For years, our prevailing view of student retention has been shaped by theories that view student retention through the lens of institutional action and ask what institutions can do to retain their students. Students, however, do not seek to be retained. They seek to persist. The two perspectives, although necessarily related, are not the same. Their interests are different.
While the institution’s interest is to increase the proportion of their students who graduate from the institution, the student’s interest is to complete a degree often without regard to the college or university in which it is earned. When viewed from the students’ perspective, persistence is but one form of motivation. Students have to be persistent in their pursuit of their degrees and be willing to expend the effort to do so even when faced with challenges they sometimes encounter. Without motivation and the effort it engenders, persistence is unlikely -- institutional action aside.
To promote greater degree completion, institutions have to adopt the student perspective and ask not only how they should act to retain their students but also how they should act so that more of their students want to persist to completion. The two questions, while necessarily linked, do not lead to the same sort of conversations about institutional action. The latter, rarely asked, requires institutions to understand how student experiences shape their motivation to persist and, in turn, what they can do to enhance that motivation.
The answer to that question is far from simple. Many experiences shape student motivation to persist, not all of which are within the capacity of institutions to easily influence (e.g., events beyond the campus that pull students away from persistence). But of those that are, three stand out as being central to student motivation: students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging and perceived value of the curriculum.
Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at a particular task or in a specific situation. It is one manifestation of how past experiences shape how individuals come to perceive themselves and their capacity to have some degree of control over their environment. Self-efficacy is learned, not inherited. It is malleable, not fixed. It is not generalizable in that it applies to all tasks and situations but can vary depending on the particular task or situation at hand. A person may feel capable of succeeding at one task but not another.
When it comes to students’ belief in their ability to succeed in college, a strong sense of self-efficacy promotes goal attainment, while a weak sense undermines it. Whereas people with high self-efficacy will engage more readily in a task, expend more effort on it and persist longer in its completion even when they encounter difficulties, persons with low self-efficacy will tend to become discouraged and withdraw when encountering difficulties. Although many students begin college confident in their ability to succeed, more than a few do not, in particular those whose past experiences lead them to question their ability to succeed in college as well as those who experience stereotype threats that label them as less likely to succeed.
But even those who enter college confident in their ability to succeed can encounter challenges that serve to weaken their sense of self-efficacy. That is particularly true during the crucial first year as students seek to adjust to the heightened demands of college. What matters for success in that year, however, is not so much that students enter college believing in their capacity to succeed, as it is that they come to believe they can as the result their early experiences.
Therefore while it is important that institutions challenge existing labels as marking some students as less likely to succeed than others, it is equally important that students are able to obtain the timely support they need to succeed when they encounter early difficulties in meeting the academic, and sometimes social, demands of college. To be effective, such support must occur before student struggles undermine their motivation to persist -- thus the need for institutions to employ early-warning systems that, when properly implemented, alert faculty and staff to struggling students and trigger support when needed. Midterm grades will not do.
Sense of Belonging
While believing one can succeed in college is essential for persistence to completion, it does not in itself ensure it. For that to occur, students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty and staff who value their membership -- that they matter and belong. Thus the term “sense of belonging.” The result is often expressed as a commitment that serves to bind the individual to the group or community even when challenges arise. It is here that engagement with other people on the campus matters. But more important still are students’ perceptions of those engagements and the meaning they derive from them as to their belonging.
Although a sense of belonging can mirror students’ prior experiences, it is most directly shaped by the broader campus climate and their daily interactions with other students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus -- and the messages those interactions convey. Students who perceive themselves as belonging are more likely to persist because it leads not only to enhanced motivation but also a willingness to become involved with others in ways that further promote persistence. In contrast, a student’s sense of not belonging, of being out of place, leads to a withdrawal from contact with others that further undermine motivation to persist.
