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Why are students more likely to thrive at -- and graduate from -- some colleges than others? That's the central question in Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter, just published by Jossey-Bass.

The four authors of the book provide in-depth examinations of 20 colleges at which students are deeply engaged in learning. The ideas in the book draw on the work of the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Institute for Effective Educational Practice, both of which are part of Indiana University's Center for Postsecondary Research.

The authors of the book are George E. Kuh, director of the center; Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the institute; John H. Schuh, distinguished professor of educational leadership at Iowa State University; and Elizabeth J. Whitt, professor of education at the University of Iowa. Kuh recently answered questions about the book and its findings:

Q: You evaluate colleges based on in-depth analyses. Many prospective students judge colleges on gut impressions. If you were walking around a campus, what signs would you look for that an institution had (or didn't have) engaged students?

A: Yogi Berra was right -- you can observe a lot by just watching, or in this instance by strolling around a campus. But you need to know what to look for. Campuses that take student success seriously know that learning is a 24/7 proposition where what goes on outside classrooms is just as important as what happens inside them. Are there places where students gather together in animated conversation -- dining facilities, outdoor or indoor nooks, at the ends of hallways in classroom buildings, for example? Are students working in groups in unions, libraries, and in other open spaces? These may be clues as to whether active and collaborative learning are encouraged and practiced.  

In contrast, if many students are sitting alone, find out whether such behavior is common and what it may reflect about the campus. In buildings that house academic units, look for examples of publicly displayed student work, such as research papers, capstone projects and portfolios. These displays indicate the college takes student learning seriously by holding up strong student performance as models for others, thereby making celebrities of students who produce good academic work.  

Q:  A number of colleges you focus on have focused missions (women's college, black college, liberal arts tradition, etc.), but you also have large research universities in the group, and many fear that students fall through the cracks at such institutions. What are approaches that are important for large universities?

A: Ironically, some large universities are ahead of many smaller institutions in offering various initiatives that are designed to improve student success. One of the most powerful is the "learning community," which can take different forms. Some are organized around a single course staffed by a faculty member, adviser or student life staff member, and a librarian who use a tag-team approach to teaching, advising and academic support. The University of Texas at El Paso and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis are good examples of this model.

Another noteworthy variant of the learning community is students taking the same two or three classes together and who also live in close proximity and participate in certain out-of-class activities together, such as going to a performing arts event or doing community service. This arrangement encourages students to interact more frequently with people who have similar academic content in common. The University of Michigan offers a rich array of such options for students as do many other large institutions.  

At commuter schools, it’s especially important to consolidate student support services and related offices into a single location, such as the Johnson Center at George Mason University.

It’s also essential to sew into the campus environment redundant safety nets and early warning systems to identify and assist students who are struggling, academically or socially. This requires collaboration between classroom instructors, academic advisers, residence hall staff and others.  

The great challenge to every college or university, no matter their size, is to determine which programs and practices are working for which students, and then to scale them up at the same high level of quality so that large numbers of students are touched in meaningful ways by one or more initiatives. To do this, it probably also means that some existing initiatives must be closed down, something that few institutions seems to be able to do. As a result, almost everyone everywhere is on the verge of overload.

Q: Many faculty members -- even outside research universities -- say that they are judged for tenure and promotion increasingly on research and not on student success. How do faculty reward systems need to change to promote student success?

A: If I knew the quick certain fix to this one, I’d bottle it and issue an IPO! One tack is not to focus so much on changing the system per se but to use the system to leverage faculty interests and productivity in ways that create the conditions that foster student achievement and engagement. Most faculty want to be good teachers so making certain they have access to resources and personnel to improve their teaching is a place to start.  All the schools in the book had their own variant of a vibrant teaching and learning center. At Michigan, staff from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching helped faculty in the College of Engineering learn how to use active and collaborative learning strategies, a shift in pedagogy that was championed by its accrediting agency. Michigan’s reward structure didn’t change, but the way the institution used it to support a shift in faculty behavior was, indeed, important to enhancing student learning and success.  

Another way to better calibrate reward systems so they complement student success is to recruit the right people and then socialize them in ways that are consistent with the institution’s values and educational purposes. This is a long-term strategy and you can see some of the benefits by looking at what California State University at Monterey Bay and University of Maine at Farmington have done in this regard.  

