Challenge and Support for postsecondary students: Navigating a tricky balance

A few weeks ago at ACPA, I sat in on a session that looked at using student development theory when working with faculty or administrators. The session asked participants to reflect on occasions when they supported a recommendation or program initiative to faculty/administration by referencing some element of student development theory. To be honest I couldn’t think of a good example during the session, but realized I have been living two good examples recently.

In both the fall and winter terms, I have taken statistics classes outside of my home department. The fall class (actually an undergraduate course) had likely 250 or 300 students in a very large lecture hall. These classes typically consisted of the prof at the front of the room, writing out proofs on an overhead, while the students copied everything we saw on the screen. I remember squinting to see if it was a Yi or a Y1 that was on the board, but also realizing in many cases I didn’t know the significance of either.

The second class (which actually ends on Monday) is only for graduate students and has about 18 students. The smaller class definitely makes me feel closer to the professor and the material. However, the material is considerably more challenging than the fall term course and each week I have been terrified that I’ll be called on to explain something that I am almost positive I would not be able to.

I realized on my way back from ACPA that both of these classes are examples of Nevitt Sandford’s theory of Challenge and Support. It is one of the oldest and easiest student development theories to understand. Essentially students develop and learn in environments where there is balance between challenge and support. Too much support and the student does not have the chance to learn and experiment on their own. Too much challenge and students may be frustrated, disengage and quit trying.


These classes have been a huge challenge for me; by far the most difficult courses I have taken as a graduate student. In addition to the readings, assignments, and lectures, I’ve realized I still need more support to be successful in the class. I’ve sought out other PowerPoint slide decks online on these topics. I approached faculty members from a variety of departments and other graduate students for additional help and I have had to get a lot of extra help from the faculty member. Despite all this I will likely barely pass this course. But I am leaving it with a feeling of satisfaction for finishing something quite difficult.

In our study, we heard from an institution who was investigating the way they communicated with new students and found that some were being invited to join more than six different Facebook groups. One graduate student, not part of our study, shared with me that they were invited to five different orientations. Both of these situations are examples of not just too much ‘support’ but also uncoordinated support. The situation I found in classes the last two terms were the opposite; too little support. Having a teaching assistant, providing extra readings, and possibly separating the lectures from the ‘hands-on’ computer-based tutorials may have been beneficial and could have led to fewer students dropping theses classes.

Students in our study recognized that challenging coursework and personal/professional situations are to be expected during their time in college and university programs. They were not afraid of these challenges, but stressed that an appropriate level of curricular and co-curricular supports are required for them to be successful. Knowing that one size does not fit all, the question remains how to organize institutional, departmental, course-based and individual supports in a coordinated fashion to optimally support students?

We welcome your ideas and examples of ways that your campus has coordinated support efforts in assisting students to navigate postsecondary education’s challenges. Please leave a comment so that we might learn from each other.

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