Essential Knowledge, Skills, and Culture for Student Success
I served for several years on my college readiness, transition, and retention committee at a large public university. The committee researched, surveyed, and interviewed students, faculty, and administrators, as well as our feeder community college and high school personnel. Below are the findings from our efforts as well as my own research on these three issues.
Our university concluded that a student’s gender, socioeconomic status, ethnic background, GPA, test scores, or listed school curriculum are not indicators of success in college, a point reinforced by The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College (Adelman, 2006). As David Conley (2007) writes in Toward a More Comprehensive Conception of College Readiness, simply passing college prep courses, or even doing well in them, is not enough. A difference exists between college readiness and high school competence, a difference that is related to rigor and instructional practices. The high percentage of students taking remedial coursework in college (approximately 40 percent) provides a clear indicator of divergent expectations.
Based on this information the committee recommended that teams composed of high school, community college, and university faculty work together to align expectations for content and rigor in mathematics and writing. We found evidence that students must become independent, self-regulated learners. This is essential to success and, however obvious, is too often not present. How to build and support such independence in the high school and college environments needs explicit, direct attention from the university.
College knowledge, skills, and culture
We also studied issues related to academic behaviors, social integration, contextual skills, and transition support structures. Two primary findings emerged. First, our university’s data provided extensive, useful information about strengths and deficiencies of new students. This data should be disseminated to and disaggregated for high schools and community colleges, as well as the university’s staff. Second, transition support structures and experiences could be improved substantially by better communication between university staff members and their counterparts at community colleges and high schools, especially in reference to preparation for majors and transition procedures. The committee’s recommendations again emphasized the need to improve communication with high school, college, and university students about the nonacademic knowledge and skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education, to establish more effective planning and transition programs starting in middle school. For example, the level of academic achievement that students attain by eighth grade has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate from high school than anything that happens academically in high school (ACT, 2008).
The committee found that the freshmen
- did well in terms of commitment to the institution, basic academic behaviors, and initial self-discipline;
- were less strong in peer connections, time management, and academic self-efficacy;
- were weakest in advanced academic behaviors, communications skills, analytical skills, and financial understanding.
Attendance. The committee’s data supported a Mississippi State University study that showed a correlation between attendance and success. Nearly one-third of first-year students exhibited attendance problems and earned worse grades and persisted at a rate far below that of their peers. According to the University Leadership Council, “Absenteeism in the first year is more a function of irresponsibility and immaturity in the face of newfound freedom than one of academic quality” (2009, p. 46). Students could expedite their academic progress by developing strong academic skills and dispositions, including regular class attendance, prompt submission of assignments, sound study habits, and regular contact with faculty. My university has a “Fostering Learning, Achievement, and Graduation Success” (FLAGS) system that requires the undergraduate faculties in weeks 2, 4, and 8 to report on the attendance, success or nonsuccess, and academic advice given to each student in their classes. Students then are notified immediately and instructed to meet with the professor on these issues.
Persistence. My research on student success in college calculus clearly identifies “grit,” or persistence, as an indicator of successful retention (Zollman, 2014). Research shows that students who were complimented on their intelligence gave up easily when tasks became difficult. Students who were complimented on their willingness to tackle tough problems persisted on working on difficult tasks—even with a weak possibility of success. Developing grit is the key to retention. This is connected closely to research at Stanford University on a “fixed” versus “growth mindset” (Dweck, 2006). In a fixed mindset, students believe their intelligence and talent are simply fixed traits, whereas in a growth mindset, students believe their basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This view creates resilience in students, in other words, “grit.”
Social integration. Students, especially underrepresented populations, need an academic social network at the university (Zollman and Freeman, 1994). This social academic support network can be constructed for the student in freshman University Experience courses or in a “blocked” set of courses taken with the same students. We successfully created “nerd” groups for entering students to gain a sense of belonging and social support.
Mathematics.The committee verified the findings of the National Center for Education Statistics that college mathematics placement tests are valid and reliable predictors of grades, retention, and persistence to graduation—regardless of major. The committee recommended an immediate increase in communication to the feeder community colleges and high schools about the pervasive importance of mathematics skills for any major, no matter what the mathematics requirements for the major.
