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The best book I've ever read about student success



I've never been really good at catching the first wave of trends. Last summer, I came across a very catchy song and, when chatting with a friend of mine, blurted, "Have you heard of Lizzo!?!?" She said, "Yes, Ross... two years ago." As such, hopefully you'll understand when I start writing this post about a book that was published in 2018 and already lauded by the likes of Oprah and Barack Obama.


Educated, by Tara Westover, is a memoir about a girl born into a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. The first half of the book reads as a novel, rife with heroic tales of rural life, crippling accidents, and tense family dynamics. It's so compelling, fantastical, and well-written that if you had told me it was fiction, I wouldn't have doubted you for a second.


The second half of the book dives into Tara's entrance into higher education - specifically Brigham Young University - and the trials and tribulations that brings. It's a heart-wrenching account of two clashing cultures: Tara's anti-government, near mystical faith-based upbringing and the complex microculture that is schooling, let alone university life. (Tara was loosely home-schooled her entire life, never having set foot in a classroom until attending BYU.)


I won't bore you with a recap of the book. First, I'm not much of a reader (full disclosure: I listened to the audio version of the book during a recent road trip), and have little to no training in literary summary or critique. As with Lizzo, you've likely even read this book long before I decided to crack the spine (metaphorically speaking, of course). If not, I'd encourage you to do so immediately. Whether you work in higher education or not, it's a fascinating read.


What I took away - and moreover, what I wanted to emphasize here - is the light this book shed on student success. While Tara Westover did not study psychology, education, or the world of retention, persistence, and graduation in which I often work, I would swear that she wrote this book just for me. It's a qualitative portrayal of the world I've tried to describe through data my entire life. I've used many anecdotes similar to the stories she tells, but until you hear the pain and anguish in someone's own words... well, they're just that: anecdotes.


There are three specific points I'd like to extract and mention here. In each case, Tara's story addressed these points in ways that were emotionally powerful, poignant and enlightening, or all of the above. Most of all, even though I don't think this was Tara's intent, I found these to be the biggest lessons about student success we can take from this amazing memoir. (Sorry... we're down to "amazing." That's how quickly I've run out of adjectives to praise this book.)


Lesson 1: The importance of noncognitive skills

I know, I know... you're surprised to hear that I managed to view this book through the prism of noncognitive skills. If you work in any other area of education, you're probably tired of hearing me talk about this issue, but one of the fundamental things I work to change is the assumption - implicit or explicit - that intelligence is the most important determinant of success.


With clients, I've discussed what I call the "can vs. will" paradox. Intelligence is a measure of "can." Some theorists actually posit intelligence as the ability to perform a novel task. , Thus, in this sense, intelligence is a literal measure of potential; the ultimate measure of "can." However, success in higher education is more often determined by "will." No matter how smart you are, your ability to persist and graduate will rely on whether or not you elect to get up and go to class, on putting in the extra effort to complete that research project, or engaging with the cocurricular programs that enhance your education and promote your success. This is truly the lesson of noncognitive factors.


Tara's case is the ultimate example of the importance of noncognitive factors over intelligence. Here is a girl who has received absolutely no formal education enrolling in a prestigious university. While she has many hurdles to overcome in order to get her degree, it's almost never related to her academic ability. Certainly, she has a hard time adapting to her first college level courses, but this is more about the "implicit curriculum" (i.e., understanding the expectations of college level courses, including the opportunity to actually ask your professors for help) than about the difficulty of the explicit curriculum.


The book is riddled with moments when factors such as self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and help seeking present major obstacles for Tara. One of my favorite examples is a memory from one of her graduate courses, when she fails to understand a concept but hesitates to ask for clarification: "I wanted to ask for further explanation, but something stopped me: The certainty that, to do so, would be to shout to the room that I didn’t belong there." This is a classic example of where help seeking, sense of belonging, and self-efficacy differentially impact students from traditionally underserved populations. "I can't ask for help because that's how they'll know I don't belong!"


As I'll discuss below, this is a complex issue, because we most likely need to work both with the student and the institution. Certainly, we can work with the student to enhance their understanding of available resources, provide support and remove self-doubt, and change their perspective of help seeking so that they view it as an adaptive, essential skill... not a crutch. At the same time, we can work with institutions to be less opaque, more welcoming, and conducive to the success of all students, regardless of their background.


