Beyond access: Turning every day engagements into life-changing opportunities for students in transition

By Constance Khupe, PhD, Office of Student Success at the University of the Witwatersrand Johannesburg, South Africa.

I was 16 when I decided I would become a teacher. I was the first in my family, and even in my community to have gone this far with school. I was in my last year of secondary school and registered for Ordinary level examinations, which would lead to a subject-based qualification as part of the General Certificate of Education. My class had been given application forms for Advanced level placement as was standard practice in Zimbabwean schools. Staying on to complete A-level study, would have meant two more years in high school, two more years of tuition and boarding fees which my family could hardly afford. I had heard that no fees were required in teachers’ college, hence the decision to go to college instead of going for A-levels. Students were in fact remunerated in the second and fourth year while on teaching experience. That was it! I was going to become a teacher. Being the most exposed to education in my family, I was the ‘best’ positioned to make the career decision. My family were relieved at the prospect of my imminent income. They sent me off to college with nothing much more than my few clothes. I and those from backgrounds similar to mine were fortunate to have a government (then) that supported higher education institutions to be ready for the kind of student that I was. I only discovered a few days into college that what I thought was free higher education was a government, low-interest loan that enabled me to pay tuition fees, food and accommodation, stationery, and even a stipend. Although the rest is now history, you can probably imagine my first year experience!       

My personal history prepared me well to work as a student advisor at the University of the Witwatersrand (more intimately known as Wits University) in South Africa. Wits University is located in central Johannesburg, the largest city and the country’s economic hub. Johannesburg prides itself as “a world-class African city”, and it is. Wits University draws its student population from all over South Africa.

The University of the Witwatersrand, Campus East. (Photo by Shivan Parushath.)

I am based at the Office of Student Success (OSS) in the Faculty of Health Sciences, providing academic support to undergraduate students. I can relate with the experiences of most of my students. At least a third of Wits Health Sciences students are from low-resourced school either in the townships, in rural areas or informal settlements. About 30% of the students are first in their family to attend university.  More than a third of the students rely on government funding for tuition fees, accommodation and meals (University of the Witwatersrand Summary Report on Student Home and School Background Information, 2019). Wits University has made strides in terms of enabling access to previously disadvantaged population groups, with African students now constituting up to 52% of Health Sciences first year enrolment (University of the Witwatersrand Summary Report on Student Home and School Background Information, 2019). However, retention, progression and completion still favour historical patterns of privilege. It is in this context that the OSS contributes to creating a safe, welcoming, supportive and optimum environment necessary for student learning and success.

Wits first-year student during orientation week. (Photo by Wits University.)

At least 900 first-year students join the Faculty of Health Sciences annually. Academic Advisors work closely with all stakeholders responsible for first year experience programmes. Beginning with a week dedicated for the welcoming of new students to the University and Faculty, orientation continues beyond the first week through much of the first semester and indeed the rest of the year.

Early Needs Identification

Given the diversity of our students, systems have been put in place for early identification and proactive support for the new students. Students’ needs are identified from multiple forms of engagements and sources, and resultant interventions include the students’ voice.

The multiple needs-identification methods have, over the years, pointed to risk factors for students in transition. As academic advisors, we use this information to develop interventions that address risk factors before they become fulfilled in academic failure.

Whole-class Interventions

Many students, regardless of schooling background, come to university with inadequate skills to handle the significantly increased workloads as well as assessment that requires deeper learning than memorisation. We address these challenges through face-to-face and online learning skills sessions. These continue through the first semester. Additional classes are arranged as and when need arises.

Individualised Learning Skills Sessions

Students have access to Advisors for one-to-one consultations either on self-identified learning skills needs or after being referred by a staff member. The sessions are interactive, starting with students sharing their problem and learning experience and reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, and continue through to planning for the desired change. Agreements are made for follow up and feedback as applicable. The feedback allows both student and Advisor room to re-think their strategy if necessary. The process encourages students to reflect on their engagement and responsibilities in learning situations, and the bigger aim is perspective transformation, to shift responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student.

Although it is resource-intensive, individualised support is most helpful in keeping students accountable and responsible for their learning. 

Peer Tutoring for High-Risk Subjects

Although Wits Health Sciences generally has high pass and progression rates, some subjects have over the years had lower pass rates. We introduced peer tutoring on the understanding that students ‘listen’ to students. We train and recruit senior students to assist junior students in small groups to encourage social learning. The tutor’s role is to clarify concepts and to encourage the tutees to think, identifying their mistakes and correcting them under guidance. The peer tutor programme reaches at least 400 students each year.

Interventions for Students from Low-resourced School Backgrounds

A critical goal that we keep in mind when working with students from less privileged backgrounds is to instill in them a sense of belonging to the university. Many already feel they are on the back foot because of language of teaching, computer literacy, and little familiarity with the city and with campus facilities. Academic Advisors host a day-long learning skills retreat for these first year students. The retreat has to be at a time when students have had at least a month on campus so that they have some experience to learn from, but also early enough for it to contribute to first year success. The retreat programme includes

  • general learning skills including the often taken-for-granted things such as using course documents,
  • a life skills component
  • student-student engagement among the first years and with senior students who come from senior backgrounds. This component includes group conversations and games.

The 2020 retreat will include playing the higher education simulation and transition board game, Success Prints Crash Course®.

Mental Health and Wellness

The OSS is mindful of the diversity of mental health needs. All Health Sciences students have access to psycho-education and psycho-therapy services. Students are trained to take care of themselves and others, while staff are assisted to identify risk factors when they occur among students.

