The 2016 convening of the Reinvention Collaborative focused on the theme of Diversity, Culture, & Identity in America’s Research Universities: Research-Based Initiatives that Promote Shared Discovery and Learning by Students, Faculty, and Staff. Wendy Troxel, Director of the NACADA Center for Research at Kansas State University, attended the convening and reports the following for NACADA members.
The third plenary session of the 2016 Reinvention Collaborative was a panel titled Unpacking the Student Life Cycle. This session addressed an analysis of the research on initiatives that promote successful transitions into majors, efficient degree completion, and visible pathways to post-baccalaureate educational experiences and careers.
Peter Doolittle, Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, Virginia Tech
Wendy Troxel, Director, NACADA Center for Research at Kansas State University
Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources, National Science Foundation
The moderator, Archie Holmes, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs for the University of Virginia, began the session with this question:
Based on your experience, what do you see as the main challenges at these transition points and how have they been addressed effectively, especially for under-represented students?
The three panelists gave opening remarks before engaging in a discussion with the audience. Wendy Troxel’s opening remarks are shared below.
Thank you! I am honored to represent over 14,000 members worldwide, all with one primary goal: to help students succeed according to their goals and aspirations.
I would like to frame my brief remarks initially under three areas with regard to the work in helping students navigate these critical transition points toward becoming what professionals view as productive members of society:
- the worlds professionals create,
- the languages professionals speak,
- and the players professionals involve in making sense of how to reinvent the undergraduate experience.
In a conversation about the critical transition points from an academic lens, filtered by critical experiences from a human lens, it does not take long to acknowledge the research design challenges. I started my doctoral work earlier than I should have, with a focus on quantitative methods that had beautifully constructed, tightly controlled statistical models.
Then I actually WORKED in higher education.
I got into the world of student learning and developmental outcomes assessment, and I saw the difference between practical significance and statistical significance in working with students. These differences showed the truth in the phrase I first heard from Barbara Walvoord, that “A classroom is a place where every possible variable is actively varying.”
This is certainly true when considering the students who come through advisors' doors, students who experience the worlds professionals create for them in many ways in and out of the classroom. Tensions arise when those worlds are inconsistent with, and often counter to, the worlds students thrive in otherwise.
The talent approach to working with students, as opposed to the deficit models (note: please do a search and destroy of the term “at risk” on your websites), gets to deeper and more meaningful reflections of advisors' role in, as Amy Burkert posed yesterday, “contributing to a transformative educational experience for each student.” Individuals get “transformed” when they build upon what they already bring to the table, I would argue, and when they are faced with situations that cause them to rebalance and stabilize.
Constant checking of the influences of power and privilege on the worlds professionals innocently create is necessary as we as educators ask students to move through our view of their identities (from first-year students to the often forgotten second-year students, to the “you are no longer a newbie here” world of the major, to the “now you must leave the nest” outside world).
Reflection about that should truly be all mirrors and no smoke. I have learned so much from Shaun Harper (2015) and his work through the concept of being “minoritized.” It is powerful because of the implications of a dynamic and intentional action from one person on another or even the unintentional effect of a policy on a person or on a group. Each of us can experience what it feels like to be put in a space of powerlessness. And words do matter, as everyone knows all too well.
There are hot topics right now that have both intended and unintended consequences on working with student sub-populations at each critical transition:
One is the explosion of technology and the capacity to capture data and to use multiple ways to intervene in our students’ world. The new student information systems will reframe the role of advisors on campus from transactional to transformational. To make that shift, institutional decision-makers have to intentionally commit to different approaches to professional development for professional advisors (who are really good at helping students with reflective goal setting), faculty advisors (who are really good at connecting the dots for students who seek to become professionals), and with other co-curricular mentors (who are really good at holistic student development), as well as collaboration between them.
A second hot topic is the completion agenda, which is a noble attempt to help families (and in many cases lone students without support systems) get more quickly to career exploration and decisions and to minimize the massive debt load often deemed an investment in a professional life after college. Impressive and important work is being done to explore what that all looks like, especially for traditionally aged students.
