Essay: Focus student success efforts on what happens in the classroom

Over the past 20 years, if not more, colleges and universities, states and private foundations have invested considerable resources in the development and implementation of a range of programs to increase college completion. Though several of these have achieved some degree of success, most have not made a significant impact on college completion rates.

This is the case because most efforts to improve college completion, such as learning centers and first-year seminars, sit at the margins of the classroom and do not substantially improve students' classroom experience. Lest we forget, many students, certainly those in community college, commute to college and work and/or attend part-time. For them, if not for most students, the classroom is one, and perhaps the only, place where they meet with faculty and other students and engage in learning activities. Their success in college is built upon classroom success, one class and one course at a time. If our efforts do not reach into the classroom and enhance student classroom success, they are unlikely to substantially impact college success.

How then should colleges proceed? First and foremost they must direct their actions to the classroom, especially for those in the first year, and construct classrooms whose attributes are such as to enhance the likelihood that students will succeed academically.

Attributes of Effective Classrooms

What are the attributes of such classrooms? Generally speaking, they can be described by the terms expectations, support, assessment and feedback, and involvement. Unlike the attributes of students, these are within the grasp of institutions to modify if they are serious about enhancing student success.


Student classroom performance is driven, in part, by the expectations that faculty have for their students and that students have for themselves. Student success is directly influenced not only by the clarity and consistency of expectations, but also by their level. High expectations are a condition for student success; low expectations a harbinger of failure. Simply put, no one rises to low expectations. A faculty member’s expectations are communicated to students, sometimes implicitly, through syllabuses, assignments, grading metrics, course management sites, and conversations. Students quickly pick up what is expected of them in the classroom and adjust their behaviors accordingly. In this regard it is telling that evidence from the National Survey of Student Engagement indicate that the expectations of beginning college students for the amount of work required for classroom success declines over the course of the first year. 


It is one thing to hold high expectations; it is another to provide the support students need to achieve them. At no time is support, in particular academic support, more important than during the critical first year of college when student success is still so much in question and still malleable to institutional intervention. A key feature of such support is its being aligned or contextualized to the demands of the classroom, thereby enabling students to more easily translate the support they receive into success in the classroom. As applied to basic skills for instance contextualization creates explicit connections between the teaching of reading, writing, or mathematics on one hand and instruction in a subject area on the other, as might occur when writing skills are taught with direct reference to material taught in a sociology class.

Assessment and Feedback

Students are more likely to succeed in classrooms that assess their performance and provide frequent feedback about their performance in ways that enable everyone -- students, faculty, and staff -- to adjust their behaviors to better promote student success in the classroom. Classroom assessment of student performance is particular effective when it is early and is used to trigger to provision of academic support to those whose performance indicates the need for support. This is especially true during the first year when students are trying to adjust their behaviors to the new academic and social demands of college life. 


A fourth, and perhaps the most important, attribute of effective classrooms is involvement, or what is now commonly referred to as engagement. Simply put, the more students are academically and socially engaged with faculty, staff, and peers, especially in classroom activities, the more likely they are to succeed in the classroom. Such engagements lead not only to social affiliations and the social and emotional support they provide, but also to greater involvement in learning activities and the learning they produce. Both lead to success in the classroom. As with assessment and feedback, involvement is particularly important early in the semester, as it helps to establish a pattern of student behaviors that further enhances student effort throughout the semester.

Efforts to Enhance Classroom Effectiveness

Though they are still limited in scope, there are now a number of efforts to reshape the classroom by altering the way academic support is provided, improving the usability of assessment and feedback techniques, and restructuring patterns of student engagement in the curriculum and classroom. Several of these deserve special attention, not only because of evidence that supports their effectiveness, but also because of their capacity to reshape the nature of classroom learning, and in turn enhance classroom success -- in particular, but not only, for those who enter college academically underprepared.

Contextualized Academic Support

Contextualized support can be achieved in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most common is that where study groups are directly connected to a specific course, as they are in supplemental instruction.

