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How to Help College Students Do Better

Posted: 07/02/08 06:51 PM ET

I had a lot of trouble starting this blog.

One of the first things that I did was go out and look for pithy quotes. I found quite a few on education & success & failure that inspired to some extent. But, almost all of them, when I let them roll around my brain, left me imagining being in the dentists' chair, my mouth open painfully wide, while someone did something really unpleasant to the inside of my head. All the while, eyes watering, I'd be staring at a poster tacked, inelegantly, to the ceiling -- a poster that inevitably portrayed a cute but perplexed kitten clinging precipitously to a tree-branch, with an inspiring quote floating in the sky to his right. Blech.

I finally found a comment from Sloan Wilson that I would be comfortable leading in with: "Success in almost any field depends more on energy and drive than it does on intelligence. This explains why we have so many stupid leaders."

I'll let the second part speak for itself, but as someone who's always had potential, but not always success -- I can say I think the first part is very true indeed. The people who succeed are the people who never, ever, quit -- which is not to say that there aren't billions of people who work their asses off all their lives and still end up forgotten & unloved & dead.

I thought about talking about early childhood -- the importance of reading, of word play, of conversation, of a rich vocabulary & a love of books. I thought about talking about giving kids some unstructured time, and some space to get into trouble, and, if they could, get out of it using their own brains -- and not ours. I thought about talking about entitlement, the kids of doctors & lawyers & old money & the kids who can run fast or hit hard. I thought about trying to serve those two masters, "Academic Standards" & "Asses in Seats," and I came to the conclusion that it's a lot like an insurance company trying both to pay for quality care for its customers & provide maximum return for its shareholders. I thought about talking about our culture, which in many ways glorifies simple men, simple solutions to complex problems, that has reduced all public discourse to the fifteen second sound bite. I thought about the book, "All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," which, as a generic concept, might have some traction -- but which simply isn't sufficient to diagnose Lyme Disease or model Global Climate Change. Complexity is necessary. Nuance exists. Evolution happened, the geological record happened -- we stretch tolerance too far when we allow people to peddle myth & destructive reductionism in the name liberal values. I think this stuff is all important. I think it's meaningful. But I also will have absolutely no chance to change any of it.

So, how do we get students not to quit when the going gets rough?

When I took my first instructor training class at San Diego State University, one of the professors, who I respected very much at the time, and still do -- laid it out plainly for us -- yes, we were there to educate, yes, we were there to act as gatekeepers, but more than anything, we were there to socialize students. To let them know what college was really about and what they needed to do to get by -- not what their older brother told them, not what they saw on Animal House or PCU, but the facts on the ground. Being not much more than a kid myself, I did my best, but I'm also sure I sent a mixed message sometimes.

So let me talk about something maybe I can have an effect on. College. Teaching. Students & student success. Dr. Daniel Singley, of the University of California at San Diego, in an on-going study in aid of improving outcomes for students who are struggling academically offers some helpful insights.

The UCSD Goals in Action Program (GIA) is about getting to these kids, letting them know what they're doing wrong, and, much more importantly, showing them how they can do it right. That's really all that's required. You don't have to build up their egos just because each of them is special unique little snowflake -- show them how to succeed, let them do it, and their egos will get strong all on their own -- as will their problem solving skills, their reading skills, and all the rest. Dr. Singley identifies four practical issues that co-vary with poor academic performance, and his research has shown that by attacking those four symptoms, the primary issue -- poor grades -- can be improved markedly. The four characteristics that he identifies are: "poor time management and goal-setting skills, low self-confidence, lack of connectedness to campus resources and social support systems, and a feeling of hopelessness in adjusting to the college environment." Hell, think about the last time you had feelings like this about a job or a relationship -- how long did it last?

The students who manage to find this program get taught what might seem to some to be trivial skills, but they are skills that markedly affect outcomes for the students. Over just one semester, students in the program showed a full point of improvement in their GPAs. A point! That's huge.

The program has two components -- workshops & homework. The workshops cover "time and stress management, goal-setting, garnering social support for academic pursuits, and ways to facilitate hope" as well as "developing appropriate social support and realistic goals." The homework encourages the students to:

*maintain a day planner
*seek support from their assigned GIA "study buddies"
*talk with professors and teaching assistants
*observe and approach other students in their classes
*form study groups
*explore and use campus resources

As I've said several times, I'm not for pumping sunshine up anywhere it doesn't belong, but I think that the corollary to that need not be cruelty and punitive behavior (though I will admit I have engaged in the latter with students who truly abused the system). The conclusion, in simple language, is this -- give students the (simple, practical, common sense) tools that their successful peers learned from their parents or their friends years before, sit back, and watch them suddenly start to gain ground.

I think that there's also an important personal component to all of this. I am talking about official programs here, run by the university -- I know SDSU has something similar -- but that's not all I'm talking about. I'm talking about taking personal responsibility; I'm talking about, if you're an instructor, taking one minute to ask one question about study habits, or one minute, in the middle of a lecture, to discuss keeping a calendar. I'm talking about good students actively sharing their knowledge with their peers about how to be more successful, I'm talking about parents encouraging their children to engage with professors & peers -- to get involved in their own success.

Should we make sure every child gets good nutrition? Should we try to break the cycle of poverty? Should we try to get every parent involved? Should we, as a society, really look at our values & heroes & see if they are serving us well?

Damn straight. But if we do none of those things, because they are too hard, or too expensive, or we, as a society, are philosophically opposed to helping young children -- we can still make a difference, at age 18, at 20, at 40 -- and we can do it in a few hours a semester for almost free -- now that's a pretty good trick.