Look at a list of student success strategies and almost certainly one word will be missing: the F word. Take, for example, EAB’s 2021 Student Success Playbook. You’ll see the following categories for improvement:
- Eliminate registration and financial barriers
- Support students with technology-enabled advising
- Build belonging and academic confidence
- Reduce the number of nonproductive credits
- Enhance the value of the curriculum
What you don’t see, except obliquely, is the faculty’s critical role in retention and completion.
Faculty—through their instructional, policy-making and mentoring responsibilities—matter more to student success than any other individuals on campus. Just ask my colleague and friend David Laude one of this country’s foremost student success experts.
But you wouldn’t know about the importance of faculty from the EAB Student Success Playbook.
The reason that the faculty role in student success is downplayed is, I think, obvious. Faculty members control the curriculum and are responsible for pedagogy, and administrators have only indirect levers to bring about changes in those areas. What administrators can transform are infrastructure, organizational design, professional advising, information collection and messaging, and that’s what EAB’s playbook focuses upon.
Interestingly, an earlier EAB document issued in 2016 did identify six roles for faculty in student success. That paper called on faculty to track student attendance, engagement and performance; flag students at risk of failure; interact meaningfully with students; counsel and intervene with struggling students; and redesign academic barriers to completion. It’s noteworthy, however, that this paper only briefly, and without specifics, mentions enhancing the learning experience.
Note that the EAB information sheet also excludes some other faculty-related barriers to completion: expediting the processing of transfer credit applications, removing pointless prerequisites and major and graduation requirements, and simplifying degree pathways.
Let’s not delude ourselves. Expanding the faculty role in student success won’t be easy. If it were unproblematic, this would have already happened.
In K-12 schools, it’s possible to link teacher salaries to “value-added” measures that purport to quantify individual teachers’ impact on student achievement. That isn’t possible in higher education. Shared governance stands in the way, even though it is conceivable, in theory, to measure student persistence within a particular discipline and student performance in subsequent classes (performance measures that some for-profit colleges actually use).
Departments could, of course, make teaching potential a bigger factor in hiring or take peer teaching evaluation more seriously. But I feel certain that mandating ongoing professional development in pedagogy is a nonstarter.
If faculty are as important to student success as I believe they are, what can institutions do?
- Improve access to relevant information. Few department chairs and virtually no faculty members know much about how their withdrawal and failure rates and grade distributions compare or contrast to other instructors’. Information about grades by gender and ethnicity is also largely invisible, as is the proportion of students in a given course that persist in a major or their performance in more advanced classes. Even less controversial data, for example, involving unmet demand for particular courses, seldom surface. The information exists and should certainly inform departmental decision-making.
- Strengthen faculty-student connections. A key to student success can be spelled out in a single word: relationships. Frequent, positive interactions between students and faculty can significantly enhance student persistence, engagement and performance. To maximize these connections, establish a pool of faculty engagement funds to support co-curricular activities (such as off-campus excursions), underwrite faculty-student lunches and establish faculty-led cohorts and learning communities.
- Incentivize behaviors that enhance student success. Financially reward the faculty members who do an outstanding job of mentoring. Also, make mentoring and faculty engagement in other student success initiatives a factor in promotion.
- Promote innovative kinds of learning experiences. Supplement lecture courses and seminars with learning experiences that are experiential and project-focused. These include scaled research experiences, community engagement and service-learning courses, studio and clinical courses, expanded study abroad opportunities, and participation in maker spaces. Offer financial inducements to those faculty who do create and lead such innovative learning experiences.
- Create a culture of shared responsibility for equity and student success. Make the promotion of equity and student success a team sport. Technology support services can monitor the student use of course websites and engagement with other class resources and report to faculty when their students aren’t logging in. Deans, department chairs and other administrators should inform faculty about classes with unusually high DFW rates or with significance performance and achievement gaps and target assistance to help faculty redesign such classes. Learning centers should work with faculty to provide tutoring and supplemental instruction. It might also be worthwhile for department chairs to launch conversations about how to improve rates of equity and student success, for example, by doing more to identify students at risk of failure.
- Help faculty members grow as educators. Sure, most campuses have a teaching center and instructional technology support. But not enough faculty take advantage of these resources. Therefore, colleges and universities need to be more enterprising. Consider assigning a staff member, a graduate student or a skilled undergraduate to instructors of key gateway classes, who can assist in instructional improvement or in integrating new technologies into the classes. Also, consider awarding stipends to those faculty members who will participate in professional development seminars on or off campus. More than that, offer workshops to help faculty provide the kinds of constructive feedback and support that can enhance student learning.
- Empower faculty to support student success. Campuses need to do more to encourage faculty members to take initiatives that might advance engagement, learning and retention. Provide faculty with the support they need (for example, from instructional designers and educational technologists) to redesign existing courses, create novel learning experiences or develop online resources to enhance student learning. Empower faculty to create learning communities organized around a theme or a career path.
Let me conclude by adding one additional recommendation. It’s at once the easiest and most difficult recommendation to implement.
Our campuses need to do a better job of reminding or convincing faculty members that ultimately they—not administrators, nor professional staff—own responsibility for equitable student success. After all, faculty members are in charge of motivating students. Because the faculty designs and delivers instruction, they are the ones best positioned to monitor student engagement and learning and to most readily reach out to struggling students.
Faculty must accept a big share of the responsibility for whether their students flourish or flag. Faculty members must recognize that it’s not enough to create opportunities for students to learn—though we must certainly do that. Certainly, we can’t make students invest the time, attention and focus that deep learning requires.
But we can make our classrooms environments that are immersive and inclusive. We can architect learning experiences that involve active engagement, inquiry and problem solving. As learning engineers, we can insert formative assessments throughout our courses to monitor student engagement and progress and adapt our teaching accordingly, and we can create tutorials and supplements that can address confusions. Above all, we can provide students with more of the kinds of substantive, constructive feedback that hold out the prospect of improving student performance.
Don’t misread my argument. Faculty members aren’t the only ones responsible for student success. They can’t tackle the bundle of factors, including the financial impediments and life circumstances, that hinder success. Equity and success, after all, are a shared responsibility. But if I had to identify a single variable that is most critical to student motivation, persistence, performance and success, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second. I’d say it’s the faculty.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.