Thursday, May 15, 2014

Insiders & Outsiders

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Way too often, I find myself shopping online for books. I love knowledge, and I often fill up my cart with books I want to read...only to exit out of the window after realizing that the amount of money I will have spent to buy them will not come close to matching how much time I have to read them. 

But that's what I was doing this morning, and put Mindset: The New Psychology of Success [Kindle edition] in my cart. I sighed heavily as I realized how many books were lined up ahead of it, and closed the browser. 

And then found an article, Who Gets to Graduate? - NYTimes.com, as the subject of an e-mail I received as part of a listserv I subscribe to. Who is mentioned in that article...but Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset. Whoa.



I love this article for a number of reasons, but the key point I - as a developmental education instructor - take away from this article is here: 

The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies.
(Notice Ms. Dweck is mentioned here...)

This has been an area of special interest for me since beginning work in a technical college. I see a lot of students who are attracted to a technical program because they believe (wrongly) that there isn't a lot of reading or writing involved. And I have to think that many of our students spent a lot of their years before enrolling here developing a certain identity about themselves as a student. By virtue of being at a technical college, many students perceive themselves as academic "outsiders" and find belonging in the fact that they are now in a classroom full of fellow "outsiders." They don't take notes. They don't study. They don't read the textbook. If you ask them what it means to be a good student, or if these things are important, they answer correctly...but they don't put any of these things into practice. Why? Because they don't see themselves as academic. 

In fact, there are many technical instructors with this same identity. I worked with an electrical construction teacher while she taught a course on the National Electrician's Code. When I asked her to share what she did to read the Code, she told me several strategies that I recommend to students across our programs. I suggested that she share some of these strategies she uses with her students, especially since she was considered the expert in this situation and was clearly successful at it. She responded coyly, and downplayed the value of them. She had never considered herself a strong reader...until I told her that the way she had figured out how to read the Code made her a strong reader. 

As my college, and higher education in general, experiments with ways to improve student retention, there are a few points that get glossed over, assumed, or flat-out ignored. One of these points is that we cannot equate ability with time in the classroom. The idea of using clock hours to figure credits is starting to give way to a competency-based model of measuring achievement, which means that the definition of "retention" will start to include more than simply a warm-body. Interventions that focus on getting students to attend class and stay enrolled are excellent beginnings, but they cannot be the ultimate goal. Colleges need to increase how much take into account if the student is actually achieving the outcomes of the class at an acceptable level. 

A second point is that we need to give as much - if not more! - attention to HOW we learn as we do to WHAT we learn. This article, as well as many other sources including WestEd's Reading for Understanding and author Doug Buehl's Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines, hammer home the importance of cluing students into the intricacies of how we learn in a specific content area. Much of our support structures focus on helping students at the content-level. Johnny is having trouble with capitalization, so we offer a tutor and some extra capitalization practice. But does Johnny know HOW to learn how to capitalize? How many students struggle with content because, for whatever reason, they don't know how to learn it? The idea of being an "insider" or an "outsider" directly relates to the two points brought up in the article. Once students figure out that they don't have that "insider" information about how to learn something, they create an identity for themselves around their perceived ability. "Why don't I know this?" "Why is this so difficult for me?" And they seek others like them to satisfy that need for belonging, and, as the quote from above says, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

How do we move towards giving this side of student success its credit? My feeling is that we have a hard time persuading any decision-makers to invest anything in these types of efforts because those decision-makers were "insiders" as students. Their perception of what it takes to be successful is skewed. How could a student NOT know to bring a pencil to class? How could a student NOT remember to turn in assignments? What blocks these efforts further is the attitude that if a student hasn't figured it out, it's up to the student to figure it out...fast. 

As higher education reassess its purpose, its value to society, and attempts to maintain its importance, the responsibility will become included. Why do so many students fail to complete college? Because they don't know how to learn. Sometimes the answer is so obvious that we close the window before we give our instinct a chance to work. 



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