Regardless, this book clearly shows that we often make erroneous attributions about student success. We assume, infer, or otherwise relate academic failure to academic skill. Yet Tara, who had as much reason as anyone to have academic challenges, never frames her hurdles in academic terms.


Lesson 2: The kindness of strangers

One of my all time favorite movie quotes comes from the 1997 sci-fi comedy, Men in Black. As Will Smith's character learns about the existence of aliens, which has been hidden from the people of Earth for decades by the titular Men in Black, Smith proclaims, "Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it." Tommy Lee Jones' character replies, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it."


I've always loved this quote because it shows the paradoxical difference between the behavior of an individual and the behavior of a group - even when it's comprised of those same individuals.


You could say something similar about higher education. As a system, colleges and universities are not very user friendly. Think about the bursar's office. You know, the place that handles all financial issues within an institution of higher education? This seems like a pretty important place, one that students should be able to find, understand, and engage with ease. Yet, to label this office, we use a word - "bursar"- which exists NO WHERE ELSE IN OUR SOCIETY.


I could also support my thesis that higher ed is not user friendly simply by the low numbers of students who persist and graduate in the intended amount of time, particularly for those from traditionally undeserved populations, but this is a book review (sort of), and I'd rather keep this literary rather than empirical.


Even though the system is not user-friendly, the most compelling stories of success typically involve a personal connection. When talking about student success, I've seen people moved to tears when recounting their own experiences and how a single faculty or staff member reached out, showed empathy or sympathy, and provided the support a student needed right at the moment when they'd lost all hope. If I might paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones: "a person is [in many cases] nice, but the people are mean."


Educated is riddled with such stories. Tara received vital support from various faculty, friends, and - in a moment that brought me to tears - even her father, who vehemently opposed education as a whole. If there is a lesson to be taken away, especially for those who work in higher education, it's that we simply cannot over-estimate the power of our impact. Every conversation with a student is a chance to uncover a challenge they're unwilling to share or to provide support for which they might be unwilling to ask. Even more powerfully - and as was the case with Tara - it can help to reshape their perception of themselves.


Lesson 3: Education - especially higher education - is an exercise in acculturation

Bursars, syllabi, and other terms and norms specific to higher education really demonstrate that college is a process of acculturation. For many years, I viewed this through the frame of "college readiness." In other words, the educational system at both secondary and post-secondary levels needed to become better at preparing students for college. "Yes they should know what a bursar is. It's ok if we have to teach them, but they need to learn."


I've more recently understood that it's not just the students who need to be ready for college, but the colleges who need to be prepared for their students. The concept of the "student ready college" has been written about and discussed by many of my colleagues, and I'm firmly behind changes we can make to the structures, policies, and processes we implement that could be more conducive to success.


Take, as one example, developmental education. Studies have shown that LOTS of students - as many as 68% - require at least one remedial course upon entrance to a community college. If I saw that two thirds of my students didn't meet a standard, I would first check and make sure that standard made sense. Rather than continually branding students as "not ready for college," shouldn't we at some point shift our thinking to consider the best means of instruction and intervention for the students we serve?


Yes, it would be great if K12 schooling produced ripe, fully-formed, ready-to-dominate-college-algebra students, but that is often not the case. So how do we meet those students where they are? I have no simple answers, but the answers to questions like this are the transformational work that will advance student success in an evolutionary way.


Conclusion

I'll admit, Tara Westover's example may be extreme. Not all students are coming from the circumstances she did: no schooling, an abusive childhood, and a fanatical upbringing that forced her to question basic institutions such as the doctor's office. But nearly every student has some adjustment to make. Some students might lack a simple piece of knowledge, such as what a FAFSA is. Others might fear simple things, such as asking a professor for help. Still others might have more significant doubts, such as feeling like an outsider who doesn't belong.


Educated shows a compelling example of all these issues. While we might observe the end products - a student who misses an assignment, stops showing up to class, etc. - we can't understand the path each student takes to get there. Moreover, this book shows that students might be unable or unwilling to share their story, and attributions about their "academic potential" may be drastically misplaced.


Sadly, there are few Tara's in the world. Many more students encountered challenges like hers and simply elected to leave. Not because they couldn't succeed. Not because they "weren't college material." But simply because they didn't know how to speak our language. They didn't have that one person to reach out a hand. Or, dare I say, they lacked "college knowledge." How different might our world be if we could tap the potential of the millions of students like Tara who weren't so fortunate?

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