In Search of the Silver Bullet: Communication and Our Students

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

Of the biggest challenges facing the relationship between post-secondary institutions and their students, communication seems to be one at the forefront. Do students know what resources are available? Do they understand the system and supports? Do they know when classes and exams start? How do we tell them so they will actually hear what we are saying, and listen?


When I think back to my first foray into post-secondary education at Humber College, things were “simpler”. All communication was done by paper and sent through the mail. I was given an institutional email, but it wasn’t used for anything official. There were no smart phones, Facebook or Twitter, and the website had some information about services, but if you wanted to know something you needed to ask a faculty or staff member or go to an office. Things were much more face-to-face transactional in nature, but answers sometimes came slow and there wasn’t the ease and immediacy of information that is expected now (by faculty, staff and students). This experience was not 25 years ago. This was 2001.

By my second experience into post-secondary education, the landscape had changed immensely. In 2005 when I entered University of Toronto, knowing how to use CCNet (the precursor to Blackboard) was a must. Emails were used by faculty and departments to communicate information, and websites were more thorough. However, information about start dates for classes, fees, and course selection were still sent by mail, and this was when Facebook was in its infancy, and there was still no Twitter. Communication still happened mostly face-to-face or by phone, and email was still a hit or miss way to connect with certain staff and faculty based on their comfort with the technology.

As an undergraduate student at U of T, I saw this change dramatically in 4 years. Now as a staff member (and not that far removed from the generation of students just entering post-secondary study) I feel the gap in their needs and expectations of communication, and my understanding of how the institution “does” it. This is where the challenge, I believe, lies. Understanding how communication happens for a generation that doesn’t really remember a time before computers, has been on Facebook since elementary school, and has been using smart phones for years is different from my youth experience, and as a staff member I feel it is now up to me to figure out how to bridge that gap and how to communicate effectively with this group of students. I need them to know what I need them to know.

U of T started the process of hearing the voices of our students through NSSE and other focus groups and surveys. On May 16, using the previous work and knowledge to inform the conversation, U of T held a Communication Summit to bring together the different areas of the university along with its students to strategize the best ways to communicate with them – meeting both their needs, and the institutions.

At the recent Student Life Professionals retreat held at U of T, some of the results of this were discussed. Not surprisingly, students are looking for information to be as streamlined as possible, and want that information somewhat tailored to them. There are a few people who are more likely to have their emails looked at (such as the registrar’s office) and students are wary of being “spammed” by information from the university. They are also looking frequently to Facebook and Twitter for information.

From the conversations at the session, along with some of the data we’ve seen through the Supporting Student Success study, the one thing that is clear is that there is no silver bullet for communication. Students are all getting information from a variety of sources, and all have preferred methods, which are probably far less uniform than they were years ago. Methods and means of communication are also changing rapidly, and institutions, staff and faculty need to be adaptable enough to meet new needs and incorporate new means of communication in accessible and meaningful ways. Students need to continue being a part of the conversation on how they are communicated with, because the solutions of today may not be solutions a year from now.

One of the pieces of the conversation that really stuck with me, however, is that one of the best allies in all of this is other staff. We need to be cognizant of how we are communicating with each other, and that we are being responsive to each other’s needs in regards to communicating with students. Do you have a cool event you want your colleagues to promote? Make sure you know their deadlines and distribution dates for e-newsletters and their listserv policies. Do they accept posters or only want text and links? Can the tweet the information or post it on Facebook for you? These are all helpful things to consider so that institutionally we try to cut down as much spam mail as we can, but also help each other out to be as responsive to student needs as possible.

We want them to hear us, and I think they want to listen. We just need to try to make sure that we are speaking the same language, and include them in the conversation so that we as professionals can stay in touch with new methods of communication, and how they are using them. It’s a changing landscape, and flexibility will be the thing that probably serves us best in the long term.

Youth Outreach Project: Introducing Blueprints for Student Success

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The Supporting Student Success research team would like to introduce you to our newest venture in supporting students: Blueprints for Student Success.

Throughout our visits to Ontario college and university campuses, we have heard staff, faculty and students discuss students’ knowledge and use of programs and services available on campus that support student success. Students informed us that often their understanding of these programs and services resulted from random discovery, learning from their peers, and faculty referral during moments of crisis or need. What we heard is that students often don’t know where to go, who to ask questions, or how to get support. Students go to college and university with the intention of building their knowledge base and resume for the future but lack the blueprint of how to do so.

Using research from the Supporting Student Success study, we are currently developing a youth outreach website for high school students entitled, Blueprints for Student Success. The site will contain a blueprint or framework of the program and service areas that commonly exist on postsecondary campuses to support student success; what these program and service areas typically do; suitable questions students may ask upon visiting each area; and inventive initiatives and programs currently in place. In addition, the website will feature a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section, student experience videos and weekly news articles and feature pieces for high school students.