Here there is much colleges and universities can do. First, they must ensure that all students see the institution as welcoming and supportive -- that the culture is one of inclusion. They can do so by not only speaking to issues of exclusion but also by promoting those forms of activity that require shared academic and social experiences. In the academic realm, that can take the form of cohort programs and learning communities. Within classrooms, it can mean using pedagogies like cooperative and problem-based learning that require students to learn together as equal partners. In the social realm, institutions can take steps to provide for a diversity of social groups and organizations that allow all students to find at least one smaller community of students with whom they share a common bond. However they promote students’ sense of belonging, institutions should address it at the very outset of students’ journey -- indeed as early as orientation. As is the case for self-efficacy, developing a sense of belonging during the first year facilitates other forms of engagement that enhance student development, learning and completion.
Perceived Value of the Curriculum
Students’ perceptions of the value of their studies also influence their motivation to persist. Although what constitutes value is subject to much debate, the underlying issue is clear: students need to perceive the material to be learned is of sufficient quality and relevance to warrant their time and effort. Only then will they be motivated to engage that material in ways that promote learning and, in turn, persistence. Curriculum that is seen as irrelevant or of low quality will often yield the opposite result.
Addressing this issue is challenging if only because student perceptions of the curriculum vary not only among different students but also the differing subjects they are asked to learn. But there are steps institutions can and should take. First, institutions should see to it that students enroll in a field of study appropriate to their needs and interests, that they find the material within those courses sufficiently challenging to warrant their effort and, with academic support, reasonably within their reach to master. Second, they should ensure that the curriculum -- in particular, but not only, in the social sciences and humanities -- is inclusive of the experiences and histories of the students who are asked to study that curriculum. Third, institutions, specifically the faculty, should be explicit in demonstrating how the subjects that students are asked to learn can be applied to meaningful situations in ways that have relevance to issues that concern them. This is particularly important in first-year introductory courses as they serve as gateways to courses that follow. Too often, meaningful connections in those courses are left for students to discover.
One way of making those connections is to use pedagogies, such as problem and project-based learning, that require students to apply the material they are learning to resolve concrete problems or to complete a project that frames the class. Another is through contextualization, where students are asked to learn material within the context of another field, as is the case in developmental education, where basic skills are taught in the context of another area of study. In this and similar cases, students are more likely to want to learn basic skills because it helps them learn a subject in which they are interested. One promotes the learning of the other.
Colleges and universities can also achieve contextualization through the use of learning communities. When properly implemented, students co-register in two or three courses that are linked through an issue, problem or project that provides a unifying theme to the community. Such multiple course linkages can provide not only academic and social support but also promote a form of interdisciplinary learning that is not easily achieved in stand-alone courses. Lest one forget, the goal of persistence is not simply that students complete their degrees, but that they learn in powerful ways while doing so. Education is the goal of our efforts; persistence is only a vehicle for its occurrence.
All this is not to say that students will not persist if they have little sense of belonging or see little value in their studies. Some will if only because of external pressures to do so (e.g., family) or because of the perceived value of obtaining their degree from the institution (e.g., occupation, income and status outcomes). But doing so is a hollow achievement, for it fails to take advantage of the intrinsic benefits of a college education: belonging and learning. At the same time, as Sara Goldrick-Rab has made abundantly clear, many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, who want to persist are unable to do so because they simply can’t afford the full cost of attendance. Many would succeed if only they could find a reasonable way of financing their education.
There is little doubt that many colleges and universities have improved rates of student completion. But they can and should do more. Institutions must expand their conversation about college completion beyond simply how they can retain their students to how they can act in ways that lead all students to want to stay and complete their degrees. Though it is undeniably the case that academic ability matters, student motivation is the key to student persistence and completion. But addressing student motivation requires institutions to do more than simply issue another survey questionnaire. Rather, it necessitates that they understand students’ perceptions of their experience and how events throughout the campus influence their perceptions and shape, in turn, their motivation to persist.
Colleges and universities need to listen to all their students, take seriously their voices and be sensitive to how perceptions of their experiences vary among students of different races, income levels and cultural backgrounds. Only then can they further improve persistence and completion while addressing the continuing inequality in student outcomes that threaten the very fabric of our society.
Vincent Tinto is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University.
The June 23 edition of Inside Higher Ed featured a thoughtful essay by Mike Rose titled “Reassessing a Redesign of Community Colleges.” The essay discusses the guided pathways reform model that we described in our 2015 book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success.
