New Perspectives on Supporting Student Success: #ARUCC2012

In the course of the Supporting Student Success project, we have noticed the frequency in which participants depict and describe how their institution supports student success as the work of distinct groups of people. Student success may be a shared responsibility of multiple institutional actors but it is shared as compartmentalized functions. One group recruits students. Another group teaches them in the classroom. Another group houses students and provides them with co-curricular learning and leadership opportunities. Still another group focuses on insuring students’ health and well-being. As the Supporting Student Success research team has travelled across Ontario, we have taken note of the places where these compartmentalized functions come together in conversation as it seems to be more the exception than the rule.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how staff, administrators and faculty work separately and collectively to support student success. We are engaged in important work and yet, at institutions across Ontario, across Canada and indeed, across the continent, we often work in relative isolation.  And this relative isolation is not limited to our work day but extends to how we engage in professional development opportunities. Faculty members attend their disciplinary conferences; student affairs and services staff attend umbrella student affairs conferences (like CACUSS, ACPA or NASPA) or a more specific functional area conference for residence life (ACUHO-I), career services (CACEE), or orientation (NODA); administrators attend conferences for business officers (NACUBO), Deans, and institutional researchers (AIR).

I recently attended the conference of the Association of Registrars of Universities and Colleges of Canada in Ottawa. It was my first time at this conference and it got me thinking about what we could learn as educators if we stepped out of our comfort zone and attended conferences that push us to think of our work from a different perspective. We might start small. Faculty from the disciplines could attend a conference on the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is invigorating to think how attending a conference from a perspective focused on pedagogy might stimulate how faculty approach teaching their subject matter. Similarly, student affairs and services practitioners who work in residence life and housing, career services or counselling might attend a conference on issues common to registrars and the broader enrollment services realm. Two days at a conference walking in another’s shoes, learning their language and challenges, may excite diverse groups to think about new collaborations to support student success, drawing on their respective areas of expertise.

I make this suggestion because I was struck by how similar the conversations on student success held at #ARUCC2012 were to the ones that I had earlier in the month at #CACUSS. And yet for all of the similarities, there were a host of times when I was gaining insight from a different vantage point.  Jay Goff, Vice President of Enrolment and Retention Management at St. Louis University, shared data from a Noel Levitz report that found 92% of students would remove an institution from their list of potential postsecondary institutions if they couldn’t fine what they are looking for on the institution’s website. This statistic got me thinking. Beyond the main “recruitment” pages of the website, how much attention do other areas of the institution pay to design and ease of navigation in communicating their programs and services to students? Most colleges and universities have staff dedicated to designing and maintaining  the web pages for prospective students but is a commensurate level of attention paid to web pages that assist in retaining those students? This strikes me as a perfect place where cross-fertilizing professional development may invigorate institutions’ efforts to support student success. 

I attended a session titled “Evidence-based Proactive Student Relationship Management” presented by Shekar Kadaba of Rethink55 and Glenn Keeler of King’s University College. I’m not a data management specialist by any stretch of the imagination but I appreciate the value of easily accessible information to answer the questions students and co-workers ask me daily. This session motivated me to think more about searchable databases and how institutions organize, update and provide information to students, staff and faculty. But disseminating information is just the tip of the iceberg, I started considering how campuses invite their various stakeholder groups to engage with and add to institutional knowledge. In terms of developing community and creating buy-in to the institution’s mission, vision and objectives for realizing that vision, this session made me think about how institutions can more intentionally co-construct institutional knowledge with their students, staff and faculty. Another session presented by Kate Ross, Simon Fraser University, and Alan Wiseman, University of the Fraser Valley, focused on scheduling for course accessibility and resource optimization. In a time when deans, administrators, and faculty must work in concert to best use resources and facilities to meet student learning demands, this session would have been a great opportunity for stakeholder groups to learn the language of and challenges faced by the “other.”

Vincent Tinto, Distinguished University Professor at Syracuse University, presented the closing keynote session. Drawing from his recently published book, Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action, Dr. Tinto called on institutions to focus on communicating high expectations, providing academic and social support, frequently assessing and giving feedback on student performance, and engaging students in a way that students feel they are a valued member of the campus community. Clearly these conditions cross the student success silos – they are in the wheelhouses of faculty, staff, and senior administrators.  Institutions should have high expectations for course work and contributing as a citizen of the campus community. With high expectations and the challenge that accompanies them, institutions must also provide support. Giving feedback on performance is a natural extension of having high expectations. It is hard for students to know if they are meeting expectations if they are not provided with regular feedback. Moreover, students engage when they are provided feedback because they feel that what they are doing matters.

Communicating expectations, providing support, giving feedback and engaging students in their learning are conditions at the heart of supporting student success. Whether one teaches in a classroom, develops service learning partnerships with community organizations, maintains the living/learning environment in the residence halls, or insures the information technology systems are functioning and secure, these conditions cut across our institutional silos and call on the entire community to commit to supporting student success.

Perhaps if we engaged in a little more cross-functional professional development, we might see and hear these ideas from a new perspective — one that compels us to action.

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