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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What professors can do to boost student success

Dear Professor,

If you are at all like me, you have been living a mostly placid life as a professor. You do your research and sit on committees. Like most of your colleagues, you regard yourself as an above-average teacher, and you get okay student ratings.

The only time you are pay attention to policy making by the powers-that-be is if the campus budget gets cut. If I were to ask you what percentage of your university’s undergraduates receive their bachelor’s degree, you are likely to draw a blank. When I tell you that, nationwide, only three out of five students —only half the students at public universities—earn a diploma in six years, you may be surprised. If you teach at a community college, the situation is even worse. Fewer than four in ten students get an associate degree or transfer to a four-year school in six years.

You may not be startled to learn that the graduation rate is lower for minority and first-generation undergraduates as well as those who receive Pell Grants, which go to college students from poor families. But the yawning opportunity gap—64 percent of white students versus 40 percent for black students earn a bachelor’s degree—should grab your attention.

Should you be typical of our breed, your initial reaction is to duck the issue: “While this is an unhappy situation, it is not my problem. If the graduation rate is going to improve, we need better students. It is up to the president and his minions to make that happen. I’m just a bystander.”

But the graduation rate at universities with similar student profiles varies by as much as 20 percent. And at universities with similar graduation rates overall, the opportunity gap varies tremendously. At some schools, white students are three times more likely to graduate than poor, minority and first-generation students. At others, these “new gen” students more likely to graduate than the overall student body.

I hope that’s a wakeup call.

There is a lot you can do to change the situation.

Let’s focus on how you teach introductory courses. Nationwide, as many as a third of students flunk those big classes. They must retake them, which slows their progress to a degree. Disheartened, they may conclude that they don’t belong in college, and they leave without ever meeting a professor or a counselor. The biggest barrier to graduation is the algebra course required by many universities—almost half of all students fail.

What can you do? For starters, even if your class numbers in the hundreds, stop teaching your course as a series of lectures, with you as the sage on the stage. Take a leaf from Georgia State, among other schools, and switch to “flipped” classes, where students watch your lectures and do the reading on their own time, they are quizzed during the class, to see what they have absorbed, and they are assigned in-class group projects.

When math laboratories replace the traditional lecture course, a strategy pioneered at Virginia Tech, or when a college replaces Algebra with the combined remedial math-statistics course devised by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the passing rate soars. Students are also more motivated to take advanced courses in the field.

How freshmen fare during the first semester significantly affects whether they’ll drop out. As the individual they see two or three times a week, you play a pivotal role in determining their fate. Instead of waiting until final grades are in to discover who hasn’t mastered the material, you need to pay attention to students’ performance on their first exam.  Why not email students who do badly, urging them to come to office hours, and if they don’t show up, ask the academic advisers to dragoon them.

At the first sign of failure, many students disappear into their shells. Nurturing a sense of belonging provides an antidote to such despair. So is helping them develop what Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” as Long Beach State professors like Kris Slowinski are doing. Explaining to students that they shouldn’t give up if they don’t solve a problem immediately and encouraging them to seek help from professors and classmates when they are stumped can make a world of difference.

Professors believe in making decisions based on evidence, and there’s solid data from social psychology that backs up these ideas.

When I asked Stanford professor Geoff Cohen, a leader in the field, where these ideas come from he said: “We stole them from good teachers.” Though none of these techniques is brain-surgery tough, I don’t want to underestimate how hard it is to reinvent the way you teach. It is easier to put a new pedagogy into practice if you have colleagues to work with or you can get help from knowledgeable practitioners. Still, if you’re truly committed to your students, you should give some of these ideas a shot.

Redesign the classroom and you are likely to see a dramatic improvement in students’ performance. At the University of Texas, most of the freshmen in David Laude’s introductory chemistry class earned A’s, not because he dumbed down his course—they took the same final as students in other chemistry sections, who fared far worse—but because he smartened up as a teacher. He became their coach, not their judge. I’ll bet that if you change your classroom habits your students will respond. Although they may not do as well as those in David Laude’s class, for he’s a remarkably gifted teacher, their grades will improve and so will their enthusiasm.

If you have implemented some of these changes, you may become like Slowinsky, trying to persuade your fellow professors, many of whom will be skeptics, that they ought to try them out. It’s a godsend to have a president like Jane Conoley at Long Beach State, who has made “growth mindset” a campus priority, but of course you cannot count on that kind of leadership. You can speak out, though, nudging your chair to encourage faculty to learn about pedagogical innovations like the flipped classroom and the math lab. Show, don’t tell—invite professors and administrators to your classroom; develop a weekend mini-course for faculty on belonging or mindset.

If you are a campus politician by inclination, you can press your case with higher-ups. You can become a department chair, like Slowinski, or the campus graduation czar, like David Laude.

Most of you will decide that your appetite for change is bounded by your classroom—that reinventing the courses you teach is a sufficient challenge. Fair enough—you can rest assured that your students will be the beneficiaries.

{Image: Pixabay}

Recent Comments

  1. Isobel

    Just a thought / observation from the world of a serial student dropout- in my family At least three of us have been serial dropouts, but not because of lack of intelligence, or lack of interest or commitment, but more because of being overwhelmed by the urge to learn more, research further, and unable to pull together final papers for submission in an endless pursuit of ‘perfection’. In very recent years one of us has been diagnosed as autistic and another as adhd. Myself at 69 can now see these two neurodiverse charateristics in myself. Anxiety is another factor (& that only gets worse with failure upon failure (& student debt upon student debt). Can universities be more proactive in identifying and supporting students with these issues? We probably don’t show up in the crowd because shame makes one want to be invisible. It is an exhausting way to live and not fulfilling and sadly limits the greater contribution we could be making to the community at large

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