We wrote the book because we perceived that more than a decade of reform in community colleges had failed to improve overall student outcomes. We attributed that failure to the organization and culture of the colleges, which were originally designed to expand student access to higher education rather than promote student completion. Under the typical arrangement, what we called the cafeteria-style approach, students face a sometimes bewildering array of courses, programs and support services without clear guidance on how to navigate them effectively.
The guided pathways model we described provides an organizing framework to pull together several intersecting reforms that affect the student experience. Those reforms encompass not only changes in college and program structure but also changes in pedagogy, advising and student support. The model we outlined is an integrated approach to college redesign aimed squarely at improving student completion and learning.
Rose speaks favorably of the overall model but raises two potential problems. First, faculty resistance may thwart the implementation of guided pathways, and our discussion of how to engage faculty members seems abstract. Second, students arrive at college with many outside challenges and little idea about what they want to do academically, and they will thus inevitably take a variety of different paths through college. Rose rightfully argues that some problems at community college will not be solved by the recommendations presented in the book and that those barriers may prevent the model from living up to its potential -- leading to discouragement and perhaps a backlash.
There is no question that guided pathways reforms will encounter many implementation challenges, and we did not intend to minimize the difficulty. In the book, we suggested that the implementation of guided pathways is at least a five-year process even under favorable circumstances. The structural reforms we recommend need to be coupled with real-world problem solving in the context of each college to overcome the challenges.
In fact, we are devoting the next phase of our research to refining what works and what doesn’t as colleges attempt the reforms. But we have already learned a lot from the field since the book was published. Institutions that seem to be making progress in implementing guided pathways reforms have leaders who have worked for a long time laying the groundwork for change -- any sort of change, not just guided pathways. Even in those institutions, dealing with the political and cultural dynamics that Rose describes is a constant (but necessary) process.
Many of those colleges have taken the first steps by engaging faculty members to examine and rethink their programs in light of what students need to learn to prepare for further education and employment -- in some cases, working with employers and faculty members from four-year colleges in the process. Colleges are bringing together advisers with academic departments to redesign the intake and first-year experiences of students to better help them explore and choose a program of study.
Recent work by Melinda Karp and other Community College Research Center researchers on the implementation of e-advising technologies (which are central to guided pathways) provides insight into the conditions under which colleges can accomplish such “transformational change.” They found that transformative change requires leadership at both the college and initiative levelswith a unified commitment to a shared vision for the reform and its goals. Still, we have far more to learn about how to effectively mobilize faculty and administrators in the implementation of guided pathways.
The Pressures on Students
Rose’s second point concerns the tremendous out-of-school challenges community college students can face that serve to undermine their academic success. As a result of those pressures, many students take convoluted pathways through colleges, stopping out and changing their purposes and goals. Guided pathways are not going to make those outside pressures fade away, but the reform model may indeed have more to offer the students who face such challenges than the smaller number of community college students who are well prepared, know what field they want to pursue and can attend full time and continuously.
First, the guided pathways model places particular importance on helping students explore and choose programs of study and potential careers. To be sure, many will change their minds, and that is fine. As it is, colleges do very little to enable students to explore options in a purposeful way so that they can see what is and what is not a good fit for them. Clarifying program pathways and improving the monitoring of progress for all students (especially by using default maps for program course sequences and tools that allow students to monitor their own progress) will be particularly helpful to part-time students or students who have to stop out.
More coherent pathways may also reduce the time to degree and thereby the probability that life events will derail a student’s college experience. And strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the guided pathways model increases the amount of quality time advisers spend with students, because they use less time scheduling students and more time talking about their plans. Early alert systems and predictive analytics are also being used to identify struggling students who need support but who probably would not have been identified in the past.
Rose certainly offers some important cautions. At the very least, he points to the need to make it clear that implementing guided pathways is a heavy lift that will take several years. In that process, will reformers be able to engage faculty members and administrators to redesign their colleges into coherent programs, and will they be able to help students overcome the difficult barriers they face, both in school and outside of it?
In the months since we published our book, reforms based on the guided pathways model have proliferated. We have identified numerous efforts by colleges in a majority of states to implement guided pathways at scale in their institutions. In almost all of those cases, the colleges are making such reforms without substantial grant funding.
