As an instructor in higher education, you’ve graded hundreds of assignments and taught dozens of lectures. But with the unprecedented disruption brought about by COVID-19 and subsequent campus closures, institutions are beginning to reassess what it means to be successful in today’s college ‘classroom’ — virtual or otherwise.

As educators discovered in their rapid shift to online learning, the pandemic has added to the stresses and challenges students were already facing. Many work full-time or are responsible for childcare. Others are contending with difficult home lives and the loss of access to campus amenities, including support resources and access to the internet and spaces for quiet study. While good grades are an important indicator, the reality is that the definition of what contributes to a successful student is far broader.

There are a number of steps educators can take to ensure that today’s students not only complete their studies but thrive in the process.

The Principles of Student Success

Student success is a commonly used term in the higher education space. Most simply, it is a favorable outcome or academic result achieved by a student. Here are some of the most commonly associated factors.

  • Educational attainment: students persist in achieving their learning objectives, usually by completing their degree or certificate program in the identified timeline.
  • Student advancement: students advance to and succeed at a series of educational and career endeavors for which their college degree or program was designed to prepare them. This includes obtaining employment in a related field or admittance to further educational programs.
  • Student retention: students entering college remain, re-enroll, and continue their undergraduate education. For example, first-year students return for their sophomore year or become transfer students at a different institution to continue their education.
  • Academic achievement: with proper academic support, students achieve satisfactory or superior levels of performance as they progress through and reach degree completion.
  • Holistic development: students are given opportunities to develop inside and outside the classroom. This includes several important elements:
    • Intellectual development: learners develop skills for acquiring and communicating knowledge, including how to think critically and analytically about their learnings in the classroom and in their academic community more broadly.
    • Social development: students have the opportunity to build relationships through extracurricular student affairs, helping to develop valuable leadership and interpersonal skills. Creating a campus community is especially important for first-generation students who are at greater risk of dropping out.
    • Ethical development: students develop a moral system that guides decision-making, encourages engagement with the broader community and helps them build character.

The importance of a holistic approach to student success is underscored by research which suggests that only 20 percent of students who withdraw from college do so for academic reasons. The reality is, most departing college students, or transfer students, are in good academic standing at the time of their departure (Tinto, 1993). Student success involves much more than pure academic achievement as part of their college education.

The question is how to embrace the multiple dimensions of higher education and personal development that are at the heart of student success. The key is identifying student learning experiences and support services that aid in the broader development of learners.

Student Success in Practice

1. Self-efficacy: learners are more likely to achieve successful student outcomes when they are confident in their ability to deal with various challenges and situations. This principle is exemplified by practices that balance peer and instructor support with challenging assessments so that students are neither overwhelmed nor under-challenged. It is most effective when learners believe they can exert significant influence or control over their academic and personal success. Initiatives that can help students build confidence in their ability to succeed include the following:

      • Summer bridge courses for students who are academically underprepared or at-risk at college entry. Highlighting literacy and numeracy fundamentals can make a significant difference for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. These bridging programs include highlighting campus resources to support students outside the classroom.
      • First-year seminars to support students beyond the first week of orientation. These programs provide timely support for college-adjustment issues students often encounter during their critical first term in college, such as navigating health and support services, applying for financial aid and learning to develop effective study habits.

2. Personal validation: student success is promoted when students feel personally significant. When students feel welcomed by the instructors, recognized as individuals, and that they matter to the classroom community, they are more likely to become active participants in classroom discussions and activities.

      • Classroom icebreaker activities encourage new students to have conversations, get to know each other and feel comfortable in your classroom. Not only do they help students feel more comfortable in the early days of the semester, but they can also create a strong foundation for collaborative assignments and effective teamwork.
      • Particularly in online classes, it is important for instructors to be present and responsive to students in order to encourage bonding as the class evolves as a group and develops intellectual and personal connections. Thoughtful and consistent daily presence—whether responding to discussion threads or hosting virtual office hours— shows students that the online educator cares about them and their questions and concerns.

3. Active learning: active learning is about engaging students in activities—dialog, debate, writing and problem-solving exercises—rather than passively listening to a subject matter expert. The amount of time and effort a student invests in the college experience is directly correlated with their likelihood to succeed in higher education.

      • By shifting more opportunity for talking and more responsibility for learning to the students through interactive group discussions and small-group instruction, all students are able to participate and engage in course content, rather than just the most verbal and assertive.
      • By having students consume lectures and course materials beforehand, class time—whether virtual or in-person—can be used to apply knowledge through problem-solving and case studies or by discussing course concepts in depth. This can help make the learning process more engaging. There are important social benefits as well. The opportunity to connect and work with peers can go a long way in ensuring students feel like they are part of a learning community.

4. Personal reflection: students are more likely to be successful when they are able to reflect on what they are learning by relating it to what they already know or have previously experienced. Simple yet effective exercises include:

      • Writing-to-learn assignments that encourage students to reflect on what they are learning and connect it to their personal experiences or what they have previously learned. This can be accomplished through one-minute papers, learning logs, learning journals or student portfolios.
      • Andrea Hendricks, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Georgia State University Perimeter College and Associate Department Chair for the Online Mathematics/Computer Science Department, uses elaboration, a learning science concept to reinforce this practice and build student engagement. Elaboration is the process of summarizing concepts in your own words and connecting these concepts to prior knowledge. Hendricks ends each section of her syllabus with a discussion question called “Elaborate and Connect.” She gives students time and space to answer some leading questions about the concepts just covered in class and to relate how they connect to previous material.

Focusing on the future

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be felt for some time to come. With institutions focused on ensuring they are able to deliver courses across a variety of different scenarios —online, in-person, or a combination of the two— reevaluating what constitutes and contributes to student success is an important area of focus.

Even when life returns to ‘normal,’ a comprehensive and holistic approach to student success will benefit how institutions support their students with more engaging experiences, inside and outside of the classroom.

Learn how Top Hat’s new array of features can help you put student success at the forefront of your curriculum and course delivery. Click here to watch our webinar introducing Top Hat Pro, our new suite of features designed to help educators engage their students, wherever learning takes place.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition. Second Edition. University of Chicago Press.

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