This is where YOU come in. We know that you interact with postsecondary students on a daily basis and frequently here the trailing comment, “If only I knew that before. . . .” So given that hindsight is 20/20 and there is much to be gained by “paying it forward,” we invite you to help us develop the FAQ portion of the Blueprints for Student Success website by asking students with whom you connect (in person or virtually) to respond to the following question:

1. What factors should students consider when choosing a college and/or university? When choosing a program of study?

Students can leave a comment below (, tweet (@CdnStdntSuccess #BLUEPRINTSQ1) or post ( their answers to one of our media channels.

Alternatively, you can collect student responses and post them as a group in the comment section below.

We will release a new question each week (5 weeks total) for feedback and will use the accumulated responses to populate our college/university FAQ section.

We sincerely appreciate your assistance!

~ Christine Helen Arnold, (Youth Outreach Coordinator, Supporting Student Success research study)

#Congress2013 Debrief – Part I – Student Success: Is it in the eye of the beholder?

How can we define student success? This is perhaps one of the most utilized phrases in higher education that scholars, practitioners, and the public and private sectors utilize to refer to an array of student outcomes. Traditionally, student success has referred to measurable outcomes, such as retention and graduation rates, mastering of academic content, and students’ employability after graduation. While these outcomes can inform practice and policies in higher education, it provides a limited scope to how different stakeholders perceive student success.

We had the opportunity to explore the definition of student success with the data collected as part of the Supporting Student Success research project. We asked 365 participants, who included senior administrators, faculty, staff, and students, to define what student success meant to them.

The results were fascinating and we recently presented the findings at the CSSHE conference in Victoria, BC. Student success was described as multi-layered and multifaceted. Overall, there were 18 different definitions of student success. These definitions could be grouped into two main domains: Academic Success and Personal Success. The first domain, Academic Success, included definitions related to retention and graduation, mastering academic content, G.P.A., and finding a good program fit. The second domain, Personal Success, included definitions that highlighted the importance of making meaningful connections, realizing your limitations and your strengths, and taking risks.

While each of the four groups differed in how they primarily perceived student success (e.g. faculty and senior administrators described it primarily as retention and graduation, and staff and students as personal success) there was a consensus that student success varied by student and their desired goals. Our findings indicate that defining student success cannot be limited to traditional and measurable outcomes. Student success needs to be explored and defined by examining the needs and goals of individual students if we are to support them and encourage them in a meaningful way.

We want to pose two questions:

How does your institution define student success?

How do you define student success?


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.

Re-tooling PSE for Student Success

By Tricia Seifert

I’ve been watching this conversation about re-tooling postsecondary education to meet Ontario’s job needs with keen interest. It seems that many see the role of postsecondary education as providing job training, particularly in Ontario’s college sector. But even beyond the express vocational education mandate of the colleges, one need not look far to find those who talk about university graduates who do not have the skills to find a job in today’s economy. It seems both of Ontario’s postsecondary education sectors are being called to task to educate graduates for today’s work force.  On its face, this seems to be a logical point of view. But when we dig a little deeper, we realize that today’s labour needs will not be the needs of tomorrow.  A good number of jobs that exist today did not exist ten years ago. How does postsecondary education meet the needs of a labour market that is ever-changing?

I suggest that colleges and universities must think of education as that which begins with content knowledge (whether that content knowledge is in auto mechanics or Canadian literature) but continues with educating students in the transferable skills of critical thinking and effective reasoning  as well as communication – writing and speaking—across modes (blogs, formal memos, tweets) and to multiple audiences. Couple these transferable skills with the transferable attitudes/dispositions of respectfully working with and learning from members of diverse communities, developing the capacity to learn how one learns and a willingness to see learning as a lifelong process to round-out an education. In this regard, postsecondary education is framed by the content knowledge (as the context for student learning) but focuses its efforts on developing transferable skills and attitudes that enable graduates to contribute meaningfully as citizens of their communities and re-invent themselves as the job market evolves.

Reflecting on the hundreds of definitions of student success we have heard from participants in the Supporting Student Success study, I suggest a postsecondary education that develops these transferable skills and attitudes is one that truly positions students to be successful both today and in years to come.

We love hearing from you. What do you think about this conversation to re-tool PSE? What is the role of PSE in educating students for the work force? How are we doing? What could we do better? Please leave a comment and be part of the conversation.

“I Think I CAN!”: The Power of a Growth Mind-set

There is an increasing focus on students’ mental health in Canada’s postsecondary institutions.  I applaud the work institutions like Queen’s University and York University are doing to remove the stigma from talking about mental health and mental illness.  Mental illness is a big domain, spanning anxiety to chronic depression to schizophrenia. I know our postsecondary institutions educate students across this domain but it seems that anxiety is the area that has received the most press recently.