Responding to as Many Needs as are Identified

Students who have to rely on government funding do not always receive enough to cover their food and personal needs. Student societies, staff in the Faculty as well as external stakeholders often donate food and toiletry items to the OSS for distribution to students who have need.  

Some students do not have required textbooks and others would appreciate assistance in basic stationery items: pens pencils, note pads and files. We have raised awareness regarding these needs, and both staff and students donate textbooks to the OSS for lending to students in need. We also welcome stationery donations. For students in need, these donations go a long way in reducing their financial burden.

Learning Through Pay: The Success Prints Crash Course board game

After many conversations with Tricia Seifert, we have introduced gaming to our package of interventions. Our hope is to adapt the board game to the Wits context and hopefully take it to other South African universities.  

Reflection

It is regrettable that more than 30 years after my own experience, there are students (albeit in a different context), who still arrive at university with hardly any information about the processes and resources that support their success. Fortunately, Wits University has progressively developed support structures that respond to students’ needs. How do we get the necessary information across to students in a format that they can relate with, and early enough in their university experience to support retention beyond first year? The answer to that question lies in practices that are responsive to emergent student needs, and plans that allow for student perspectives. In 2020, we are looking to use the Success Prints Crash Course board game as one of those interventions that students can relate better with that class-based information.

Connecting the Supporting Student Success Study to the Graduate Student Experience and Students’ Mental Health

By Dr. Kathleen Clarke

My rationale for wanting to go to University of Toronto for my doctoral work was to understand more about the research on postsecondary context. I was attending a conference in the summer prior to starting my studies and I presented in a session in which Tricia Seifert and Jeff Burrow were sharing recent findings from the Supporting Student Success study. I was able to connect with Tricia and several of the team members throughout the conference and I was fortunate to be invited to begin working on that study in the fall when I started at OISE. I credit Tricia with opening my world to student affairs and services. Prior to this work, I did not know that this was an area people researched nor did I know it was an area within which I could work. I connect this to the study in the sense that, not everyone knows about student affairs and services and what folks in this field do.

My doctoral research focused on understanding the experiences of graduate students with mental health challenges and examining the challenges they face and the supports they use. I used the 2016 Canadian Reference Group data from the National College Health Assessment to obtain an overall understanding of Canadian graduate students’ mental health. I then conducted semi-structured interviews with 38 doctoral students in Ontario who identified as having a mental health challenge or disability. Although the Supporting Student Success study was not the metaphorical “egg” to my dissertation research in the same way that Jacqueline Beaulieu described, I will detail three connections that I do see.

1. Defining “Success”

Seifert, Henry, and Peregrina-Kretz (2014) wrote an article titled “Beyond ‘Completion’: Student Success is a Process” and in it they highlight that degree completion is often considered the sole criteria for determining whether a student is successful. They draw attention to a need for a broader notion of what student success is and cite literature that refers to students’ academic goals and intentions as key pieces of what a definition of student success should have. Part of what I wanted to look at in my study was how mental health conditions impacted students’ performance and progress in their doctoral program.

I began by identifying the year of study and then the stage of program (coursework, comprehensive exam, proposal, dissertation). This was fairly straightforward. Next, I asked participants about the expected time-to-completion. This is where it started to get messy. Some participants referred to what the official timeline was from the Faculty of Graduate Studies, others referred to what their specific faculty identified, and others referred to what they personally expected for their time-to-completion. Questions about participants’ current year in their program and program length were asked to begin a conversation about whether participants were considered “on-track” to finish within the expected time frame. However, in the same way that Seifert et al. (2014) said that there is more to student success than completion of the credential, I learned that determining what would be considered “on-track” was also not straightforward. Participants’ timelines for completing different aspects of the degree varied and some were comfortable with being beyond the ‘expected’ time-to-completion because of their own expectations.

2. Shared Responsibility

One of the key things I learned while working on the Supporting Student Success study was that student success is the responsibility of everyone on campus: It is not the responsibility of student affairs and services professionals alone. There needs to be a broader campus culture that values and encourages collaboration across campus with the purpose of supporting student success. I connect this to my dissertation work because graduate students use support from a variety of sources throughout their experience. When I interviewed doctoral students, I found that many people play a part in supporting graduate students with mental health conditions. Participants sought informal academic and mental-health related support from peer networks and they also talked about a mental health culture within their departments where students are sharing their experiences of seeking mental health support. While peers can encourage others to seek support, they can also unfortunately deter others from seeking support if they had a negative experience. The findings that peers were primary sources of informal support was not surprising, particularly in light of this piece by Peregrina-Kretz, Seifert, Arnold, and Burrow (2018) that used data from the second phase of the Supporting Student Success study to identify peers as connectors, coaches and confidantes, co-constructors, and copycats.

In addition to peers, interview participants also reported that faculty supervisors were also a primary source of support. Of 36 participants, 22 disclosed their mental health challenges to their supervisor. I was reminded of presentations that the Supporting Student Success team did titled “Knowing me, Knowing you – It’s the best I can do” and “Do I know you? Faculty and student affairs and awareness and engagement with the ‘other’” and was prompted to think about the importance of ensuring that faculty are aware of the various mental-health related supports and how to refer students to those services.

