An Old Truth that Stands the Test of Time

Every year about this time, it seems as if the sleepy grounds on which we walk all summer magically spawn a new class of students, and within a few days they are planted in our classrooms, staring at us from well-worn desks with looks ranging from bright-eyed excitement to bleary-eyed befuddlement. But no matter the particular mix of personalities we find in our classes on the first day of the fall term, we all throw ourselves into the messy work of educating, trying to help all students strive to learn, find their niche, and embrace their college learning experience.

So what is the mysterious formula that lights the fire for student success?  On the one hand, we all know enough to know that such an overly simplistic question is a bit naive. Educating is jagged and salty business.  There is no magic elixir.  Anyone who claims otherwise is a certifiable charlatan.  Instead, the way to think about influencing success is to focus on likelihoods. Thus the questions we ask should be about what we can do to set in motion the right combination of experiences and what we can do to cultivate the right responses to those experiences so that all students – no matter their unique characteristics or predispositions – are most likely to take their fate into their own hands, succeed, stay, and ultimately graduate.

Last year we introduced a survey to freshmen at the end of their first year that was in part intended to help us identify the kind of experiences that might increase the likelihood of first year success.  While it was modeled after the senior survey, we introduced a number of new questions that specifically focused on experiences unique to freshmen (e.g., LSFY, first-year advising, life in the residence halls).  We also asked several outcome questions, one of which was, “If you could relive your college decision, would you choose Augustana again?”

I want to share with you two student experience questions that turned out to be statistically significant predictors of students’ saying that they would “definitely” choose Augustana again – one relatively effective proxy for determining a student’s success in college. And since the findings I’m going to share take into account their pre-college academic preparation, gender, race/ethnicity, and family financial status, these findings likely apply regardless of differences in a few basic but important demographic characteristics.

The two questions that emerged as statistically significant predictors were:

  1. “How often did your faculty emphasize setting high expectations for your own learning and growth?” (never, rarely, sometimes, often, very often)
  2. “Faculty and staff at Augustana treated me like an individual.” (strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree)

What strikes me most about this finding is that it captures a fundamental truth in college impact research: the principle of challenge and support.  An educational endeavor can’t maximize learning and success unless it creates an environment that a) challenges students to push themselves beyond marginal, rudimentary gains, and b) supports their affective well-being as they take the risk of pushing themselves so that they can continue to learn and grow in the face of difficulty, or even the occasional failure. The findings from our own data suggest that our freshmen who said that they would “definitely” choose Augustana again were also students who said that faculty often (or very often) emphasized setting high expectations for their own learning and growth AND agreed (or strongly agreed) that faculty and staff at Augustana treated them like an individual.

There are a myriad of ways to concretely emphasize to students the importance of setting high expectations for themselves while at the same time treating them like an individual. In my few interactions with freshmen during the last several days of Fall Connection, I’ve been struck by the degree to which they want to know what they can do to succeed. Yet in many cases, they don’t know the questions that would uncover the information they need.  I suspect that we would all go a long way toward helping students discover those questions, as well as the answers to them, if we intentionally frame our interactions with students to communicate an aspiration to challenge within a cradle of support.  Stated a different way, this means that we specifically instill in students our belief in their ability to succeed even as we exhort them to strive for a high bar.

Deep and meaningful learning is risky.  If your students trust you to be their learning guide, they will work harder than you – or they – thought they could.  And that will substantially increase their – and our – likelihood of success.

Good luck with your first week of the 2013-14 Fall Term.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

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