• College Ready Writing

    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Working with Non-Traditional Students

How much of a role do I play in my students' success?

February 16, 2012

You would think from my two posts from this week that I am heartless and unfeeling when it comes to my students and the challenges they face to achieve college success. And while my own background is fairly “traditional” and privileged (middle-class, white, although neither of my parents were college-educated), I have taught exclusively at institutions that serve non-traditional student populations (HBCU, Hispanic-Serving Institution, and now rural). I chose to work at these institutions (or, rather, they seem to have chosen me) when I was a PhD student at a prestigious R1 institution in Canada, where the best and the brightest flocked to get their undergraduate (and graduate) degrees. My favorite and most meaningful experiences came from helping those students who self-identified as non-traditional (largely Native and mature students) succeed.

I have taught successful students whose formative education was from Residential Schools in Western Canada; have had a history of mental health issues, abuse, and drug addiction; escaped or resisted violent gangs; are single parents, sometimes leaving their child behind to come to school; have been homeless; struggle with severe learning disabilities; are actively discouraged from attending university by their families; speak English as a second or third language; or passed through school with no real education or knowledge being passed along to them.

And I have taught as many or perhaps more students from those same circumstances who have failed.

Many people have taken issue with Academically Adrift, as well as Kevin Carey’s recent thoughts about the book. But I want to zero in on one particular comment Carey makes about higher education in the United States today:

Last month the authors released new results that should only add to our national worries about higher education. While press coverage of Academically Adrift focused mostly on learning among typical students, the data actually show two distinct populations of undergraduates. Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.

Other students graduate from mediocre or bad high schools and enroll in less-selective colleges that don't challenge them academically. They learn little. Some graduate anyway, if they're able to manage the bureaucratic necessities of earning a degree.

The central problem in American higher education today is that most of the people running things in politics, business, and academe come from the first group, but most of the actual students enrolled in college are in the second group. The former cannot see the latter, because they are blinded by their own experience. And so they think the problems of the many don't exist.

It’s so easy to set up student learning outcomes in courses like Freshman Writing, but your ability to meet those outcomes depends on where your students start from. My husband’s cousin recently emailed me a paper of his for his Freshman Writing class with a request to give him some positive feedback; he was worried that he was taking too much of an ideological risk in his paper. He attends a prestigious R1 institution, is highly motivated (hence having his paper done ahead of time and finding someone he knew with knowledge/experience to take a look at it), and has the love and support of his friends and family when it comes to his educational endeavors. This isn’t to say that his life is all gumdrops and rainbows, but he is not only an intelligent person but a good student insofar as he takes his education seriously.

The paper made my heart hurt. It was beautifully written, well-argued, perfectly cited, and (save for a few typos and fragments) technically perfect. While I couldn’t speak for his professor’s openness to unorthodox ideas (and, really, they weren’t that radical, but for an undergraduate, I remember that coming up with an observation that you didn’t hear/read somewhere else constitutes breaking ground), but I thought he had made his point, provided ample evidence and justification, and, if I received this paper in one of my classes, it would receive an A.

And, I also know he’s be bored to tears in any of my Freshman Writing classes.

Now I realize, having taught as a PhD student at an R1 institution that my husband’s cousin is an exception, not the rule (my behavior as an undergraduate is probably more accurate a picture of a typical student), but generally the students are better prepared to handle college-level work and expectations. They have already mastered the “soft skills” of college success: time-management, study skills, resourcefulness in an academic setting, etc. Or, they’re smart enough to overcome those deficiencies through sheer intellect.

Every semester I find myself having to lower my sights as to where we need to start from when it comes to Freshman Writing. I’m all for meeting them where they are, but, to go back to the question I asked on Monday, how much can we be expected to do in 15 weeks? Is one of the reasons why so few students show any growth in their critical thinking skills after the first two years of college because so much time is spent developing other skills necessary to then move towards activities that stimulate critical thinking? For non-traditional students, is two years the amount of time it takes to “get the hang of” college?

Any student I have taught from a non-traditional background has succeeded because they were willing to put the time in either with me or with someone else (often both) to work on their deficiencies and learn how to be a good student and practice with the goal of becoming a better writer. We also know however that instructors who primarily teach these kinds of students at community colleges and regional state institutions have higher teaching loads, higher course sizes, and often, are off the tenure-track so have little job security. One year, I taught a 5-4 load of writing-intensive courses that was capped at 30 students a class (you read that right). During one semester, I was responsible for 150 students. Each and every one of them would be considered non-traditional.

But it isn’t just the sheer number of them that I teach every semester that’s daunting. I not only can’t help them if they won’t help themselves, but I can’t help them pay rent, take care of sick kids or parents, buy groceries, help them pass math, keep them from getting evicted, or make up for a total lack of external support. I understand that life gets in the way, but I can’t just pass students who can’t/won’t/haven’t written essays that would allow them to be successful in their other classes, let alone meet the bare minimum student learning outcomes.

There is only so much I can do. So much of this is outside of my control, outside even of the university’s control. I know the problem of the many exist. I don’t know what more I can do.



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