Another way that I connect shared responsibility for student success to my dissertation work is by using findings related to the use of professional mental health support. In the NCHA, participants are asked if they had received mental health support from offices at their current college or university. About 45% of the graduate students with a mental health condition reported that they had. However, a limitation of this instrument is that it does not ask about use of off-campus support. In the interviews I conducted, I learned that 35 out of 38 participants reported accessing some form of professional mental health support during their doctoral studies: 13 used on-campus support, 14 used off-campus support, and 8 used both on- and off- campus support. This finding highlights the need for collaboration between on- and off-campus resources to support students’ mental health.   

3. Survey Design

I joined the Supporting Student Success research team when we were starting Phase 3 of the project and developing a survey to send to faculty, student affairs professionals, and senior administrative leaders across Canada. During this time of survey development, I learned how important it is to take a close look at how questions are phrased to ensure that they are clear. Furthermore, I learned about decisions that are made when you develop a survey. After being involved in this survey development, I now examine survey instruments very closely and pay particular attention to how questions concerning graduate students are asked. Connecting this to my dissertation work, the National College Health Assessment could be revised in different ways to capture the graduate student context more effectively. For example, one question asks, “What is your year in school?” and response options are: 1st year undergraduate, 2nd year undergraduate, 3rd year undergraduate, 4th year undergraduate, 5th year or more undergraduate, Graduate or professional, Not seeking a degree, and other. Only one of these response options captures the graduate level and it does not allow for further categorized based on master’s versus doctoral level, or year of study at the graduate level (1st year doctoral versus 6th year doctoral).

I also want to draw your attention to how we ask questions about whether students identify as having a disability or mental health condition. In my dissertation, I examined participants’ responses across the three NCHA questions and found that a large number of respondents who responded affirmatively to “Have you ever been diagnosed with depression?” and/or “Within the last 12 months, have you been diagnosed or treated by a professional for any of the following mental health conditions?” did not identify as having a psychiatric condition. A total of 69% of the 975 participants who had been diagnosed with depression at some point did not identify as having a psychiatric condition. Similarly, of the 1,144 participants who identified as being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health condition in the past year, about 71% did not report having a psychiatric condition. Why might students be comfortable reporting their mental health condition on some questions but not others? What would happen if the question about having a psychiatric condition was not part of the disability demographic question? How are students defining disability?

Concluding Thoughts

The focus of student affairs research, particularly in the area of mental health, is focused primarily on undergraduate students. I therefore challenge you to consider how the needs of graduate students at your institution may differ from those of undergraduates and to reflect on the following questions:

  • How are you working together across the institution and beyond to support graduate students’ mental health specifically?
  • How are peers and faculty supervisors trained to support graduate students’ mental health at your institution?
  • In what ways are you collecting data about graduate students’ mental health?
  • How do the questions you pose in surveys reflect the nuances of graduate-level education (e.g. master’s versus doctoral level, year of study, academic requirements)?

Dr. Kathleen Clarke is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University. Follow her on Twitter @_KathleenClarke.

References

Peregrina-Kretz, D., Seifert, T., Arnold, C., & Burrow, J. (2018). Finding their way in post-secondary education: the power of peers as connectors, coaches, co-constructors and copycats. Higher Education Research & Development37(5), 1076-1090.

Seifert, T., Henry, J., & Peregrina-Kretz, D. (2014, July). Beyond ‘completion’: Student success is a process. SEM Quarterly2(2), 151–163. doi:10.1002/sem3.20042

2020 – Time to Reflect and Grow

There is something powerful about not only starting a new year but a new decade. At times like these, it seems important to pause and reflect over the past 10 years, knowing it will likely bring up a full range of emotions. There were invariably times when you hit it out of the park this decade but there has certainly been a couple of times when you missed the mark. It’s okay; this is true of everyone. Reflection provides a space to see the decade in rear view and a vantage point to glimpse the future.  

Reflecting on the Supporting Student Success project

2010 was the year that the Supporting Student Success project began. Phase 1 of the project was a multi-institutional study located in Ontario, Canada in which we drove thousands of kilometers talking to student affairs and services staff members from 9 universities and 5 colleges about their perceptions of how their campus support student success. Like any good research study, we learned we had as many questions at the conclusion as we had at the start.

From 2010-2015, the project expanded from focus groups and interviews with students, staff and faculty (Phase 2), to a mixed-methods data collection with a large scale survey component, with versions in English and French (Phase 3). We expanded our sample from 1 province to 17 universities and 7 colleges across 7 provinces. You can learn more about the project’s progression here.  

At the end of the day, three points stand out as central to the project’s findings. These are:

  1. You can’t refer to what you don’t know. People refer students to campus resources only when they are aware of these programs and services themselves. Breaking down silos creates awareness which is necessary for supporting student success.
  2. The message matters! If faculty and staff hear consistently that supporting student success is their responsibility and they are encouraged to communicate, cooperate, and collaborate with student success in mind, they are far more likely to do so.
  3. Students are our partners. They are the ‘go-to’ for their peers when needing someone them to coach them through a tough course or someone in whom they can confide. Moreover, students have some of the hands-down BEST ideas for supporting student success and they often construct these services either on their own or co-construct with staff and faculty.

In the last decade, this team has seen 5 PhDs and 3 master’s students graduate (one has returned to pursue doctoral study) with another doctoral candidate actively dissertating. From the desert of California to the rocky shore of St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the coming year these team members will share how their experience on the research project continues to inform their work.

