What 2020 Taught Us

Twenty things I learned in 2020.

January 5, 2021

Last year was a bolt from the blue. It revealed that colleges and universities are far more adaptable than many of us had thought. When the chips were down, higher education shifted on a dime, emptying campuses and switching to remote learning within a couple of weeks.

Faculty also demonstrated a commitment to student well-being and to quality teaching that higher ed’s critics had previously deemed lacking.

In addition, 2020 taught us a great deal about the keys to student success, insights that we ought to apply in 2021 and thereafter.

Here are 20 lessons of student success that I learned in 2020.

Lesson 1: Given the number of nontraditional and first-generation college students, it’s more important than ever to make the path to graduation crystal clear.

From day one, make sure every student has a degree map.

Lesson 2: Help every student develop a sense of belonging.

Students who feel connected to faculty, classmates and the campus are the most likely to persist. Conversely, those who feel disconnected are especially likely to drop out or transfer.

  • Consider placing students in a cohort program or an interest group or a first-year seminar or research experience. More than learning experiences, these are also bonding opportunities.
  • Give at-risk students chances to work with a faculty or staff mentor.
  • Create opportunities for students to mingle with faculty and fellow students.

Lesson 3: Figure out how to make quality advising available at scale.

Advising consistently ranks at or near the top of every list of student success initiatives. But since institutions never have enough professional advisers, campuses need to be creative.

  • Create an easy-to-use online FAQ page.
  • Offer students convenient self-service tools.
  • Embed key advising elements into designated first-year classes, including training in academic success skills and time management, degree mapping, and major selection.
  • Supplement professional advisers with peer mentors.

Lesson 4: Take the pain out of course selection for first-year students.

  • Consider enrolling first year students into a meta-major or learning community or interest group.
  • Don’t let students get closed out of gateway courses.

Lesson 5: Empower advisers with actionable data.

Use data -- including students’ high school record, their level of engagement, including LMS activity, grades (especially in the students’ major), credit momentum, deviations from degree plans and shifts in majors -- to pinpoint students who are at risk of dropping out or failing.

Lesson 6: Be on the lookout for early warning signs of trouble.

Students who perform poorly during their first semester or who delay course registration or declaring a major are almost certainly at risk of nonpersistence.

Lesson 7: Recognize that advising and student support need not be delivered in person to be effective.

For many students, online sessions are not only more convenient but also less anxiety-inducing.

Lesson 8: Don’t ignore the low-hanging fruit.

Students who are near completion especially deserve your attention. Make sure they get across the finish line in as timely a manner as possible even if that requires addressing missed requirements or unpaid fees.

Lesson 9: Recognize that poor academic performance is not the primary reason students fail to persist.

Personal finances and life issues are among the top reasons students depart, but often these challenges can be addressed if the institution reaches out to the student in a timely manner.

Lesson 10: Reach out proactively when students are at risk or off track or credit momentum flags.

Be sure to personalize your message, and, if possible, persuade the student’s professor send the message.

Lesson 11: Encourage students with 12 credits a semester or less to take an additional course and to take advantage of intersession and summer classes.

Students who carry more credits are more likely to persist and complete their degrees in a timely manner.

Lesson 12: Embed career preparation across the undergraduate experience.

Most students say that their primary reason for going to college is to prepare for a career.

  • Encourage faculty to open windows into careers in their courses.
  • Offer career preparation workshops.
  • Consider offering workshops where students can acquire skills in high demand among employers.

Lesson 13: Identify and address roadblock courses.

Identify courses with high DFW rates and achievement gaps and variance in grading across sections of particular courses, then diagnose and correct the problem.

Lesson 14: Integrate academic support into high-DFW courses.

Incorporate supplemental instruction sections and peer-led study groups into high-DFW courses.

Lesson 15: Enlist faculty as partners in student success.

  • Encourage faculty to stress their courses’ relevance and the value of the skills and knowledge that the classes convey.
  • Ask faculty to assist in identifying students who should receive early alerts.

Lesson 16: Subject all campus and departmental policies and practices to an equity and student success audit.

Ask yourself: Are the prerequisite courses necessary? Are the degree requirements too complex and confusing? Are the courses that students need to complete the degree readily available?

Lesson 17: Make sure faculty are familiar with key insights from the science of learning.

Faculty benefit greatly from an understanding of how students learn. This requires a basic understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, attention and focus, short- and long-term memory, and cognitive load. It also demands familiarity with key principles of cognition: that it is better to space out learning of key concepts and skills over longer periods of time than to concentrate it all at once, and to quiz students frequently rather than administer a small number of high-stakes tests. The learning sciences also stress the importance of mind-set, scaffolding instruction -- carefully sequencing learning activities to build students’ confidence and knowledge as they develop new skills -- and metacognition, teaching students how to monitor and self-assess their grasp of particular conceptions and their command of essential skills and competencies.

Lesson 18: Familiarize faculty with the principles of backward design.

Every course and every class session should have clearly defined learning objectives and activities and assessments aligned with those objectives.

Lesson 19: Encourage faculty to integrate active learning into their classes.

Inquiry, problem solving, role playing, debate, simulations and analysis of case studies help nurture students’ higher-order thinking skills, including their ability to critically analyze, apply and synthesize knowledge.

Lesson 20: Promote universal design principles and frequent formative assessments as ways to enhance student learning.

Universal design seeks to make a course accessible to all students, whether or not they have a documented disability, while frequent formative assessments allow faculty to monitor student progress, identify areas of ignorance or confusion, and modify their instruction and intervene when appropriate.

If we are truly committed to equity, we need to bring many more students to success. It is a moral outrage that roughly 40 percent of full-time students at four-year institutions fail to graduate in six years. The consequences in debt, disappointment and thwarted dreams are a disgrace and an affront to our self-image as caring and responsive educators.

We can certainly do better, and the first steps are to embrace the lessons listed above.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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