In this case, leaders of the study groups work closely with the course instructor to ensure that the work of the group is closely aligned to the demands of the course. The result is that courses to which such groups are linked typically have higher average grades, if only because there are many fewer low grades. For some students who are just below college-level work, accelerated learning programs that link a college-level course to a study or basic skills course yield similar results.

These programs, such as the one at the Community College of Baltimore County, challenge the conventional assumption that basic skill instruction should precede the beginning of college-level work.

For other students who require additional academic skills, learning communities, such as those at the City University of New York's LaGuardia Community College, are being used to connect one or more basic skills or developmental courses, such as writing, to other content courses, such as history, in which the students are also registered. In other cases, they may include a student success or counseling course. In this and other ways, learning communities provide a structure that enables the institution to align its academic and social support for basic skills students in ways that allow students to obtain needed support, acquire basic skills, and learn content at the same time.

Contextualization can also occur through the integration of academic support within the classroom. The Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges developed the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) initiative that enables students in technical and vocational courses to get academic support from basic skills instructors while earning credit toward a certificate or degree. This is achieved through the collaboration of basic skills instructors and faculty who jointly design and teach college-level technical and vocational courses. As a result, students learn basic skills and program content at the same time from a team of faculty. The result is that I-Best students fare better on a variety of outcomes (e.g., credits earned, completion of workforce training) when compared with traditional students at the same proficiency level.   

Automating Classroom Assessment, Feedback, and Early Warning

There are a variety of assessment techniques that can be used to assess student learning and trigger academic intervention when necessary. Classroom assessment techniques like the “one-minute” paper and the “muddiest point” described by Angelo and Cross have been in practice for decades. So are early warning systems that employ information on student performance to trigger intervention.

What is new is the availability of technologies that allow faculty to easily capture and analyze more and different data in ways that can provide a clearer view into student learning and automate previously time-consuming tasks whose effort often stymied efforts at wide adoption. The Signals project at Purdue University, for instance, employs predictive modeling and data mining of student performance on mini-exams and patterns of utilization of course materials on a web-based platform to identify students who are “at risk” of doing poorly in a course. Once these students are identified, the system sends alerts to faculty and then emails the students urging them to seek help via available resources such as office hours, study materials, and various academic support services. Though employed throughout the university, it has proven most effective for students in their first two years of coursework.

Promoting Classroom Engagement

Faculty are moving not only to change the manner in which students experience the curriculum, as they do in learning communities, but also the way they experience learning. They do so by employing pedagogies of engagement, such as cooperative learning and problem or project-based learning, that require students to work together in some form of collaborative groups and become active, indeed responsible, for the learning of the group and classroom peers. In this way, students share not only the experience of the curriculum, but also of learning within the curriculum.

By asking students to construct knowledge together, as they do at the University of Delaware and North Essex Community College, such pedagogies involve students both socially and intellectually in ways that promote cognitive and social development as well as an appreciation for the many ways in which one's own knowing is enhanced when other voices are part of that learning experience. As importantly, they enhance student effort and the heightened learning that follows.

Building Effective Classrooms: Enhancing Faculty Skills 

These strategies, especially those that employ pedagogies of engagement to enhance student classroom success, ultimately depend on the skills of the faculty to effectively implement them in class. Yet the faculty who teach those classes, unlike those who teach in primary and secondary schools, are often not trained to teach their students. This is not to say that there are not many talented college faculty who bring considerable skills to the task of teaching students. There are. Rather college faculty are not, generally speaking, trained in pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment in ways that would enable them to be more effective in promoting the success of their students in the classrooms they teach, in particular but not only those who are academically underprepared.

Of course, colleges are not blind to the issue of faculty skills. For years they have invested in faculty development programs. Yet for all that investment, little change is apparent, if only because most programs are not well-conceived, are voluntary in nature, and/or attract a small segment of the faculty. Fortunately, this is beginning to change at a limited but growing number of colleges, such as Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Richland College, and Foothill College.