The goal is to achieve an appropriate balance in the context of the institution’s mission, and striving to maintain that balance. The right balance at Michigan and Kansas obviously differs from what works at Evergreen State, Sewanee and Wabash. Macalester is somewhere in between. At the same time, none of these places believe they have struck the perfect balance for all time. Continual fiddling and constant monitoring is needed, as newcomers arrive, administrators change, and we learn more about how to integrate effective educational practices into teaching and research.

Q: What techniques are most successful for promoting the success of minority students?

A: One of the advantages of effective educational practices is that they appear to work relatively well with all students. That is, the more students engage in these activities the more likely they are to persist and benefit in desired ways. I am not advocating a “one size fits all” educational philosophy, but rather that the first step focus on being sure that faculty, staff and students are doing more of the “right” things – creating conditions whereby students participate in these effective practices, such as setting high standards for student performance, providing feedback, and so on.  

With that in mind, creating “safe,” affirming environments for minority students is a key, such as providing centers that celebrate a group’s cultural heritage. Another key is clearly marking the pathways to success for students who do not have tacit understandings about “how colleges work” or who know how to navigate their way through college. In some settings, this may mean requiring students to meet with advisers several times in the early weeks of college and periodically thereafter.  The University of Kansas developed a “Graduate in Four” advising notebook that guides students through the process.

Summer bridge programs -- when done well -- are especially effective in helping students make the transition and learning how to use the institution’s resources for learning. There are, of course, many other things that success-oriented colleges and universities do, such as providing special support services. As with all other initiatives, simply making programs available is not enough. They must be high quality and reach the students who can benefit from them.  

Q: Students these days are quite wired, carrying their laptops, communicating via IM and blogs, etc. How does that affect the campus environment? Are there ways to use technology to promote the ideals in your book?

A: Happily, so far most of the studies including my own show that using electronic technology has generally positive benefits or have otherwise benign effects. Students who use e-mail, for example, to contact faculty are also just as likely as others to have face-to-face contact with faculty members outside the classroom. So in that instance technology adds value, in that it increases the frequency of different kinds of interaction.

We devote several sections in the book to how these different institutions were using technology to educationally purposeful ends. For example, in addition to using technology in classrooms such as Blackboard and WebCT, we were impressed with the ways technology changed the nature of student-faculty relations by putting students in the role of instructor or consultant to faculty. For example, George Mason’s Technology Assistants Program (TAP) trains undergraduates to assist faculty, departments and instructional units with computer technologies. TAP participants receive academic credit and obtain hands-on work experience. TAP students might begin as a front desk worker, a role in which they serve as the first line of contact for clients of the center. Depending on their goals and interests, they might move into a student mentor position in which they work one-on-one with students on projects, teach workshops, and help design instructional materials for training and mentoring.

At Longwood University, student technology assistants coach faculty on using computer technologies, which can lead to informal interaction and opportunities for students to improve their speaking and teaching skills. Resident technology associates and assistants (RTAs) who live in the halls provide one-on-one support for their peers and also teach computer classes. Sewanee also employs student “residential computer assistants” to manage technology integration and perform technology troubleshooting and support in the residence halls.  So there are a variety of ways technology can be used both to enrich learning of different groups while providing opportunities for undergraduates to gain experience teaching others, which is one of the more powerful ways to learn a variety of transferable skills.

At the same time, too much of anything can become deleterious. This will surely be true for technology as well. For example, IM during a lecture could be an effective way of staying alert and reflecting on the material, if the exchanges are focused on course topics. It’s obviously a distraction when the messages move into unrelated territory. Blogging means more time spent writing, but the forms of expression could reinforce bad habits, poor grammar and the like. The major downside of increased reliance on personal devices is when they substitute for meaningful face-to-face interaction without which the current generation may underdevelop some important human relations skills. It’s something we need to monitor and -- if possible -- ameliorate the potential unwanted side effects.

Q: How do you think community colleges and for-profit colleges compare to the institutions in your book? Should they be looking at similar strategies?

A: Every universe of organizations -- churches, automotive assembly lines, information technology firms, government agencies, elementary schools, and colleges and universities -- every type of organization has some strong performers that stand out from the rest of the pack. Studies show this is true of community colleges and it is likely also the case for for-profit colleges though I know of no empirical verification of the latter.

As we say in the preface to the book, our sense is that most of the policies and practices we describe, especially the six overarching conditions, have analogues in and are adaptable to community colleges. For example, being mission-focused, connecting to the local community in educationally purposeful ways, and cultivating an improvement-oriented ethos are as important in the community college and for-profit contexts as they are to student success in four-year colleges and universities. That said, there are some practices, such as study abroad or capstone seminars, that don’t fit the community college mission.

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