Nov 14 2019

Institutions Must Better Support Students’ Definition of Their Success

Supporting individual learners’ goals can increase their ownership of learning outcomes.

Students have always arrived at institutions of higher education filled with hopes and expectations. For today’s students, however, attaining a traditional degree is only one possible goal among many, and what constitutes success for them is equally varied. 

As educators, we must meet students at their point of entry. We should also agree that student success is best understood from the viewpoint of those who directly experience its presence or absence — that is, from the student’s perspective. It is from this vantage point that we should determine interventions, align institutional goals and gauge the impact of an institution. 

Our mission, after all, is to educate students to help them be successful contributors to society. We can’t do this if they aren’t sticking around due to our failure to understand what success looks like to them. 

Higher Education Leaders Must Understand the Range of Student Goals

Whether they are entering two- or four-year institutions, students come with a number of intentions, many of which are relatively new options in higher education. They may want to earn certifications or add microcredentials to their resumes. They might be interested in single classes or seek an experience that does not lead to graduation.

Today’s students are much more diverse in terms of age, life situations and definitions of success. We need to consider whether success should be defined by getting a degree or obtaining the skills needed in a career — or perhaps both. Should success for some students be defined as the completion of the three or four courses they need to get a promotion at work? For a single parent or for someone without a car, should success be defined as making it to class? 

Fortunately, we are now able to combine technology with student-driven models of motivation to better map out definitions of student success. For example, certain tools enable institutions to capture student objectives and then work with them to create nudges that motivate learners toward their goals. We can use analytics and data to gain insights into what is taking place in students’ lives that poses challenges to their ability to learn, then follow up with a human connection or intervention to help them move past these challenges.

Seek Out the Student Voice for Greater Engagement

Institutions need to invest in the technology and human systems to notice and celebrate when students make progress toward their goals. This can be encouraged by inviting students to help inform the tools and processes used to measure their success. For example, engaging students in advisory committees or user experience testing might be handled in different ways depending on the kind of campus and student population, but the benefits can be extensive. 

Along with surfacing tools that relate to the success metrics students find important, the very act of inviting them into the process can be a tool for engagement. And as we know, engaged students are more likely to feel a sense of belonging on campus and persist to achieve their goals.

As one example of this approach, California’s South Orange Community College District includes student voices when choosing its learning tools. Student advisory committees work with the district’s IT teams to test options, provide feedback and report on how students navigate different systems. The students appreciate being able to participate in these opportunities and tend to make use of the resources. The district gets better information, more effective tools and greater engagement — it’s a win-win.

When listening to students, however, the goal isn’t to make the learning process easy. Institutions need to keep their missions front and center to ensure that decisions made in response to student voices are aligned with their purpose and strategies. Sometimes, an institution will need to make decisions that are in the interest of student success, but that may not be what an individual student would ask for. That too is part of the learning process.

Gain Insight by Mapping Out the Student Journey to Success

Cross-campus collaboration is essential for accurately deploying resources to promote student success. Rather than seeing this as the job of one department, institutions must aim for a broad understanding of students’ experiences on campus in order to better support their journeys to success. 

From the institution’s perspective, a primary benefit of mapping the student experience is to optimize the deployment of resources and reduce redundancies. For example, when colleges analyze the communications sent to students, it might become apparent that multiple departments are inadvertently sending redundant communications, resulting in email fatigue for students and resource inefficiencies for the institution.

From the student perspective, all those emails would not only be annoying; they might lead to the sense that no one cares enough about their experiences to pay attention. For students, the value of the institution gaining a better understanding of their experiences is a more coherent journey toward success, with supportive touch points across campus. 

Valorizing the Student Perspective on Success Benefits Individuals and Institutions

When institutions remove roadblocks to the process of navigating college while still maintaining appropriate levels of friction in the learning process, they can help students discover pathways in line with their definitions of success. This, in turn, can help increase retention rates as students gain access to the tools they need to accomplish their personal learning goals across departments.

Establishing more coherent student journeys may also mean redefining success to include not just graduation but also the accomplishment of smaller goals along the way. Permeable “walls” in the institution may need to be created, so students can accomplish a microgoal, exit into the workforce and then return to seamlessly continue their studies.

In some cases, placing priority on the student perspective of success may affect an institution’s standard graduation and retention rates. But when we better understand students’ own goals, we can better support them in reaching their definitions of success. And this, I would argue, should be a primary definition of our own success as institutions.

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