At CCRC, we are now engaged in evaluations of some of those reforms in several states with an explicit goal of analyzing their successes and failures. Thus, over the next several years, we will get a much better sense of the ultimate effectiveness of the model. And we will be able to develop much better answers to the questions concerning implementation that Rose has raised.
Thomas Bailey is the George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and director of the Community College Research Center. Shanna Smith Jaggars is director of student success research for the office of distance education and e-learning at the Ohio State University in Columbus and former assistant director of CCRC. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at CCRC and directs its work on guided pathways.
Submitted by Deba Dutta on October 16, 2015 - 3:00am
Can innovation be taught?
I first asked that question about 15 years ago, as the first wave of entrepreneurship programs at many of the nation’s top research universities got underway. I was directing a program that allowed students to pursue work concurrently in engineering and business administration. It was becoming clear that scientists and engineers could, indeed, be taught to significantly accelerate the process of bringing promising new technologies to market.
But I knew that entrepreneurship and innovation are different, even if related. Both require seeing something that’s not there: ideas and solutions to improve life, new markets and so on. But whereas innovators focus on creation of value, entrepreneurs focus on realization of that value. The path of the entrepreneur is more or less the traditional path of business development: conducting market research, raising capital, developing long-term marketing and business plans, and so on. And college and university courses on entrepreneurship mirror that -- covering subjects such as marketing, finance and the like. In contrast, the creativity, passion and broad vision necessary for successful innovation suggest that the very idea of a “traditional pathway” to teaching innovation may be highly unlikely.
Yet, over the years, I couldn’t help wondering: Could there be an Institute for Innovation alongside the entrepreneurship programs at major research universities? Are there some discernible patterns behind successful innovation that could help educators everywhere develop innovative mind-sets in our students? As President Obama has noted more than once, innovation is the lifeblood of American global leadership, but with the rest of the world catching up to America economically and technologically, more work is needed to maintain that leadership.
I quickly discovered that the literature on innovation was sparse. Moreover, it was missing a crucial component: reflections from innovators themselves. Thus, with support from the National Science Foundation and encouragement from Charles M. Vest, then president of the National Academy of Engineering, I began what became to be the Educate to Innovate research project.
The project was conducted in three stages:
Interviews. We developed questions and conducted extensive interviews with 60 established innovators. They had experience in industry or academe, or both. Some of them are well known -- for example, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Stanford University President John Hennessy and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But most are recognized as innovators within narrower circles, such as Regina Dugan, senior vice president of engineering at Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group and the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency known for innovation.
Workshop. More than 60 leaders from all levels of education (K-12, undergraduate and graduate), as well as industry and government participated in a two-day workshop at the National Academy of Engineering in October 2013. Those leaders discussed the data compiled from the interviews and formulated action items and recommendations.
Broadly speaking, our research reaffirmed my intuition: innovation cannot be taught like math or writing, or even in the current framework of entrepreneurship education. But it can be inculcated by focusing on the interplay of the skills, experiences and environments of successful innovators. More specifically:
Skills. Unsurprisingly, we found that innovators tend to have creativity, curiosity, deep knowledge of a field (invariably more than one), intellectual flexibility and the ability to think outside the box of a defined discipline. But we also found that they are generally risk takers who don’t fear failure (although many emphasized that they don’t like failure). They also are good at selling ideas -- a crucial skill for raising funds and building a team. Innovation is, after all, teamwork.
Experiences. Again, some findings were unsurprising: innovators have strong mentors and role models as students and young employees, and they generally had a lot of unstructured time while growing up. The ones with whom we spoke emphasized gaining industrial or real-world experience that helped them focus on concrete problems and learn how to function effectively as a team member. They also emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations as ways to gain new knowledge and see people and problems from many different angles.
Environments. Environments laid the crucial foundation for the experiences and skills innovators need. The interviewees emphasized office designs that encourage informal discussion and collaboration along with explicit encouragement of innovation. Those in education -- especially at the university level -- described the importance of labs, buildings and centers structured around themes, rather than skills. What was surprising, and reassuring, was how intensely innovators perceived the value of environments -- familial to community to academic -- that place a strong emphasis on education.