Launching “Blueprints for Student Success”

Throughout the project, we wanted to share what we learned directly with students. We coined the outreach part of the project “Blueprints for Student Success” as we had heard countless students comment that they wanted to draft their unique blueprint to be successful in higher education but did not always know how to do so. Under the leadership and creative vision of Christine Arnold, we launched the www.blueprintsforstudentsuccess.com website in 2014. But websites are only useful if they are used. So we partnered with the Pathways to Education program in Toronto and led interactive workshops with high school students involved in their summer programming. We developed a scavenger hunt game to help students learn how to navigate higher education’s hidden curriculum.

This was the team’s first foray into using games to familiarize students with situations that often arise during the first year in college or university. When students were turned loose with a bit of competition in the air, we saw something magical take place. Students engaged; they raced against the other teams to be the first to complete the scavenger hunt. They wanted to win but were keen to share how they resolved the challenge and what they learned in the process.

We knew we were onto something. Not another lecture with a talking head or even a panel of animated presenters, games are where it’s at in preparing students for the transition to post-secondary education. Game development has continued and in October 2019, we launched Success Prints Crash Course®, the higher education simulation board game.

Looking to the Future

We have presented annually at the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) and often at other conferences in Canada and internationally. We have published peer-reviewed journal articles and practitioner-focused magazine pieces. Learn more about our published work here.

From the beginning, this research was about informing and improving institutional practice. We couldn’t achieve that goal if the findings and their implications for our everyday work was hidden behind a paywall of expensive journals or at a conference where only those with professional development funds could attend. We launched this blog and started using social media (check us out on Facebook (Supporting Student Success) or Twitter (@CdnStdntSuccess) to ensure that the research was accessible, easily searchable and useable for anyone from anywhere. Across these channels, over 5000 people from around the world follow the project.

What began as a means to share findings from a single research project has become a virtual space in which we highlight the great work of people worldwide who are helping students realize their academic and personal goals. We’ve shared lessons from a ‘one-stop shop’ in Mexico and widening participation work with secondary students in England and Australia. We’ve published posts on innovative ways campuses have engaged with issues of obtaining consent and preventing sexual violence and indigenizing their approaches to student success. We are excited to bring this kind of learning from the field to your feed or inbox. 

Looking to 2020 and beyond, we will continue to share findings from the Supporting Student Success research project, but the blog is pivoting to become THE space where folks from around the world share what worked really well and was a ‘hit’ as well as what missed the mark. In either situation, we want to learn from each other’s experience — together. 

We know there is a need for such a space in the international student affairs and services community. People, worldwide, are innovating in how they support students to realize personal and academic goals. This work doesn’t always conform to the requirements of an academic research journal article. Sometimes it is best conveyed as a short blog post, an infographic, or a video. Or something else entirely.

The Supporting Student Success blog is the place to share, leave a comment, ask a question, and most importantly learn in our global community of practice.  With that in mind, do you have something you would like to share? If so, please contact Tricia.Seifert@montana.edu to discuss your idea and the process for publication. We look forward to hearing from you.

Tricia Seifert is a student success innovator, researcher, writer, and speaker. She is Principal Investigator on the Supporting Student Success project and curates this blog. She is on the Adult & Higher Education faculty at Montana State University and collaborates with students and colleagues in Canada and around the world on student success initiatives and research.

Supporting Indigenous STEM Students

By: Noah Arney & Michelle Pidgeon

The disparity of post-secondary education (PSE) completion between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians (40% vs. 55.3%) continues to persist (Statistics Canada, 2016). Unfortunately, the disparity is wider when we compare undergraduate degree completion between Indigenous (8.6%) and non-Indigenous Canadians (23.25%). The gap of post-secondary completion (certificate, diploma, degree, and above) specific to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields is even wider. Indigenous people are half as likely to have STEM based PSE (4.1% vs. 10%), and for those with STEM Bachelors degree and above, the gap moves to being a fifth as likely (1.1% vs. 5.7%).

In 2012 Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta created the Aboriginal Science & Technology Education Program (ASTEP) to support the growth of Indigenous STEM students in the Faculty of Science and Technology. This program operated from 2012-2019 and represented one of three Indigenous specific STEM programs offered specifically at the university level in Canada.  To understand the impact and influence of this program an external review was conducted in 2017 following Indigenous research processes (Kovach, 2009; Pidgeon & Hardy Cox, 2002). This process included an analysis of institutional data, comparisons with similar programs, and interviews and sharing circles with students, staff, and faculty who were closely associated with ASTEP.

From the participants in the review, ASTEP was valued for its relationship building, wholistic student support, faculty support, and creating a sense of belonging for Indigenous students in the Faculty and more broadly at MRU. This was done through intentional programming and practices by the ASTEP coordinator, faculty, and staff from the Iniskim Centre at MRU all of who had a shared aim of supporting ASTEP students and broader Indigenous communities through programming for Indigenous youth.

Relational Student Services

Relationship building with students was the basis of most of the successes. This was accomplished by frequent interaction in person, electronically, and over the phone. These interactions were spread across the various events and supports offered by ASTEP. Relationship building across academic faculties and other units was accomplished by frequent interaction both formally and informally, both connected with ASTEP directly and as part of the broader University community.

Indigenous students specifically valued the academic advising, tutoring in Indigenous-centered spaces, Indigenous speaker series, Lunch and Learns, Dean’s lunches, and Elder support.  Faculty valued the professional development provided to them, assisting with curriculum development with Indigenous peoples, and organizing meetings with Elders and other knowledge keepers. Students and faculty involved in ASTEP valued the community and sense of support that was created through these various aspects of the program. The collaborations involved in ASTEP provided a welcoming and safe environment, and established relationships of trust and mutual respect.