Conversations are common, in increasing volume from both ends of the political spectrum, on the value of choosing majors that will lead to high paying careers. And to do it early, in some places even before high school is over, but certainly soon after matriculation in college.
But as Dr. Hughes shared yesterday, there are both heads and hearts at work. Heads often make major choice decisions (and these are 17-year-old heads, mind you), and then once in college often the heart kicks in.
I wonder, as this generation of students also begin to develop a sense of community engagement and service, how many engineering students become educational psychologists (as Dr. Doolittle just shared)? Or computer scientists drawn to ministry? Or business students who commit to public service? And it hurts my heart when an empathetic, caring, brilliant student decides not to go into teaching because the current system makes it is so hard to be successful, much less wealthy, in the public school classroom.
As professionals at higher education institutions, it is our ethical obligation to help students unveil their hearts and passions, which happens in a deeper context than mere schedule building.
So back to the language educators could use to reframe the narrative. In higher education, leaders have to be careful of the language they use, because it brings with it landmines from not only cultural contexts, but power and privilege in the systems and worlds in which students exist.
One is the difference between persistence and retention. These are not synonyms, though they are related. I have heard both terms used in helpful and not so helpful ways already. We know this: students decide to persist and institutions count whether or not they were retained. Which is the more powerful notion? Retention is not a learning outcome. It is a binary indicator that comes at a point where it is often too late to do anything about it.
This convening and this network of professionals is about acknowledging the power (and I do not use that term lightly) that students have to stay or go at each critical transition point, and the role that professionals have in helping them through every step of the educational and personal journey toward their goals.
When institutional success hangs on the construct of retention, professionals ignore that journey. In a recent roundtable discussion about deficit terms like “at risk,” the group instead tackled the term “struggle.” Where and how do students struggle? I heard an individual respond to that by saying, “Our retention rate is 92%. Our students don’t struggle.”
I know this: every single student struggles at some point, in some way, and if an institution is lucky, despite those struggles these students may show up as a positive retention number.
So that brings me finally to some cautious optimism about the emergence of predictive analytics.
I mentioned that I started my professional training as a quantoid. But getting deeply into the world of student learning and developmental outcomes assessment turned me into a qualitative researcher. When I teach research methods courses, I talk with students about the false dichotomy of the qual/quant debate and the beauty of the marriage between inductive and deductive approaches to generating and testing theory.
What an opportunity our profession has missed if we do not at some point capture the expertise of the question that Amy Burkert (2016) posed yesterday when talking about authentic interactions with a student: “Your face isn’t looking quite the same today. . . . What’s going on?”
It has been said that capturing evidence of learning and how professionals prepare students in higher education institutions is too complex because of the three curricula in colleges and universities:
- the one that is in the catalog,
- the one our faculty members teach, and
- the one our students take.
Even if the term curriculum is defined in its most narrow sense (the path of courses that efficiently leads to a degree), I would argue that there is one group of professionals who see ALL of the definitions of curriculum at play and the connections and tensions between them, and this group is academic advisors.
The research agenda within NACADA is built under the “scholar-practitioner” framework presented by Kezar and Eckel (2000), which encourages collaboration in systematic inquiry. Methodologists know how to design complex studies that can handle the intricacies of education, but practitioners ask the best research questions. Students can also be included as effective co-Principal Investigators in the design and analysis of research studies.
So given the complexities of the educational process, and the importance of the outcomes, I represent an emerging and growing population of professional and faculty advisors who are ready to be at the table, as many of you are here, in framing studies that will inform the important decisions professionals will make in reinventing the undergraduate experience and honoring our students’ cultures and identities.
Burkert, A. (2016, November). The multiple intersections between culture, identity, learning, and discovery in research universities. Panelist remarks presented at the meeting of The Reinvention Collaborative, Arlington, VA.
Harper, S. R. (2015). Black male college achievers and resistant responses to racist stereotypes at predominantly white colleges and universities. Harvard Educational Review, 85(4), pp. 646-674.
Kezar, A., & Eckel, P. (2000). Moving beyond the gap between research and practice in higher education. New Directions for Higher Education, Vol. 110. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.