Like advising, this is a type of support that all students need (or could at least benefit from).
“Counseling,” however, refers to vital services that may not be needed by every student (e.g., mental health, food instability, homelessness), but when they are needed, represent critical moments. If not addressed, they will undoubtedly lead to a student leaving the institution… or far worse. Again, this semantic distinction is simply to represent the goal of these supports – not the job titles, educational qualifications, or similar personnel-related issues around who does these things.
Let me be clear, I’m grateful for this systemic revelation about coaching and counseling we’ve all been waking up to. To call this distinction ‘necessary’ would be insufficient. I wish it had happened much sooner. However, the suddenness of this epiphany created a great scramble to figure out how to respond.
In responding to the question we’ve posed, institutions must have two responses. The first is in the mental health/counseling domain. Increasingly, institutions are not only becoming aware of students’ “basic needs,” they are also better understanding their role in addressing and supporting them. While ISSAQ falls far more under the domain of coaching, our student survey includes questions about basic needs to support such counseling efforts.
At the same time, institutions must also consider the well-being of all students, which is more aligned to the aims of coaching. This isn’t just about removing stress, as we so often misattribute. In building ISSAQ, research into the well-being and job performance of health professionals showed us the importance of not just our sensitivity to stress, but the ways in which we respond. These coping strategies can either be adaptive – giving us the ability to solve stressful situations – or problematic – increasing our negative responses to stress or simply avoiding the problem altogether.
Through understanding well-being in this way, we can not only seek to remove unnecessary stressors from students’ lives, but also give them skills to address the inevitable current and future sources of stress. Thus, the second response to our question must address resources to (1) assess students’ well-being and stress management skills and (2) provide support when needed. These efforts are not just about episodic supports provided by the counseling department, but an institution-wide effort to support well-being.
4. How do we know that students at our school feel socially supported and connected?
While Vincent Tinto’s work on student retention is among the most cited in educational research (only Bloom’s Taxonomy comes to mind as something more often cited), I often find that people miss the entire point of Tinto’s work. In my experience, what most people infer from Tinto is the simple importance of student retention – that it is an outcome other than grades or learning worthy of our focus.
For me, the fundamental paradigm shift that Tinto brought was in the understanding of what makes students successful. Prior to Tinto’s work, the cultural understanding was that college was a filter. Some were “worthy” and others were not, and the attrition of the latter was in fact a source of pride among educators. The old anecdote of first-semester professors announcing, on the first day of class, “look to your left, look to your right… one of you won’t be here next year” was a badge of honor. The essential presumption was that some people were smart enough to get a college degree and others simply weren’t—that attrition was because intelligence was a finite good, and the educational process would divine its location.
Tinto’s work totally changed this assumption. It told us that, through a complex social process, success was determined by individual perceptions and choices – both of which had little to do with intelligence. Once this fundamental shift in assumptions took place, the notion that success could and should be improved could flourish. Think of it this way: without knowing the world is round, the globe business is in trouble. Similarly, without knowing that the causes of success are malleable, we cannot seek to improve success.
In the fifty years since Tinto’s work was published, we’ve learned a lot about the social connections students make and the way they influence student success – particularly retention. Our work has even grown to better understand the vital nature and differential processes by which students from underserved populations socially connect in college environments. For example, we know that first-generation students don’t just struggle because of limited financial resources but because of the ways social and cultural capital can foster or inhibit college success.
Ultimately, all this work has shown us that, to improve success, we must have a plan to understand and support the social aspect of our students’ college lives. The answer to improving retention, persistence, and graduation rates is not simply to improve success in the classroom – this is, in fact, only a small determinant of such enrollment metrics (Markle et al, 2013; Robbins et al, 2004).
Of course, we would argue that this begins with some type of assessment to understand how connected students feel, the role that faculty and staff have played in supporting their success, and their willingness to ask for help when they run into a problem (one of the key social mediators of student success). Not only would such an assessment help identify student needs, but it would also help institutions understand what social connection looks like in their context.
For example, in four-year universities, social connection usually involves clubs, activities, and other things that are easily accessed in residential, brick-and-mortar settings. At times, when discussing sense of belonging, community colleges will suggest that such outcomes are unattainable given the lack of such support mechanisms in largely commuter, hybrid, online, or other “non-traditional” settings.
Yet the answer here must not just seek to emulate a four-year model, but rather to understand how social connection, mattering, sense of belonging, and other constructs look within that setting. As one example, Michelle Pakansky-Brock, a community-college faculty member in California, is committed to building pedagogical practices in online courses that foster a sense of belonging. Her goal is to make virtual education a source of connection, rather than an assumed impediment of it. Similarly, all schools should look at their population, resources, and culture to understand where and how social connection happens.
How do I go about answering these questions?
There are really two questions that arise depending on your/your institution’s ability to answer each of these questions. If you have an answer, you might want to know if it’s a good one. If you don’t have an answer, you’re probably wondering how to go about building an effective institutional approach to address those issues. Either way, you may have guessed that there are a few key elements of what makes a good response to these questions (in my humble opinion, at least).
First, assessment is critical. Obviously, if you know anything about me, you’re not surprised to hear me say this. But I’ve always said, I don’t go around talking about student success because I build noncognitive measures. I started building noncognitive measures because I thought they were an optimal solution to addressing student success. To me, using a tool to gather data that can not only help us understand our institutional needs but also help us target and tailor our services to the students that need them most… this has always seemed like the most logical approach. Clearly, my comments about each of the questions here suggest that we should be able to use tools to both understand and direct our efforts in any one of these areas.
Following a thorough diagnostic assessment, institutions need an effective infrastructure for using data. If we know sense of belonging, for example, is a challenge for our students, but we have no idea how to apply our resources to address that, we’re no better positioned to improve student success. Practices such as co-curricular alignment and process mapping help institutions understand what resources are available and how students interact with them, respectively. Whereas assessment can help us identify needs and problems, only effective strategy (and implementation thereof) can help us address them.
Finally, to ensure that our strategies are working, evaluation is critical. Additionally, evaluation doesn’t just need to show if something is working, on average, but if it is working well for everyone. This consideration is particularly critical in student success conversations, where we are working to undo longstanding systemic issues that have disadvantaged so many. After all, they are “traditionally underserved” populations for a reason…because this system is one of the primary agents underserving them. The answers to each of these critical questions will often lead us to understanding where and how we’ve been doing so.
Frey, M. C. (2019). What we know, are still getting wrong, and have yet to learn about the relationships among the SAT, intelligence and achievement. Journal of Intelligence, 7(4), 26.
Frey, M. C., & Detterman, D. K. (2004). Scholastic assessment or g? The relationship between the scholastic assessment test and general cognitive ability. Psychological science, 15(6), 373-378.
Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. science, 326(5958), 1410-1412.
Li, K., Zelenka, R., Buonaguidi, L., Beckman, R., Casillas, A., Crouse, J., ... & Robbins, S. (2013). Readiness, behavior, and foundational mathematics course success. Journal of Developmental Education, 37(1), 14.
Markle, R., Olivera‐Aguilar, M., Jackson, T., Noeth, R., & Robbins, S. (2013). Examining evidence of reliability, validity, and fairness for the SuccessNavigator™ assessment. ETS Research Report Series, 2013(1), i-58.
O’Banion, T. (2012). Be advised. Community College Journal, 83(2), 42-47.
Robbins, S., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 130 (2), 261-288.