Intergenerational mentoring with faculty, staff, and students was created through ASTEP that was another core theme emerging from the evaluation that as a program strength. Bringing role models to the institution through the Indigenous Science Speakers Series and other events and programming helped Indigenous students put themselves forward as role models for incoming university students and high school students. Through meeting Indigenous scientists and professionals, ASTEP students could go beyond imagining themselves as Indigenous STEM professionals but becoming such professionals through the meeting role models who were established in such careers. Their responsibility to give back and help the next generation continued for some ASTEP alumni who after they graduated continued to work with the Iniskim Centre and Faculty of Science to mentor the new students.

Successes Found

There was clearly value and impact of the program. From the review of institutional data, the Indigenous STEM student population doubled in five years, and now accounts for 4.2% of students in the Faculty of Science & Technology, up from 1.7% in 2011. Institutional data showed the average GPA remained in line with non-Indigenous students throughout the program while the retention rate of Indigenous students was higher than for non-Indigenous students at 87.4%. This was 10% higher than for non-Indigenous students. Pre-ASTEP retention was unable to be determined due to low student numbers. The ASTEP data challenges stereotypes about Indigenous students not being as committed or academically capable as non-Indigenous students. It also provides support for Indigenous specific programming that is aimed at supporting Indigenous student success and persistence in STEM related programming.

Challenges Faced

Two of the biggest challenges with a program like ASTEP are student time/engagement and sustainable funding. ASTEP worked on the first by having a full-time program administrator who was able to work one on one with students and adjust his schedule to better serve the student population. The coordinator acted as a liaison between the STEM faculty and the Indigenous student services, along with direct supports for Indigenous STEM students. While the program was initially funded externally through corporate funding, and when this source was not renewed, the ASTEP program was closed due to lack of institutional and/or external support. As an interim measure, many different groups on campus have taken up elements of ASTEP to ensure the students are supported until institutional funding can be secured.

Integrating Into Your Practice

Other post-secondary institutions could utilize a similar Wholistic Support Model to support the Indigenous STEM students at their schools. The Indigenous Wholistic Framework (Pidgeon, 2014) utilized by Dr. Michelle Pidgeon in her review of the program is a good model example for Indigenous post-secondary student support. The key feature of Pidgeon’s (2014) model is the “interconnectedness of the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical realms” (p. 10) which are themselves connected with the relational connection of the individual to their community and beyond.  

Indigenous Wholistic Framework (Pidgeon, 2014)
Figure 1. Indigenous Wholistic Framework (Pidgeon, 2014)

The following activities, as described in Figure 2, provide some examples of how to support Indigenous STEM students.

Wholistic Supports for Indigenous Stem Students
Figure 2. Wholistic Supports for Indigenous STEM students

As you can see in Figure 2, there are many opportunities for post-secondary institutions to increase their support for Indigenous STEM students. Many institutions support Indigenous students through advising and tutoring. But the intellectual domain is more than that. Students must be given examples of other Indigenous people who have succeeded at what they are accomplishing, and faculty and staff must learn about the perspectives and backgrounds of Indigenous students. The core though is integrating support for the whole person rather than simply supporting a student’s intellectual success. It is this focus on the whole person that led to the successes of ASTEP, and it can also lead to success in other post-secondary institutions.

The Whole Student

The support of students physically may be seen in two different ways. First the support of students’ physical needs such as ensuring that students don’t need to choose between accessing supports and eating. Second is the use of land-based events and activities which would vary by the region the post-secondary institution is in.

Supporting the emotional and spiritual growth of a student is something that can be done both in conjunction with a wellness centre on campus or could be done in Indigenous student supports. Many institutions have Elders in residence or visiting Elders. Connecting students between programs and between years to create peer supports can be very beneficial. Most important though is the concept of building relations between students and between students and staff and faculty. This creates a feeling of safety and a sense of belonging that helps support students as they progress through post-secondary. Supporting this feeling of belonging is ensuring students have access to cultural supports and ceremonies as they require. Separating the spiritual domain from the rest of the person is not something that is supported by Indigenous educational philosophy. Intellectually, Indigenous students can be supported through peer-tutoring, having faculty members who have been trained around culturally relevant pedagogy and curriculum, and having direct connections of what they are learning to their future career aspirations (e.g., co-op, mentorship with professionals).

Increasing the number of Indigenous students in STEM fields is a worthy goal for any post-secondary institution. Providing support specifically for Indigenous STEM students was shown to be beneficial at MRU. From this program, there are many sharable lessons to support Indigenous students in STEM fields and we hope other institutions take up this work and develop supports, programs, and services for their Indigenous students.

Noah Arney is Work Experience Coordinator – Bachelor of Computer Information Systems, Career Services at Mount Royal University. Dr. Michelle Pidgeon is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University and Director, Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership & Policy (CSELP) and SAGE (Supporting Aboriginal Graduate Enhancement).

References

Kovach, M. (2009). Indigenous methodologies: Characteristics, conversations, and contexts. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Pidgeon, M (2014). Moving Beyond Good Intentions: Indigenizing higher education in British Columbia universities through institutional responsibility and accountability. Journal of American Indian Education, 53(2), 7-28.

Pidgeon, M., & Hardy Cox, D. (2002). Researching with Aboriginal peoples: practices and principles. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 26(2), 96-106.

