Engaging Faculty to Support a Student Persistence Agenda at N. Arizona University
Published by: Lindsey Rae Downs | 11/17/2017
Published by: Lindsey Rae Downs | 11/17/2017
What are the barriers on your campus to innovations that promote student persistence? That’s the question Michelle Miller, Director of the First Year Learning Initiative with Northern Arizona University, is here to discuss. At NAU, the Persistence Scholars program works with faculty to empower them become informed advocates for new practices that support student persistence.
Thank you Michelle for this great post!
Enjoy the day and enjoy the read,
~Lindsey Downs, WCET
What are the biggest barriers to innovations that promote student persistence? As a course redesign veteran and someone who loves to learn about institutional reform, I’ve heard the same one mentioned time and again: getting faculty on board.
Faculty hold the keys to the student academic experience, which in turn, plays a critical role in retention and degree completion. As the eminent researcher Vincent Tinto puts it:
If institutions are to significantly increase the retention and graduation of their students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, their actions must be centered on the classroom. They must focus on improving success in the classroom, particularly during the first year and lead to changes in the way classes are structured and taught and, in turn experienced by students, especially those who have not fared well in the past. (Tinto, 2012, p. 15)
We also know that the institutions that are most successful in retaining students are the ones in which there is concerted, coordinated effort across the institution to help students persist. To make the most of student persistence initiatives, everyone in the institution needs to be working together: leadership, advising, residence life and yes, faculty.
But of course, this ideal state of harmony is much easier to describe than it is to pull off. The deep institutional divisions on a typical campus – in which faculty may not even know the names of key leaders and offices involved in retention, let alone have a good collaborative relationship with them – dwarfs even the siloization we see among academic departments.
More problematic are the philosophical divisions that, if not actual, may be assumed. The perception among student support and leadership staff is that faculty are skeptical, and not in a good way, about new efforts to help students succeed.
Even if the majority of faculty don’t believe in outdated ideas, such as that college should be a weeding-out process or that the only way to promote retention is to admit better students, the more vocal critics can dominate the dialogue. And, faculty who want to advocate for student success may simply lack the skills and knowledge to act on that wish.
Giving faculty both the will and the means to effectively support a student persistence agenda is challenging. In response, we at Northern Arizona University created the Persistence Scholars Program, a blended-style professional development experience designed to empower faculty to become informed, effective users of and advocates for practices that support student persistence.
We designed this program grounded in the knowledge that academic persistence is an issue with a human side, but also an intellectual side, backed by a rich and informative literature about how academic persistence works among students from diverse backgrounds and in diverse settings. And, we believe, faculty are most empowered to support student persistence when they understand and care about it – something that happens when they have an opportunity to engage with the best of the academic work in the area, and hands-on experience applying what they are learning.
How do you engage faculty in a development experience like this, given all the other demands on their time? To address this ever-present problem, we turned to a blended strategy, one that offered maximum flexibility coupled with the opportunity to engage with concepts over a longer period of time. Faculty completed a set of pre-readings and a daylong interactive kickoff workshop, then enrolled in a nine-week online program focused on reading and discussing a selection of scholarly works on student persistence.
They also completed two brief, action-oriented projects: the Field Experience and the Application Plan:
Our first group of Persistence Scholars has just wrapped up their work. What are the impacts and lessons learned, at this early stage of the game?
First, we were pleasantly surprised at the level of faculty interest in participating. With a small honorarium as an incentive, we recruited approximately 25 enthusiastic participants from a broad cross-section of programs and disciplines.
We are also encouraged by the depth and amount of engagement in the program. Participants were particularly active in creating and executing their Field Projects, and their choices reflect just how many different aspects of student life are open for this kind of exploration. These included:
Faculty were often impressed with the level of services offered to our students, and with the new things they learned about resources available at the university. Almost all said they were surprised by what they discovered about student life at our institution. And these Field Project activities were things that few faculty members would ever do outside of a structured experience such as the Persistence Scholars program.
Over Spring 2018, we’ll learn more about the longer-term impacts on faculty attitudes and practices as we follow-up with our alums and begin again with a new cohort of faculty. In the meantime, we can make some recommendations for institutions looking to develop similar programs:
The Persistence Scholars Program has brought new enthusiasm, and new faculty supporters, to our student success efforts at Northern Arizona University. Stay tuned as we learn more about how to make the most of this unique approach!
Director, First Year Learning Initiative,
Professor, Psychological Sciences
Northern Arizona University
Tinto, V. (2012). Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
DeParle, J. (2012, December 22). For poor, leap to college often ends in a hard fall. New York Times.
Inclusive Negligence: Helping Educators Address Racial Inequality at UWL (Video). https://www.uwlax.edu/social-justice/resources/for-doing-social-justice-teaching/
Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., et al. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale, (13). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1524360113
Cohen, D., Kim, E., Tan, J. & Winkelmes, M. (2013) A note-restructuring intervention increases students’ exam scores, College Teaching, 61, 95-99, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2013.793168
Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Web Site: https://www.unlv.edu/provost/teachingandlearning
Pennebaker, J. W., Gosling, S. D., Ferrell, J. D., Apfel, N., & Brzustiski, P. (2013). Daily online testing in large classes: Boosting college performance while reducing achievement gaps. PLoS ONE, 8, e79774. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0079774
For more information about the Persistence Scholars project, please contact Dr. Michelle Miller by email, email@example.com, via her blog at michellemillerphd.com/blog/, or on Twitter, @MDMillerPHD