These institutions have established faculty development programs that require all new faculty to be part of a two-year or longer series of activities in which faculty, working together in what amounts to a faculty learning community, acquire pedagogical, curricular, and assessment skills appropriate to the needs of community college students, in particular those who require basic skills instruction. 

Closing Comment

Efforts to increase student success in college are not new. But most have not penetrated the classroom. Even when successful, they have been isolated, sometimes idiosyncratic, and often of limited duration. If we are serious in our efforts to enhance college success, much must change. Our students deserve no less. Our nation requires no less. It is time to take the classroom seriously.

Vincent Tinto
Author's email:

Vincent Tinto is Distinguished University Professor at Syracuse University. His forthcoming book, Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action (University of Chicago Press), discusses these issues.

Student Created College Poker Site Causes Concern

Smart Title: 

Arizona State student thinks he may have created a safe alternative to online gambling sites. Some gaming experts aren't so sure.

'Last Day on Earth'

Smart Title: 
The life of the Northern Illinois grad who killed 5 there is recounted in new book -- with lessons for colleges on gun control, mental health and what they do right.

A Fee Not Worth the Cost?

Smart Title: 
Per-session payments disappear at many campus counseling centers, but some add limits on visits.

Med Students' Own Mental Health Care

Smart Title: 

A study published Tuesday paints a grim picture of America’s increasingly stressed medical students, in what researchers say they hope will be a “wake-up call” to the nation’s medical schools and health care policy makers.

The study, led by the Cambridge Health Alliance, a hospital system near Boston, includes data from 115 of the nation’s medical schools, looking specifically at what type of health insurance they offer to students with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Drunk Support

Smart Title: 

College students like to drink. Sometimes they drink too much. And sometimes they pay the price – academically, socially, and sometimes, with their lives. No matter how well-intentioned they are, educational prevention methods like posters and lectures alone will not stop all this from happening.

Students know this. Administrators know this. Yet, according to new research, the vast majority of colleges, when it comes to prevention, are leaving an extraordinary resource untapped – the students themselves.

Dealing With the Depressed or Dangerous

Smart Title: 

SAN FRANCISCO — How far can colleges go to stop students who are threatening to commit suicide?

It’s a fundamental question for college and university officials who work in the fields of student affairs, counseling and mental health -- and for the lawyers who may have to deal with the aftermath, and sometimes see mental health issues as a minefield of potential litigation.

Campus Justice Is Behind the Times

As the academic year unwinds, college administrators across the country anxiously await the inevitable bad news from their campus safety departments. In addition to relatively minor infractions of campus rules and regulations, there will be binge drinking, the plagiarizing of papers, and often much worse, such as acts of physical and sexual violence. It is clear that students who commit serious and violent criminal offenses must be expelled, for the safety and well-being of all. But what of the majority who commit lesser violations of campus or criminal codes? Are we using the best approaches to hold such students accountable for their actions and to meet the needs of harmed parties and the campus community?

Though colleges and universities are generally viewed as forward-thinking, even experimental, campus judicial responses generally rely on uncreative, cookie-cutter sanctions. Judicial officers are overly cautious in response to liability concerns, outcomes are often dissatisfying to victims and offenders in the process, and the system has been unable to change campus cultures dominated by partying. Campus judicial responses are lagging behind the criminal and juvenile justice systems in our society in using new, effective strategies. College campuses are ideal places to develop and test such strategies, but so far our institutions of higher learning have largely stayed out of the loop on this matter.

"Restorative justice" is a new response to offending behavior and the approach has a proven track record in criminal and juvenile justice cases. Not only does it reduce recidivism, but it is widely perceived by offenders and victims as fair and better able to meet their emotional and material needs than traditional retributive responses. Restorative justice approaches to student misconduct are a promising tool that liberal arts colleges such as Skidmore College and large public institutions like the University of Colorado are using  
effectively to change campus culture.