Statistics Canada (2016). Census of Population, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016263. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

The Story Behind the College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College

How broad institutional support, strategic partnerships, and opportunistic student affairs professionals launched the only research centre focused on student success – at a 2-year or 4-year institution – in Canada.

By Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College who also leads the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC).

To the best of my knowledge, the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC) at Mohawk College (in Hamilton, Ontario) is one-of-a-kind. We have had a great deal of success in a relatively short period. Since 2015, we have received external funding for 7 research projects totaling 1.7 million, and we were just recently awarded the Program Innovation Award from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), which is an association similar to NASPA and ACPA. And, as a community college offering primarily 1-, 2- and 3-year credentials, our graduation rates have steadily risen from 60% to 65% since 2012, a rate of improvement unmatched by our key comparator colleges.

I have been asked many times in recent months how we got to this point, and truthfully, it is difficult to distill our journey down into a couple of key determining factors. There are a few things that I continuously point to including: 1) unbridled institutional support, 2) a host of key partners, and finally, 3) the unique ability of our Student Affairs team to see and respond to potential student success research opportunities. At every single stage of our work over the last seven years, each of these three elements has played a critical role in paving the way for the CSSIC to become a reality.

The purpose of this article, with the invitation from Tricia Seifert, is to share the lessons we have learned that could be useful for others wishing to put more energy into Student Affairs and student success assessment or research. As Student Affairs professionals, our strength is our focus on students and day-to-day practice, which means we also do not naturally celebrate or share our successes publicly. We are humble practitioners by nature. This creates a scenario where our institutions could forget how core Student Affairs work is to the academic mission, which in times of fiscal restraint (such as what is occurring in Ontario right now, which is another story and blog altogether), we risk diminishing resources that could increase barriers and reduce support for our students. With those caveats, here are three foundations of our College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College.

Broad Institutional Support

I am not entirely sure where this research centre had its true beginnings, but since I joined Mohawk in 2012, a few important things occurred. Perhaps one of those items was the creation of my role at that time – Director of Student Success Initiatives – which was designed to coordinate new campus-wide efforts to improve student outcomes. Around that time, our then President made a public call to action, challenging all faculty and staff to work harder to improve student persistence and graduation rates.

In 2014, we launched our first Student Success Plan to guide our institution on this journey. As part of this work, we committed to more purposeful data capture activities, which was more than just counting participation rates; it was our way of starting on an important assessment, evaluation, and research journey. This included introducing and using new advising software and dedicating a lot of energy toward supporting our staff with training as they evolved their practice and reporting.

Institutional support in these efforts spanned all traditional college silos. We had committees that included membership from academic, student, and corporate services. We had – and still have – a strong relationship with our Mohawk Students’ Association, too. With these close partnerships, requests for data with our corporate partners in the Institutional Research office were easy to navigate, and collaborations with faculty, our Deans, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning also proved to be quite natural, especially when we began our work with HEQCO’s Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium later in 2017.

In 2016, with a new President, we doubled down on our commitments to students in a few meaningful ways. First, our new Strategic Plan included pillars such as student success and graduate success. Second, our new Strategic Mandate Agreement (a process directed by our provincial government) included a pitch for a new provincial student success innovation and research centre to build off the momentum we had gained over the last few years. Each of these institutional commitments, pillars, and ideas created a strong foundation of support to allow our team to take risks, say yes to new opportunities, and start to build the collective experience in student success research that we have today.

Strategic Partnerships

The first partnership we formed, which is still a critical partnership today, was with Dr. Ross Finnie at the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI). Dr. Finnie and his team of researchers helped ‘mine’ some of our data to help us learn more about our students. Seven reports were produced between 2012 and 2014, including the first drafts of a predictive model that would later be critical to our early research efforts.

Many interesting partnership opportunities presented themselves to us during this time, including participating in the Supporting Student Success research, and some additional projects with EPRI. For each, we simply offered our support ‘in-kind’ and received no payments. Much of this work was done off the side of my desk and those of my Institutional Research colleagues. In other words, as new additional work that was not formally planned in annual work plans, we fit it in wherever we could. With Dr. Finnie, for example, he brought in partners from Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada (both federal government agencies), for what eventually resulted in some fascinating research about the labour market outcomes of Canadian students. We also needed to develop data sharing, transfer, and privacy agreements, and go through the research ethics process. These experiences helped us learn even more about our students, our institution, and how the research process should work at the community college level. Understanding how to structure partnership and data sharing agreements also became an essential element of future collaborative research with other institutions and our local school boards.

Our partnership with EPRI included participation in HEQCO’s first Access and Retention Consortium, and a number of publications, including one on a new approach to proactive advising. As an aside, HEQCO’s approach to funding research through participation in consortiums has been a tremendously productive practice, fostering a network of partnerships across the province. HEQCO has been our largest funder and an enormously supportive partner for many years. Our success would not occur without the funding opportunities or the partners we met through them. For example, we met a number of incredible researchers through HEQCO, who we then joined forces with when HEQCO launched their second Access and Retention Consortium. This resulted in new Online Goal Setting interventions for our students, based on the work of Dr. Patrick Gaudreau at the University of Ottawa, and a new, ‘psychologically attuned’ way to communicate to students on probation implemented with the expertise of Dr. Shannon Brady at Wake Forest University. New publications with both Dr. Gaudreau and Dr. Brady via HEQCO are forthcoming later this summer or early in the fall.