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t read about increasing anxiety levels in our high school and postsecondary student population.  All of this got me thinking about how anxiety likely undermines students’ interest in learning. If students are anxious about their future, they may be more likely to view their abilities as something they either have (or don’t have) as opposed to something they can develop through effort and persistence.

In her article, “Mind-sets and Equitable Education,” Dr. Carol Dweck suggests educators (and students) tend to view ability and intelligence in one of two ways: fixed mind-set OR growth mind-set

You’ve heard probably heard a student say, “I’m just not any good at math. It’s not my thing.” This is a textbook response from a student who holds a fixed mind-set. Contrast this statement with one from a student with a growth mind-set, “It takes a lot of practice and determination but I am confident I can learn the material.” The second student’s statement views learning as a journey not simply a destination.

This got me thinking about what we do as postsecondary educators to develop students’ growth mind-sets. As Dr. Dweck shares, how do we teach students that the brain is a muscle that can be trained in ways similar to training our other muscles? Just as our arms gain strength from doing push-ups, our brain grows stronger when it’s stretched, forming new connections between ideas.

One way to improve students’ mental health may be for educators to nurture students’ development of growth mind-sets through intentional messages suggested by Dr. Dweck like, “We value (and praise) taking on challenges, exerting effort, and surmounting obstacles more than we value (and praise) “natural” talent and easy success

By incorporating this and other growth mind-set messages into our work with students, perhaps students will begin to see learning as a journey rather than simply a place where one is pre-destined to arrive. And if we can see learning (like life) as a journey, then maybe the future will not feel so daunting.

I invite you to “leave a comment” sharing how you, your colleagues or your institution develop students’ growth mind-sets.

Submitted by Tricia Seifert

From the Mountaintop: Seeing Our Work with New Eyes

With the flurry of activity that typically takes place at the beginning of a term, it is often hard to take a moment and actually reflect on the good work we did over the summer. Now that it is officially fall, it feels timely to take a moment for some summer reflections.

I spent almost a month this summer hiking and backpacking in the mountains. Although in many ways I fully unplugged from my teaching and research, I was often surprised how different experiences in the woods felt like analogies for supporting student success.

Nowhere was this more apparent than when I was crossing a wooden bridge ten feet in the air with a brisk rocky mountain river below. I instinctively unbuckled my hip belt and loosened my shoulder straps. I knew that if I were to fall I would need to take off my backpack quickly; if I didn’t, I risked the current taking me downstream. How did I know to unbuckle my hip belt and loosen my straps? When I was new to hiking, I was fortunate to have wonderful guides who shared lots of “mountain know-how” both at the start of the trail and in the teachable moment when we faced those types of river crossings.

On the other side of the river, with hip belt firmly re-buckled, I thought about how we support students with “postsecondary know-how”. I immediately thought about the data we’ve collected as part of the Supporting Student Success research study and conversations we’ve had with faculty and student affairs and services staff talking about academic integrity issues. How do students learn to appropriately give credit to others’ ideas? When is working together on an assignment acceptable group work and when is it copying someone else’s homework?

It makes me think about how we use those weeks at the beginning of the fall term to educate new students about the expectations, rights and responsibilities as part of our academic community. At that point, students are at the “trailhead” of their postsecondary journey and can benefit from such “postsecondary know-how”. But it seems there is always so much to cover at the trailhead, Frosh Week and orientation are full of information sessions and socials. It can be hard to keep it all straight. What we need is to use the teachable moment at the stream crossing, when the first writing assignment is due. That’s the opportunity for faculty to partner with their academic learning skills colleagues to talk again about how to reference others’ ideas in your written work and assemble a proper reference list.

A couple days later, I was hiking a 14,000 foot peak. There was a well worn trail that snaked its way up the side of the mountain to the ridge and ultimately the summit. Off the trail was the boulder field; big boulders that required a fair bit of scrambling up and over to achieve the ridge and finally the summit. Knowing there was no direct route but always up for a bit of a challenge, my partner and I chose the boulder field way. The view from the top was breathtaking; perhaps even more so because of the meandering path we took to get there.

In the course of the Supporting Student Success study, we’ve talked to hundreds of people and asked them to define student success. Most talk about credential completion, whether that is achieving a diploma, certificate or degree. They talk about the summit if you will. Yet, many of our participants also describe student success as personal discovery, learning to take risks, and developing a sense of belonging at their institution. They talk about students working their way through the boulder field. They talk about student success in a way that recognizes students as whole people: head and heart and body. Holistic student success if you will. There seems to be increasing pressure to focus all our postsecondary energies on students reaching the summit—graduation—as quickly as possible. But I have to wonder what students and society lose when there is virtually no opportunity to explore in the boulder field.

The famous naturalist John Muir is well-known for saying, “the mountains are calling and I must go.” I heeded that call with reckless abandon this past summer. What I found in the mountains was a new way to see and ponder the work that I do.

I turn the question to you: what have you learned this summer that makes you see your work in a new way? Please leave a comment and join in the conversation.