June 14th, 2017 – Alex Usher
I’ve recently been doing a little bit of work recently on student success and I am struck by the fact that there are two very different approaches to student success, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are sitting on. I’m not sure one is actually better than the other, but they speak to some very different conceptions of where student success happens within an institution.
(To be clear, when I say “student success” I mostly mean “degree/program completion”. I recognize that there are evolving meanings of this which mean something more/different. Some are extending the notion to not just completion but career success – or at least success in launching one’s career; others suggest completion is overrated as a metric since some students only attend to obtain specific skills and never intend to complete, and if these students drop out in order to take a job, that’s hardly a failure. I don’t mean to challenge either of these points, but I’m making a point about the more traditional definition of the term).
What I would call the dominant North American way of thinking about student success is that it is an institutional and, to a lesser extent, a faculty matter rather than something dealt with at the level of the department or the program. We throw resources from central administration (usually, from Institutional Research) to identify “at-risk” students. We use central resources to bolster students’ mental health, and hire councillors, tutors and academic support centrally as well. Academic advisors tend to be employed by faculties rather than the central admin, but the general point still stands – these are all things that are done on top of, and more or less without reference to, the actual academic curriculum.
The poster child for this kind of approach is Georgia State University (see articles here and here). It’s an urban university with very significant minority enrolments, one that at the turn of the century had a completion rate of under 30%. By investing heavily in data analytics and – more importantly – in academic tutors and advisors (I’ve heard but can’t verify that their ratio of students to advisors is 300:1 or less, which is pretty much unimaginable at a Canadian university). Basically, they throw bodies at the problem. Horrible, dreaded, non-academic staff bloat bodies. And it works: their retention rates are now up over 50 percent – their improvement among minority students has been a whopping 32 percentage points.
But what they don’t seem to do is alter the curriculum much. It’s a very North American thing, this. The institution is fine, it’s students that have to make adjustments, and we have an army of counsellors to help them do so.
Now, take a gander at a fascinating little report from the UK called What Works: Student retention and success change programme phase 2. In this project, a few dozen individual retention projects were put together across 13 participating institutions, piloted and evaluated. The projects differed from place to place, but they were built on a common set of principles, the first and most important one being as follows; “interventions and approaches to improve student retention and success should, as far as possible, be embedded into mainstream academic provision”.
So what got piloted were mostly projects that involved some adjustment to curriculum, either in terms of the on-boarding process (e.g. “Building engagement and belonging through pre-entry webinars, student profiling and interactive induction”) or the manner in which assessments are done (e.g., “Inclusive assessment approaches: giving students control in assignment unpacking”) or simply re-doing the curriculum as a whole (e.g. “Active learning elements in a common first-year engineering curriculum”).
That is to say, in this UK program, student success was not treated as an institutional priority dealt with by non-academic staff. It was treated as a departmental-level priority, dealt with by academic staff.
I would say at most North American universities this approach is literally unimaginable. Academic staff are not “front-line workers” who deal with issues like academic preparedness; in fact, often professors who do try to work with a student and refer them to central academic or counselling services will discover they cannot follow up an individual case with central services because the latter see it as a matter of “client confidentiality”. And outside of professional faculties, our profs teach individual courses of their own choosing rather than jointly manage and deliver a set curriculum which can be tweaked. Making a curriculum more student-friendly assumes there is a curriculum to alter, rather than simply a basket of courses.
Part of this is a function of how university is conceptualized. In North America, we tend to think that students choose an institution first and a program of study later (based on HESA’s research on student decisions, I think this is decreasingly the case, but that’s another story). So, when we read all the Vince Tinto-related research (Tinto being the guru of student retention studies, most of which is warmed-over Durkheim) about “belonging”, “fit” and so on, we assume that what students are dropping out of is the institution not the program, and assign responsibilities accordingly. But in Europe, where 3-year degrees are the norm and they don’t mess around with things like breadth requirements, the assumption is you’re primarily joining a program of study, not an institution. And so when Europeans read Tinto, they assume the relevant unit is the department or program, not the institution.
But also I think the Europeans – those interested in widening access and participation, anyway – are much less likely to think of the problem as being one of how to get students to adapt to university and its structures. Quite often, they reverse the problem and say “how can the institution adapt itself to its students”?
It’s worth pondering, maybe, whether we shouldn’t ask that question more often, ourselves. I think particularly when it comes to Indigenous students, we might be better served with a more European approach.