The largest partnership we are a part of today, however, is one that we are leading with funding from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities in Ontario. With EPRI as a research analytics partner, we are replicating our proactive advising study from 2015 at Humber College, Centennial College, and Fleming College. In doing so, we are trying to support them in their student success research in much the same way that we have received support in the past from HEQCO and so many others.

An Opportunistic Student Affairs Team

Every time an opportunity to participate in research presented itself – one that provided the chance to learn more about student success – we said yes. This would not be possible without broad institutional support, or strong partnerships inside and outside of the college; however, this also required a willingness to work extremely hard (often off the side of our desks) to complete the work. While research was envisioned within the Director role when I started in it, the projects were often not a part of our regular operational work plans. So, I needed to find ways to make it happen.

One of my early approaches was to create a new part-time staff positon in my department to support the operations of the projects. I cobbled together funds from within my budgets, secured small amounts from our Vice President’s contingency fund, and built in staffing dollars into funding proposals. I also pitched this new role as a support for divisional assessment, evaluation, and special projects to have a more current and tangible set of outputs. In many ways, this staff position and the projects themselves were like a set of pilot projects. And, due to the success of the research and the local assessment projects, I was able to propose and secure this as a full-time permanent role. We used a similar approach to create our Learning Outcomes Assessment Consultant role just this past spring.

We have continued to build an incredible research team, for which I am grateful to work with every day. These wonderful people include faculty and Student Affairs professionals alike. Each person and each role contribute to the work of the centre in important ways.

Conclusion

The formal launch of the CSSIC was only a year and a half ago, but we had been on the research path for quite some time before that. This started with the College investing in new and strategic leadership roles. Some of the next critical milestones included the investment in external reports to understand our students better. Then, we invested time and resources into data capture initiatives and staff development. We started to support external researchers who were doing research on student success, and provided them with access to our data and student population. Through all of this, we learned many critical lessons, and forged partnerships that prepared us to apply for research funding. The opportunities continued to present themselves, and we continued to apply (to receive funding) and re-invested in more roles on campus and with more partners. This was the point when the Ministry funded our Centre, and we have continued our momentum since then. Some of it still happens off the side of our desk, too, but we are passionate about understanding ‘what works’ in our student success programming.

There are two final reflections that I think are important. First, while the Centre is led by Student Affairs, the vision was one that was collectively endorsed and has been continuously supported across our institution. Faculty and our partnerships with Ideaworks (our Applied Research department), the Institutional Research Office, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning continue to play an increasingly important role.

Second, there are no shortage of articles and books that express the role of institutional culture on the outcomes of students. Project Deep and the work of George Kuh immediately come to mind. The idea that there is a pervasive student success ideology and approach on campus that everyone understands that ‘this is the way we do things here’ has been shown to be a defining factor of institutions that have strong student outcomes relative to others.

So, on that note, last month when I was cleaning out some old files in my office, I came across a 2007 concept paper from a large committee on campus titled, The Centre of Excellence for Students, Access, and Success. Perhaps our Centre really isn’t so much of a new idea. Leading in student success is part of our ethos at Mohawk – and I suspect it will continue.

Start with the Beginning in Mind

By Kirsty Wadsley, Head of Widening Participation

Dr Claudine Provencher Head, LSE LIFE
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)


Challenging the structures that enable the current inequalities in access and success in higher education in the UK is not a small undertaking. This blog post explores an example from the UK where colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) work together to deliver transition and academic skills support to students whilst they are still in the final years of their high school study. The work is specifically targeted at students from backgrounds currently under-represented in higher education in the UK with a focus on their successful progression and transition to studying in higher education. The programme aims to move away from a deficit model approach and focuses instead on providing a level playing field to high school students who don’t have access to the academic and application support some of their peers might. In the UK this work falls under an umbrella term of widening participation (WP)[1].

The Widening Participation team at LSE runs a suite of activities specifically designed to support access to higher education institutions, especially those that, like LSE, have very high entry grade requirements and high levels of competition for places. We work with children as young as nine years old as we believe that inequalities must be addressed from an early age. Once working with older students, especially those in their final two years of high school, our engagement becomes more intensive and subject focused. At this point we have 300 students each year from across London schools and colleges attending programmes based around their potential future higher education subject of interest and/or future career (E.g., law, finance, government, economics, and sociology to name just a few). Depending on the specific programme, students will join us for between 8 to 16 months during which they will attend sessions taking them beyond high school to their subject of focused study (i.e. major) in higher education.

A major objective of these programmes is to support students’ application and transition to higher education programmes and, to that end, a core focus of our work has been on providing practical information and sessions to ensure a successful application, and raise awareness of what students could expect whilst at university. Participants also get introduced to possible career pathways connected with their subject of interest and, depending on the programme they are attending, might undertake in-depth work experience in a vocational area. Whilst none of the programmes have any credit bearing element, attending participants are registered as associate LSE students; this gives them access to LSE Library and the myriad online resources available. Interestingly, many attendees utilise these resources to prepare assignments and revise for their high-school exams.

However, recently, we have been able to raise our ambitions and to enlarge the scope of the work with these students thanks to the establishment of LSE LIFE, a centre for the academic and personal development of students, which opened its doors in September 2016.

