Engaging Faculty to Support a Student Persistence Agenda at N. Arizona University

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)

A Coordinated Institution-wide Effort is Needed, But Not Easy

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.

Our ‘Persistence Scholars’ Program Helps Faculty Become Informed Advocates

logo reading 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.

board with stick notes listing reasons students don't persist, such as family issues, lack of social support, negative experiences, lack of support, working long hours, don't ask for help

Why don’t students persist? Our kickoff workshop participants respond.

They also completed two brief, action-oriented projects: the Field Experience and the Application Plan:

  • The Field Experience was a perspective-taking and information gathering exercise in which we asked faculty to identify some aspect of student life that they could experience first-hand, then report back on what they did, why they did it, and what they learned.
  • The Application Plan asked them to articulate some way in which they would apply concepts from the program to next semester’s teaching or to some other aspect of their professional practice.

Lessons Learned from Our First Cohort

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:

  • Completing an in-person advising appointment while role-playing the part of a first-year student majoring in an unfamiliar discipline.
  • Interviewing student athletes about how they balance sports, academics, and social life.
  • Observing tutoring appointments at the student learning center.
  • Attending a class in an unfamiliar discipline.
  • Participating in a tour of an academic department from the perspective of a prospective student.
  • Touring facilities and interviewing staff at the campus center for diverse students.

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.

How We Will Improve the Program for the Next Cohort and Advice for Others

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:

  • Keep in mind that faculty across disciplines place a high value on empirical evidence and critical inquiry, and offer opportunities to directly engage them in the scholarship and knowledge base on student persistence.
  • To best use faculty time (truly the most limited resource there is on a university campus), employ a blended strategy and assign a carefully curated list of high-quality readings.
  • Foreground peer-to-peer discussion and dialogue through activities such as online discussion boards.
  • Encourage faculty to personalize what they’ve learned about student persistence with brief projects that emphasize experiential learning and application.

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!

author headshot michelle miller

 

Michelle Miller
Director, First Year Learning Initiative,
Professor, Psychological Sciences
Northern Arizona University

 

 

 

Key Readings and Resources for the Persistence Scholars Program:

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,  michelle.miller@nau.edu, via her blog at michellemillerphd.com/blog/, or on Twitter, @MDMillerPHD


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