Understanding Student Needs Vital to Succeeding in the Graduate Student EnvironmentScott Greenberg | Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs, Framingham State University
In a previous EvoLLLution article (Three Factors Influencing Persistence and Withdrawal for Part-Time Adult Graduate Students) we shared some of the findings from a study of adult students attending part-time graduate programs at a public university. As we reported, the leading reason why some students had withdrawn or seriously considered withdrawing from their program was due to “feeling overwhelmed by the workload.” We suggested that prior to their matriculation, adult students need to fully understand the expectations of graduate-level coursework, the requirements of the federal credit-hour definition and the changes they would need to make in their lives to successfully manage school on top of work, family, financial and other obligations.
To learn more about the issues raised by students in our original study, in spring 2014, we surveyed 62 graduate faculty from this same institution to determine whether faculty shared student perceptions of graduate student persistence. We found confirmation of what students had said about feelings of being overwhelmed and confirmation of the need for more transparency in terms of expectations. This was summed up by one professor as: “The greatest impediment to student success is their clear understanding of how much time per week they will need to devote to preparation for class.”
Faculty respondents were cognizant of the different stress factors facing adult students and the effect these have on student expectations and persistence. When asked, “Are there issues that you hear about from your students that they say make the graduate school experience … difficult for them.”
The three leading responses from faculty were:
- Work related issues/conflicts (71.7 percent)
- Family obligations (67.9 percent)
- Personal or family health issues (50.9 percent)
Since faculty appear to recognize the multitude of time constraints and stressors for adults students, we wondered if they employed strategies to help students succeed without jeopardizing the academic integrity of the coursework or program.
Results from the respondents included the following:
- Offered office hours via email or in person (87.8 percent)
- Offered to come in early or stay after class to address questions or problems (71.4 percent)
- Showed leniency about due dates in recognition of the outside pressures of students (61.2 percent)
- Identified prerequisite skills in their course syllabus (e.g., technology, citation referencing) (44.9 percent)
Faculty cited other measures they initiated to encourage persistence and success among their students.
- Developing a one-credit writing course in response to incoming student anxieties and perceived limited skills regarding writing, research and technology. This introduced students to using the library database and Blackboard learning management system their institution uses, thereby helping students make the transition to graduate work.
- Embedding a librarian in an online course in order to provide immediate access for research assistance.
- Providing opportunities for students to submit a first draft of their work a week in advance of the deadline so that substantial feedback could be given.
- Giving regular feedback to students about their work and what they needed to do to improve.
Suggestions for administrative initiatives included:
- Provide a cross-disciplinary orientation workshop for accepted students where the basics of academic writing are reviewed and tutoring resources are described.
- Provide a peer mentoring program that has current graduate students paired up with prospective graduate students.
- Assign a graduate school faculty member to whom the student can turn for a quick conversation, question or support during difficult times.
- Make sure students have a clear career path in mind because the cost of graduate school is a major financial and time investment.
Each of these initiatives addresses the problems associated with limited social and cultural capital of many of our students (problems discussed in our previous papers). They speak to the need to help acclimate and support students whose expectations of graduate school may not be in line with realities. While such actions may or may not result in the persistence of individual students, they send a strong message of institutional concern for student success. As we found in our previous study with adult part-time graduate students, caring matters. Faculty responses on the current survey made clear that they understand the institution’s commitment to students is demonstrated primarily by the actions of faculty and staff. When asked about the most important aspects of instruction to graduate student persistence, the leading factor cited by graduate faculty was concern for students.
By making the expectations of graduate coursework clear to incoming students, providing a strong orientation program, offering peer mentoring, working with students to help them identify how they will manage their time given a multitude of responsibilities and enhancing opportunities for student learning and success through pedagogical strategies, we can demonstrate a culture and practice of caring that’s both affirming and motivating for adult students.
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 Cohen, M. and Greenberg, S. 2011. “The Struggle to Succeed: Factors Associated with the Persistence of Part-time Adult Students Seeking a Master’s Degree.” Continuing Higher Education Review, Vol. 75: 101-102. Accessed at http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ967811.pdf
Author Perspective: Administrator