High school and college mathematics courses should require students to engage in key cognitive process strategies, such as communicating about mathematics, making connections, representing mathematical relationships, applying reasoning, and solving problems. These strategies are more important than specific content knowledge. The committee also determined that success in college mathematics was related to taking four years of challenging mathematics in high school.
Writing. Similar to mathematics, student performance in first-year writing courses at the university was clearly linked to overall academic achievement and persistence. The committee recommended that high school students be given opportunities to develop their facility in written expression by writing in multiple contexts and genres. Focus, organization, development, meta-discourse, and syntax are elements that should be explicitly taught and reinforced at the high school and college levels. Surprisingly, our university research showed that ACT writing test scores were not a predictor of grades in writing or of retention at the university.
Academic expectations should be aligned among mathematics and language arts faculty for courses taught at high schools, community colleges, and the university. Subject area teachers at these levels rarely communicate and often have inaccurate, stereotyped information of what is taught and how it is taught at other levels.
“Barrier” Courses. Students should be informed of historical success indicators of barrier courses. The committee’s research found the most difficult courses to pass that the general student population takes were Calculus II, College Algebra, Trigonometry, Chemistry I, and Introduction to Psychology. Students should be prepared to take these courses and work hard to do well. Otherwise, they may slow their progress in or jeopardize entry into their desired major. Additionally, these departments can benefit from seeing data on their courses.
All students should take two University Experience courses, one in each of the first two semesters at the university. The first course would be similar to what many universities already offer in an introduction-to-college course, with the general academic skills and social integration topics. The second course would coincide with barrier courses in the natural sciences, with specific study skills pertinent to these academic courses, correlated to the timing specific assignments in the courses. For example, reading skills for studying a chemistry textbook for an exam are different from reading skills for a literature course, or study skills for mathematics course homework are different from study skills for a history course.
Entering first-year students’ skills in mathematics or ability to write an impromptu essay is strongly correlated with both university GPA and persistence a year later, but we should not infer from these correlations that having students drill mathematics procedures or practice writing impromptu essays will make them more successful in college. More likely, students’ success will depend on their meaningful academic experiences in a variety of educational settings that in turn translate into facility in mathematics and writing.
Every university wants to increase readiness, ease transition, and enhance retention of students. The ideas expressed here, however obvious, are too often not implemented. Implementation of actions to accomplish these goals will require a change of traditional beliefs by administration, faculty, and students. The common myths of a fixed mindset of intelligence and abilities will need to be altered. The mistaken notions that good grades and high test scores are predictors of college success have to be challenged. Students must develop as independent, self-regulated learners, and the university must take an active role in facilitating students’ success in meeting this objective.
ACT. 2008. The Forgotten Middle: Ensuring That All Students Are on Target for College and Career Readiness before High School. Iowa City, IA: American College Testing.
Adelman, Clifford. 2006. The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion From High School Through College. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.
Conley, David T. 2007. Toward a More Comprehensive Conception of College Readiness. Eugene, OR: Education Policy Improvement Center.
Dweck, Carol. 2006. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
Higher Education Transitions Committee Report. 2011. Office of the Provost. Northern Illinois University.
University Leadership Council. 2009. Hardwiring Student Success: Building Disciplines for Retention and Timely Completion. Washington DC: The Advisory Board Company.
Zollman, Alan. 2014. “Bricks in a Field: Research on the Learning of Calculus.” In Initiatives in Mathematics and Science Education with Global Implications, edited by Donna F. Berlin and Arthur L. White, 13–20. Columbus, OH: International Consortium for Research in Science and Mathematics Education.
Zollman, Alan and Michael Freeman. 1994. “Pump Up the Volume: MathExcel’s Transforming a Filter into a Pump.” In Increasing Minority, Appalachian, and Female Students’ Participation in Mathematics-Related Fields, 113–118. Lexington: University of Kentucky.
Alan Zollman is a visiting professor in the School of Education at Indiana University Southeast and professor emeritus from Northern Illinois University.