Restorative approaches call upon offenders, victims, and community members to participate in the decision-making process following a campus violation. Through open dialogue, each participant comes to  
understand the full impact of the offense, educating the offender about the consequences of his or her behavior. This alone is a powerful device for eliciting sincere expressions of remorse and commitments to  
right the wrong. Articulating the harm in detail also paves the way for creation of a restorative agreement -- a list of tasks tailored to repair the harm and rebuild the community’s confidence in the offender. Typically, such tasks include apology letters, further research on the impact of the harm, restitution, community service that is linked to the offense, and activities that better integrate the offender into the  campus community. At Skidmore, students cannot register for the next semester’s classes until their restorative agreements are completed. This is a direct message that it is up to the offenders to take responsibility not only for their prior misconduct, but also for their future education.

Three cases, drawn from a variety of institutions nationally, help to illustrate this approach. The first involved a group of athletes who stole and made use of disabled parking placards. The incident generated significant ire among the disabled community. A restorative conference was held with the athletes and affected parties, including professors and students with disabilities. The dialogue enabled the athletes to learn the impact of their behavior and reduce the tension between these groups. While the athletes took responsibility for their behavior in several ways, it is notable that a major component of the restorative agreement was a collaboration with educational goals. The athletes and some of those with disabilities agreed to co-produce a video about disability issues and to present workshops during first year student orientation.

The second case was a response to a theft by a drunken student. Walking home from a bar, a student stole a public art object that was part of a citywide project of the local arts council. Participating in the restorative dialogue was the student the local artist, the store owner who sponsored the artist, and the director of the city arts council. Each was able to express how he or she was affected by the theft. By the end of the meeting, the offender committed to completing 100 hours of community service at the arts council, paying the costs of repairing the artwork, helping write a guide to proper conduct for students living off-campus, completing an alcohol use assessment, and organizing an alcohol-free social event on campus. Later, when the case reached the criminal court, the prosecutor and judge were impressed that the campus obligations were more onerous than the fine and probation they intended to impose. Restorative justice, they realized, was not soft on crime.

The third illustrates the use of restorative justice in an academic case, highlighting how the approach is particularly relevant to the educational setting. Here, a student plagiarized a paper, and appeared before a restorative panel to discuss the harmful consequences and create a plan of action. During the discussion the student learned about the disappointment and sense of betrayal expressed by her professor. The panel members were able to learn about the student’s lack of confidence in her ability to write a "college-level paper." The group agreed to a restorative contract that included several items: rewriting the paper to demonstrate a proper use of sources, an apology to the professor, and a presentation to the campus community about academic integrity and how to protect it.

Such examples illustrate the educational nature of the restorative approach, rather than having the response be simply punitive. Students  are expected to reflect on the consequences of their actions. They are asked to take active responsibility for making amends. They must demonstrate their ability to be pro-social members of the community. With such an approach, there is rarely a need to suspend students for their misconduct because the response is sufficiently demanding and highly supervised. Students are not let off the hook, but they are not ostracized either. Most often, the best place for them is on campus, facing the problem directly.
Campuses can do much more than cut and paste the standard issue disciplinary code. Already, job ads for campus judicial officers are calling for backgrounds in restorative justice, and this is a good sign. Now, all we need are the programs for them to run.

David R. Karp
Author's email:

David R. Karp is an associate professor of sociology and director of the Law and Society Program at Skidmore College.

Student Stress: Whose Is Worst?

Smart Title: 

PHOENIX -- A quarter of students surveyed in the latest National College Health Assessment reported that stress has hurt their academic performance, with such impacts as lower grades or dropped courses. That proportion has fluctuated in the vicinity of 30 percent for more than a decade.

Hunter Settles Suicide Suit

Smart Title: 
Payment awarded to student who was barred from dorm after taking pills, and college will review its mental health policy.


Subscribe to RSS - Counseling
Back to Top