Two Roads to Student Success

Which path will you follow?

February 22, 2016

Why do over than forty percent of students at four-year institutions fail to graduate?

Is it because these students are not “college material”? Aren’t college ready? Work too much and study too little? Are distracted and unmotivated?

Or might it be that the learning experience itself is at fault?

A growing body of evidence suggests that the primary problem lies in the learning experience. The educational experience needs a clearer value proposition; the instruction needs to be more immersive and engaging; the pathway to a credential more streamlined and synergistic; the support structures more robust and proactive.

At many institutions, student success strategies focus first and foremost on ensuring that students are college ready and socially connected. Summer bridge programs, mandatory freshman and transfer student orientations, study skills courses, and learning communities are intended to ensure that the students develop the mindsets and skills necessary for success in college and feel integrated into a broader community of learners.

These are certainly worthy initiatives, but they have only moved the needle on student success incrementally.

An alternate approach reworks the educational experience itself. This latter strategy rests on the assumption that the primary problems lie in curricula, pedagogies, support structures, and schedules and delivery modes that fail to adequately meet the needs of the new student majority: First-generation college students, students who swirl among multiple institutions and work experiences, commuter students, and students who work full-time and who serve as family caregivers.

Many of these students seek a degree with an optimized pathway to a rewarding, high demand career. Nor can these students wait four to six years for their education to vest. They need to earn credentials as they advance, and these badges, certificates, and specializations must possess genuine value outside the university. Meanwhile, many non-traditional students need to receive academic credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside the classroom, for example, in the military.

Competency-Based Education (CBE) represents one way to reimagine the educational experience. There is much to like about an approach that is career-oriented and emphasizes learning outcomes rather than seat time.

But most CBE programs target a particular demographic profile -- working adults and degree completers; focus on a narrow range of vocations; and deliver a program of self-study in a wholly online format that doesn’t work for many students, especially traditionally aged undergraduates.

Equally problematic is the fact that in many CBE programs the learning objectives and outcomes haven’t been vetted by professional associations and other standard-setters, nor have the assessments been independently validated.  In the absence of widely accepted standards of mastery, it’s not clear why industry or others should accept the validity of the credential.

What, then, is the alternative?

Rather than simply disaggregating existing courses and calling the sub-units competencies, we need to start from scratch. For each program, we need to create a detailed knowledge map and competency scaffold that consists of hundreds of competencies, sub-competencies, and enabling objectives defined in conjunction with subject matter experts, professional associations, and industry. It would be best if consortias (of universities, systems, and professional standard-setters) could agree on these grids and on rigorous, reliable ways of assessing the attainment of essential proficiencies.

Then, too, it makes sense to ensure that all components of the curriculum interconnect. Courses in the arts and humanities should be coordinated with those in mathematics and the natural and social sciences. The B.S. in Biomedical Sciences curriculum at UT Rio Grande Valley includes courses in the medical humanities, narrative medicine, the history of medicine and disease, health informatics, and health care policy as part of a holistic process of professional identity formation.

It is also advisable to place greater strength on a more immersive educational experience involving hands-on learning, including problem solving, and project-, case-, and team-based learning.

If we want to make quality higher education more accessible and successful, especially for a growing number of non-traditional students, we need more programs that:

  • Support acceleration
  • Award credit for prior learning
  • Confer micro-credentials with value in the job market during the course of the undergraduate experience
  • Effectively serve students who move in and out of various academic institutions and jobs
  • Offer schedules and delivery modes that better fit into the students’ complex lives
  • Provide proactive student support structures

If we want to make education more affordable costs must be clearly defined, curricula optimized, opportunities for scaling seized, and time to degree shortened through a more seamless, coordinated pathways.

Let’s wholeheartedly embrace higher education’s discovery, invention, and research mission by designing curricula that draw more heavily upon the science of learning, and, in turn, making teaching and learning the objects of rigorous and sustained research.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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