The report contains much more: more insights, more stories and a slew of recommendations. But in the end, it is preliminary. We need to conduct more definitive research and take some major steps to incorporate the education of innovation into our existing curriculums. C. Daniel Mote Jr., current president of the National Academy of Engineering, put our work into perspective. “Even if it mostly confirmed our intuitive understanding of innovation, it’s opened the doors to more definitive research, and that can only help our country,” he said.
Now is the time for that research on such topics as how best to translate our study findings into practical and implementable solutions (something that I am keenly interested in). What are criteria and metrics for assessing their effectiveness? The research on understanding innovation itself needs to be advanced. More research is also required to understand how to leverage individual innovation capacity to enhance the innovation capacity of groups and teams; diverse teams are made of, and do well because of, individual differences.
Our interviews also suggest that some people in higher education think that our academic systems must be completely overhauled for us to be able to teach innovation. However, I believe we can, and we must, start within our current systems. We need a two-pronged approach -- one that starts by updating and modifying existing courses and infrastructure, and another top-down one that focuses on systemic changes to the institutional culture, environment and thought processes. For example, emphasizing innovation in all aspects and across all members of the institution, promoting environments and activities to discourage the fear of failure (not the same as encourage failure), and recognizing that our colleges and universities provide transformative experiences, but often outside of the classroom.
For now, we don’t need to delay, wondering how or where to start, or to wait to find success stories. We can get started right away by building on activities that we already do well.
Enhancing experiential learning. Many of those whom we interviewed agreed that the craft of innovation is forged through real-world experience. Colleges and universities are already providing students with such experience through capstone projects, industry internships, global programs and other opportunities. For example, Purdue University, where I serve as provost, has developed Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), an experiential learning program that places students in environments where they are challenged to innovate. The students in the program have developed custom prosthetics for injured people and helped Habitat for Humanity improve the energy efficiency of its structures. Deans and department heads must help enhance, improve and scale up this aspect of our educational programs by purposefully designing educational environments for desired outcomes, including encouraging students to take risks and learn from failures.
Modifying existing courses. Institutions can, and should, look at modifying relevant technical courses. One idea is to incorporate some history of technological innovation in specific courses so that students know about and connect to the innovator. By detailing the lives of scientists through case studies, the innovation process becomes humanized, and students begin to see innovation as possible. In interviews, innovators cautioned against focusing on successes of innovations and emphasized the need to teach stories of failures that often lay the foundation for successful innovation.
An example is the course Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, taught by Donald R. Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Not only does he teach the history of innovation and provide case histories of failure, he places science in its cultural and historical context. As the syllabus states, it is not “‘just a chemistry class’ -- it’s a chemistry-centered class that integrates examples from the world around us, in the arts and humanities, the human stories behind the science, and the applications to engineering and emerging technologies.”
Using guidelines for problem selection. Determining what problems to pursue and articulating compelling ideas is the key to innovation. It is important to teach students how to identify good problems and articulate ideas. That said, the innovators we interviewed reminded us that problem selection, while crucial, is not a straightforward process or an exact science. They recommended exploring at the interfaces of disciplines to identify problems worth pursuing. Most importantly, all interviewees felt that good problems are derived by building off areas that the individual deeply cares about. Thus, one approach might be to develop guidelines or checklists that faculty members, and by extension students, can use for identification of good problems.
Our report contains some guidelines that the innovators have suggested. They include:
Spend a considerable amount of time thinking about and defining the problem.
Identify where a need exists.
Gather input from those the innovation is meant to help.
Follow your instinct, intuition and passion.
Investigate failure and ask yourself, “Is there a path that will lead to success?”
Know when to quit or change direction.
Target areas where there is less activity.
Choose problems based on their impact on humanity.
Innovation has always flourished in the United States, but we must not take it for granted. Our research shows that it is important and feasible to help potential innovators discover their talents and contribute to the nation’s capacity for innovation. With an educational culture that encourages and promotes innovation, America can sustain its technological leadership for generations to come.
Deba Dutta is provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity at Purdue University.