Part One: Institutional Strategies to Improve Student Success …

Pam Sornson, JD

… What are We Doing that Isn’t Working?

Pam Sornson, JD

June 20, 2023

The meaning of the phrase “student success” changes as educational systems and cultural expectations evolve.  These days, the definition is evolving even further to reflect societal responses to the pandemic, climate change, economic and social upheaval, and other global concerns. Additionally, recent research indicates that it’s not just a student’s activities that drive their academic success (or failure); in many cases, choices and practices by the school can also negatively impact the learner’s opportunity to achieve educational goals. When the school fails to meet its ultimate mandate – providing appropriate resources to ensure learners leave as well-trained and productive members of society – then whatever the learner does or tries to do doesn’t ultimately matter.


Short-Term Action (Should) = Long-Term Gain

For many people, the concept of “student success” focuses on the individual student and the services and support they receive while in their academic process. Consequently, many schools track a familiar network of metrics to identify and support the personal attributes every learner needs to successfully attain their scholastic targets:

Self-efficacy – the learner’s ability to manage themself, their time, and their activities.

Retention – the capacity to return each term to further their educational agenda.

Persistence – the ability to maintain focus over time to achieve their personal end goals, whether those are educational, career-oriented, or both.

Completion – the capacity to complete their desired courses and programs.

Academic achievement – the capacity to meet their course and program goals.

In today’s fraught and diverse society, many schools struggle to define precisely which types of support are needed for every student to successfully execute these traits. In the short term, each student’s success will determine the institution’s ultimate success in achieving its goals and mandates.


Clarifying ‘Student Success’ from the Institutional Perspective

Making that effort more challenging, however, is the emerging notion that ‘student’ success may (or should) also be tied to long-term cultural change. One expert asserts that an academic infrastructure that aligns its student success metrics to those of a change initiative has a better capacity to transform not just the life of the learner and the capacity of the school but also the community it feeds.

Adrianna Kezar, the Dean’s Professor for Higher Education Leadership at the University of Southern California, suggests that it is insufficient to consider the development and delivery of student success supports as ancillary to academic instruction. Instead, she recommends that both schools and their regional administrations recreate their existing organizational infrastructure to embed student success-oriented supports within the day-to-day activities of every office and department. Sharing the responsibility of enhanced learner and institutional success across all elements of the school facilitates the organization’s capacity to fully implement the needed interventions that will eventually accomplish a culture change. Doing so also ensures that those revamped visions of ‘success’ move with graduates into the community to facilitate its embrace of newly recognized social values.

Identify Where Change Needs to Happen

Of course, any form of institutional change should address existing issues as well as build a foundation for future goals. In the higher ed sector, too often, schools focus on the student as an individual person when contemplating improvements in student success metrics. However, recent research indicates that entrenched educational processes often cause insurmountable barriers for learners, and these school-controlled educational processes often require a more substantial overhaul.

In a 2023 survey, approximately 50% of the 3000+ two- and four-year student respondents asserted that challenges presented by the school and its practices were preventing them from achieving their educational goals:

More than half (55%) revealed that the teaching style of their professors made it difficult for them to learn the subject matter.

Almost half (49%) stated that their exams or the material on which they were based were too difficult for them to master at that stage of their education.

Another 40% indicated that unclear expectations from the professors regarding what they were supposed to achieve made it difficult for them to be successful in those courses.

Given that the survey incorporated student perspectives from 128 different schools, these concerns should flag every higher ed institution to investigate whether its constituents experience the same problems. If they do, then that college can affirmatively work to identify and remedy them as quickly as possible. An in-depth analysis of the courses receiving the complaints, their materials, their placement within the academic arc, and, notably, the teaching style of the professors who teach them would suggest where remedies would be most beneficial. If logic follows, such an endeavor would improve both the students’ and the college’s ‘success’ metrics.

The survey also revealed other aspects of decisions made by the school or their teachers that negatively impact the student experience and, consequently, student success:

While more than half (55%) enjoyed a mix of online and physical course materials, one in three (30%) wanted professors to be more cost-aware of them when making those selections.

Two in three believed they were graded fairly, but only one in four of those respondents understood how that grading was structured.

45% reported that they had received little or no guidance on course sequencing for graduation planning (although eight of ten of the 55% who had received that support rated it highly).

30% reported that a course they needed to graduate wasn’t offered during the term they intended to take it.

Overall, the survey indicates that today’s college systemic orchestration poses challenges to higher ed students over which they have no control. If schools embrace this data as a clarion call, and make changes to address these concerns, then the success metrics of both parties to the ‘student success’ strategy – the students and the school – can improve.



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