Postsecondary Trending Now: When Everything is Changing, What’s a “Best Practice?”

Travel is the very best way to learn. As a child and young adult I lived overseas three times, attending elementary, middle school, and college in different Commonwealth countries. And I know those years taught me exponentially more than most others. My recent trip to University of East London (UEL) confirmed the power of going abroad.  I was invited along with Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University and author of a new book, The Undergraduate Experience, to their recent campus event, “What Drives Student Success?” We were asked to talk about that very subject—the undergraduate experience—and share best practices emerging here in the U.S. that might be useful to UEL.

We’re all in the same boat, after all, with slight (but meaningful) differences in emphasis and intensity. U.S. and U.K. universities are both seeing a “new normal” in student demographics; we’re both facing rising fees and tuition and falling funding; we’re both struggling to align the educational mission with workforce development. So sharing best practices is exactly the thing to do in times like this.

But what are best practices in a landscape where everything is shifting and nothing is the same as it was, and the things that brought us success are no longer adequate to continue or build that success?

Felten’s message for the day was that the job of institutions is to create the best possible conditions for learning by enhancing what our students do and think. He talked about two inspiring examples that promoted reflection by students and resulted in tremendous improvements in retention. This improvement came when students reflected on what they were doing and what they were thinking.

The first example: University of Iowa’s GROW program (Guided Reflection on Work).

“Employment during college helps contribute to student success when meaningful connections between learning in the classroom and learning on the job are made evident. IOWA GROW® (Guided Reflection on Work) uses brief, structured conversations between student employees and their supervisors to help students connect the skills and knowledge they are gaining in the classroom with the work they are doing, and vice versa. IOWA GROW® is focused on making student employment a "high-impact activity" - one that requires students to reflect on their learning and connect their learning within and beyond the classroom.”

The second example: Transfer United, a program for transfer students coming to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Transfer students, who are at particularly high risk of stopping short of completion, were given structured opportunities to connect with successful transfer students and reflect on what they could do to ensure their own success with wonderful results.

My contribution to the UEL event was to look at Three Trends in Student Advising—moving to the holistic approach, moving to a more proactive approach using analytics, and moving toward a more balanced, data-driven approach. Furthermore, I demonstrated how the power of each of those trends and practices really opens up when we take a coaching approach with students rather than a more traditional, directive approach.

As we talked about student success from our different angles, I came to realize how much synergy each of our perspectives had with the other. The reflective questions in each of Felten’s examples were in essence coaching questions—short, powerful, simple questions, designed to deepen learning and/or forward action.  Likewise, using the coach approach to student engagement, whether you’re a success coach, faculty, or staff, is a powerful way to engage and instill both a sense of belonging and agency that is critical to creating those conditions for optimal learning.

The synergy is powerful—by taking a “coach approach,” everyone in a campus community, no matter how much they interact with students, can help foster agency and belonging from wherever they are. If you’re an administrator and a student works in your office, you can sit and reflect with them a few times a year. If you’re in the financial aid office, you can smile and say, “Good luck with your studies, see you next quarter” when you hand out the checks. If you’re in IT, you can ask your faculty and advisers what tasks they want to automate and offshore, so they can be with students in a more holistic and human way.

And it is that synergy, I think, that is the essence of a best practice. It doesn’t depend on how many people are doing a given thing in response to the circumstances. It depends on how much synergy a given practice shares with all the other things we know are right for students, no matter how the sands shift or what dilemmas emerge. Because we know—regardless of how we resolve the issues around workforce alignment, or what we do about student debt, or how much student profiles change—we know that we have to foster agency and belonging within our students because this helps them succeed in school and in life.

Here’s hoping that this best practice—approaching students as whole people who can power their learning with reflection, agency, and an experience of belonging—becomes common practice.

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