A symposium on student success kicked off Wednesday with a sobering message from the keynote speaker: “It’s clear that students in our universities are making progress, but only modest progress, ” said Derek C. Bok, interim president at Harvard University and the author of six books on higher education.
“Our current practices are out of step with our values as faculty members,” Bok said. “We want to provide the best undergraduate educational experience possible and that is not what is happening.”
Bok concluded his message with a note of optimism, however, arguing that institutions can improve undergraduate education by reforming curricula in Ph.D. programs to offer substantially more training in teaching skills, engaging in a continuous process of self-scrutiny and improvement, and intensifying assessment efforts, in which colleges identify their priorities and solicit faculty input for the development of testing systems appropriate to individual institutional missions.
“My impression is that we are not making a systematic effort to improve,” Bok said. “We have to earn the right to generate reforms ourselves.”
Bok’s speech set the tone for the first day of The National Symposium on Postsecondary Student Success , sponsored by the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative , a partnership of institutions, associations and government agencies. The symposium was first conceived three years ago, said Edward O. Blews Jr., chair of the executive committee for the cooperative, and it attracted more than 400 participants, including politicians, administrators, professors and graduate students
The symposium is occurring amid an atmosphere of increased outside scrutiny and demands for accountability, the event coming just over a month after the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education  released a report that, among other things, calls for colleges to develop measures  to provide a better picture of student learning.
Top scholars in higher education administration shared their inquiries into the topic of student success in five papers commissioned for the symposium and presented during a panel discussion Wednesday. Researchers said that their reports should be viewed as a starting point for the dialogue surrounding the symposium.
Among the common themes found in the five reports:
- Specific on-campus factors important for college success include high expectations; coherence of curriculum; integration of experiences, knowledge and skills; opportunities for active learning; assessment and frequent feedback; collaborative learning opportunities; time on task; respect for diversity; frequent contact with faculty; emphasis on the first-year student experience and the development of connections between classroom work and outside learning opportunities.
- Coordination of policies across departments on an institutional level, and across the college and K-12 divide on a societal level, will help facilitate student success.
- Classroom and teaching faculty play the most direct role in influencing student success.
- Governmental institutions and colleges should engage in continuous information gathering, and policymakers and institutions should support research and theory development targeted at student success.
The researchers argued for a need to go beyond graduation and retention rates in measuring student success, and to focus more broadly on a more varied set of characteristics. For instance, George D. Kuh, director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, which administers the National Survey of Student Engagement, identified an array of indicators of student success including academic achievement, engagement in educationally purposeful activities, student satisfaction, acquisition of desired knowledge, skills and outcomes, persistence, attainment of educational objectives and post-college performance. “Students who connect with someone or something are more likely to persist,” Kuh said, arguing that institutions should encourage students to live on campus and make the classroom a social network.
The focus on making the classroom a center for these efforts received a lot of attention from researchers concerned about reaching commuting and working students. “For some students, the classroom may be the only place to reach them,” said Vincent Tinto, a professor and chair of the Higher Education Program at Syracuse University. “Success, however defined, must arise from success in one classroom at a time. For many underserved students, they concentrate on finishing one course, then another, then another.”
But Laura I. Rendón, a professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Iowa State University, challenged the panel of researchers. “It’s one thing to say we need to change what’s going on in the classroom and another thing to look at what we’re doing in the classroom, particularly for underserved students,” Rendón said in an interview following the panel discussion.
“Why isn’t the research talking about breaking down the assumptions about these students -- that some faculty come in assuming essentially that these students can’t learn?” Rendon asked the panel. “How do we break down these power structures in the classroom?”
“Amen” was all that the panel had to say in response – signaling more work to be done.
“Will all due respect to my colleagues, one might argue that we already have sufficient research on student success,” Tinto said. “What is missing in our view is the ability to transform the knowledge that we have into practical knowledge.”
The symposium continues through tomorrow in Washington.