Right from the start, colleagues complemented the efforts of the Widening Participation team by hosting and delivering sessions that focus on the key academic skills that pre-entry students will need while completing their high school and later on, once they’ve been admitted to university, such as preparing for exams and networking. Critical thinking is yet another example of such sessions. For instance, in the Practice your Critical Thinking workshop offered to students on the Pathways to Law programme this academic year, 30 A-level (high-school) students worked collaboratively to deconstruct the following contentious argument: “race is no longer the key determinant of life chances.” After a short presentation on critical thinking (e.g., what is it, what are the skills required), students set about scrutinizing the statement. Drawing on their own experiences and empirical data, the students added layers of details to arguments for or against the proposition, first in small group conversations and then in a larger workshop discussion. The second part of the workshop was a free-flowing discussion that built on the questions that had come out from the first part, such as: Where geographically is the scholar basing their statement? What time frame are they working in? What does life chances even mean?

These sessions are also an opportunity for these students to reflect on the type of skills they will need to develop going forward, to take ownership of their development, to become more familiar with the expectations that universities have vis-à-vis their students, and to get familiar with a new learning environment. From a staff point of view, they represent a great opportunity for colleagues to become more familiar with the challenges faced by different students and to adapt their approach and the service development and delivery to be ever more inclusive. Interestingly, this reflection is also proving useful in terms of identifying initiatives that could have a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of our student community as a whole.

Proof of impact to date, obtained through student feedback, pre and post testing, is positive with students commenting on feeling more prepared for the transition to higher education, understanding what is needed and being able to look at subjects in ways they hadn’t previously. Progression to higher education is another useful indicator and, again, points towards the positive impact our programme is having with 80% of the students we are able to track post attendance going on to higher education, of which over 60% are going to Russell Group universities (24 leading UK universities) including LSE.

We are now working on a quasi-experimental evaluation of at least one programme to further ascertain its impact on students’ overall attainment prior to higher education typically A-level results and their critical thinking skills, two aspects that we know are key to unlocking future education opportunities.

You can find out more about LSE’s Widening Participation work at www.lse.ac.uk/wideningparticipation and LSE LIFE at www.lse.ac.uk/lselife

[1] For anyone interested in more information about the policy drivers behind WP might wish to explore a research briefing by the UK Parliament and explore the regulator of English higher education the Office for Students (OfS). There is of course an entirely separate literature on the reasons for the differences in participation and the efficacy of the current activity aimed at addressing these inequities.

Supporting Student Success Summer Blog Series

Supporting Student Success Summer Blog Series

Over the past three months, our research team has travelled across Canada and the United States to present findings from the third phase of the Supporting Student Success study. Those who attended our ACPA, AERA, and CACUSS presentations were eager to discuss initial findings and implications. Several colleagues expressed interest in replicating these conversations with stakeholders on their campuses and wanted to know when we would publish our findings… ideally a.s.a.p! We are thrilled by the enthusiasm, so much so that we are introducing a weekly summer blog series that will expand upon previous presentations by exploring the research questions and associated findings in greater detail.

You might be wondering: what’s all the buzz with these findings? Chances are, you’ve encountered conversations where faculty and/or student affairs and services staff perceived a lack of knowledge of each other’s roles, programs and services, resulting in frustrations and challenges for best supporting student success. At the same time, you can likely recall instances when shared knowledge and mutual understanding have promoted student success. It is interesting for us to consider how personal interactions and experiences have shaped our perspectives towards faculty and student affairs and services colleagues, and whether these are representative of what one might encounter in other departments and/or campus contexts.

An exciting outcome of Phase 3 of the Supporting Student Success study is the opportunity to compare our own experiences and perceptions with a national sample. In 2014, we administered surveys at 9 universities and 2 community colleges located across Canada (BC, ON, QB, NB) with a goal of measuring faculty and student affairs and services staff’s awareness of and engagement with institutional strategies aimed at promoting student success. Building from the qualitative themes that we developed from the interview and focus group data collected during the first two phases of the study, our survey instruments measured faculty and student affairs and services staff members’:

  • Awareness of programs and services to support student success
  • Engagement with others across campus to support student success
  • Perceptions of their department and the institution’s retention efforts

The first round of data collection included 1501 complete responses (909 faculty and 592 staff); the faculty population included full-time and part-time faculty who taught undergraduate courses in the 2013-14 academic year. The staff population consisted of all those who reported to the Senior Student Affairs and Services Officer (SSASO), with the exception of one institution in which housing, residence life and recreation staff who reported to a different supervisor were also included. It is important to note that on two campuses where French was the primary language of instruction, participants received all study communications and survey materials in French. The survey instruments were recently administered at an additional 13 institutions; the coding process is underway for these institutions and we look forward to including this data in future analyses.

We encourage you to visit our blog on a weekly basis to engage in a discussion of how faculty and student affairs and services staff compare in terms of:

  • June 18: Learning about student support programs and services
  • June 25: Accuracy of awareness of student support programs and services
  • July 9: Referring students to support programs and services
  • July 16: Engagement in cross-campus partnerships aimed at supporting student success

We especially look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas. What possible implications for policy and practice do these findings suggest to you? Please be part of this virtual conversation by “leaving a comment” in the comments section below each post. To receive copies of upcoming blog posts via e-mail, use the ‘subscribe’ function located in the upper right hand corner of the blog’s homepage. You can also engage with us at any time on our Twitter account: @CdnStdntSuccess.

Next week’s blog entry will explore how faculty and student affairs and services staff compare in terms of how they learn about student support programs and services. Until then, consider finding a moment in your week to reflect upon:

  • The ways in which you’ve learned about student support programs and services
  • How your colleagues and/or institution have supported this learning
  • Examples of additional communication strategies and/or resources that if implemented, would likely support learning about programs and services

Until next week,

The Supporting Student Success Research Team