How Raising the Bar Helps Re-Entry Students Succeed (Part 1)
This series discusses the results of the Pacific Crest Online Recovery Course, exploring how to help students who are returning to postsecondary education learn to learn.
As educators, we want all students to succeed. Institutions admit students that are likely to succeed. And yet, not all students do. They fail. They leave with debt and doubt. Debt with no credential to help pay it off. Doubt about their ability to succeed in college, or worse, in any serious endeavor. In the United States 38 million adults have some college and no degree. Students who have been dismissed from college are often seen as “bad bets” for the institution. Because these students have already failed, require more attention, and then subsequently often re-fail, investing more in them is “throwing good money after bad.”
With the high expense of college in general, what can we do to help more students succeed? We start by taking heart from Benjamin Bloom:
“After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn if provided with appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” ~Benjamin Bloom
Then we get busy developing a solution.
The Barriers to Helping Students
“Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.” ~Henry Ford (attributed).
What we found as we analyzed the problem is that seven conceptual barriers stood in the way of effectively addressing this challenge at a large online institution.
- Commitment to rigorous standards—dropping the bar was not an option
- The university cannot afford to redistribute limited resources to those students who have failed and will likely fail again
- We want students to avoid building even larger debt with nothing to show for it
- Perception that the re-entry students’ risk factors were too great to overcome
- Many faculty members would resist implementation without proof—often expressed as “but you haven’t worked with our students.”
- Many felt that the proposed solution would be too difficult to implement
- Expected that the actual cost per student might be too high based upon expected level of success
Our principles demanded we not lower the bar. And giving students another chance without fundamentally addressing their risks would not benefit anyone. With its strong culture of student success, the institution didn’t want to give up on students who had left or been dismissed and now were seeking re-entry. Instead, we reframed the problem as “develop students’ capacity to clear the bar.”
As a result, we committed to addressing the barriers by conducting a pilot learning to learn course that would be required of students applying for re-entry.
The approach took the following steps:
- The university sought the help of Pacific Crest, a thirty-year pioneer in learning to learn courses, to create the first online offering of Pacific Crest’s Psychology of Learning & Success.
- The collaboration started in December 2016 and continued to November 2017.
- Collaboratively analyzed the situation of returning students and necessary outcomes.
- Adopted Apple, Duncan & Ellis’s Profile of a Quality Collegiate Learner (2016) to measure and improve the learning quality of students
- Designed a contextualized solution and implemented version 0 of Psychology of Learning and Success, launching in May 2016.
- Refined the course through 6 iterations.
- Prepared faculty & administrators to assume ownership of the course.
In the rest of this article, we share the results in the students’ own words; describe how the course experience replaces “debt and doubt” with determination, growth mindset, and supporting tools and skills; and conclude by summarizing key lessons learned.
The Observed Risk
The students in The Psychology of Learning and Success have a significant number of risk factors. Non-traditional learners experience a high number of non-academic, personal factors during any given period. Most students, when listing the reasons that they were not successful, identify at least one major personal factor occuring during that specific term.
A surprising number of deaths in the family, divorces, lost jobs, hospitalizations, hurricanes, earthquakes, emergency job assignments, and financial disasters occurred during each 30-day course. Since online learning attracts working adults with multiple obligations and who need the flexibility of online learning to even contemplate college, their brittle personal systems are vulnerable to unexpected life events:
- Most are working close to the edge financially (paycheck-to-paycheck with concerns about paying bills), as identified in their short-term goals
- Almost 50% are single parents with parental responsibilities impacting time to learn
- High number of health conditions led to a surprising number of hospital visits
If these students are not empowered to handle these situations with a much stronger developed self-efficacy, these personal factors become their undeniable excuse for dropping out.
In Their Words: Students’ 12 Most Common Challenges
Students do not generally predict when a personal factor will impact their lives. The following table lists the twelve most common student-identified challenges, qualitatively grouped. The actual statements varied, and we list a representative quote for each area of challenge.
This was the first of four installments in Leasure and Apple’s series on the Pacific Crest Online Recovery Course. In the second installment, they will discuss the transformation students experienced and how the course was implemented. For more details on the project, you can download the project report here.
Author Perspective: Administrator