"Enhancing Student Success"

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April 2009

On April 6, 2009, Yvonne Gaudelius, Assistant Vice President and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, Terrell Jones, Vice Provost for Educational Equity, and Damon Sims, Vice President for Student Affairs, addressed over one hundred people about Penn State’s current and future efforts to enhance student success. Louise Sandmeyer, Executive Director, Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment, moderated the session.

Yvonne GaudeliusGaudelius started the discussion by talking about how student demographics have changed and will continue to change, both at the national level and at Penn State. (Slides from Gaudelius’ talk can be viewed here.) At Penn State, minority student enrollments are on the rise, fewer low income students are attending, and more women are enrolling in graduate programs. The traditional student pool is shrinking as more adult learners, distance learners, and veterans come to the university. Additionally, traditional students are different than students in previous years. Often referred to “millennial” students, they bring with them new values, experiences, and expectations. Given all these changes, it is necessary that the institutional structure at Penn State be shaped to provide all students with the opportunities to achieve success.

Taking these trends into account, the University Strategic Planning Council’s task force on Ensuring Student Success, on which Gaudelius served as chair, set out to define student success and develop strategies to help students achieve that success. They concluded that any definition of student success should involve both cognitive and affective learning, the degree to which students achieve their academic goals, and how students transition to successful professionals and contributing citizens in an increasingly global society.

Regarding strategies, the task force used the metaphor of “scaffolding” to suggest that students be provided with the services, resources, programs and communications they need to ensure their success in higher education. Then as students become more prepared and adapted to Penn State, the scaffolding can be removed. We are asking our students to accept personal responsibility, to take action, to be involved. It’s not about waiting for someone else to tell us how to help students to be successful. We all have to, I think, accept that responsibility, be part of creating that ethos, and start those conversations.

Yvonne Gaudelius
However, the scaffolding can be built up again and made available when students are particularly vulnerable (usually transition points such as entrance to major or change of assignment). This process represents a more flexible approach to meeting student needs. Current initiatives include the first-year engagement programs, the i-LEAP summer program for international students, and the STEP program for change of assignment students in business and mechanical engineering.

In addition to providing students with appropriate levels of scaffolding to help them succeed, a greater level of curricular and co-curricular integration is needed. These integrative experiences reinforce learning, provide students with civic engagement opportunities, and help them develop leadership skills, ethical understanding, global awareness, and innovative capabilities.

Terrell JonesJones continued the presentation by talking about some of the challenges to helping students succeed. He stressed that we need to be more aware of how our students differ, both in terms of expectations and previous experiences. First generation college students can differ greatly from second generation college students for example.

Given that students have different backgrounds and goals, it is also important to do a better job of understanding when students can most benefit from help. Some of the university’s programs are offered at a time when students do not necessarily receive maximum benefit from them. Jones cited a student’s entrance to Penn State as an example of this. Most orientation programs are concentrated prior to and at the very start of a student’s first semester. …maybe one of our problems is that we, in some ways in higher education, have defined our success on how many people don’t make it; not on how many do make it.

Terrell Jones
But later, as students encounter their first exams, support is not as visible. We need to develop better methods for determining when students are most at-risk so that services can be delivered most effectively and efficiently. This will require all of us to think strategically about how we can best help students from where we work and partner with those in other units to make the biggest impact.

This process of providing students with targeted support needs to be continuous. As the needs of students change, we need to better adapt our services. We need to start thinking beyond the university system and look at how we can form stronger partnerships with K-12 educators so we know more about students coming to us and students know more about what to expect when they get here.

Following up on Jones’s comments, Sims talked about what we need to do to move forward. He considered it essential to more clearly define student success. Without a clear goal, it is difficult to effect change. Once the goal is established, we need to make a constant effort to focus attention on student success. This is a challenge considering the size and scope of the university, but several strategies to help achieve this goal were suggested.

Damon SimsBoth students and faculty members need to be equipped with a clear “map” for success. Faculty members need to be aware of what success might look like for different students and help point them to meaningful educational opportunities. This may require developing better methods for identifying when students “stumble” so interventions can be targeted more effectively, i.e., a “network of early warning systems”.

In order to tackle such a significant challenge, it is necessary to do away with the academic and student life divide and view the student experience more seamlessly. We need to be reflective all the time, this continuous quality improvement notion where we’re always asking ourselves, “Is this working; Is this actually adding to the kind of student success we want?” or should we rethink what we’re doing, should we reallocate our limited resources toward something new and fresh.

Damon Sims
Units and individuals need to be empowered to make small changes in addition to grand initiatives to help students succeed. Additionally, we must continually look for new ways to improve the services we offer; always asking ourselves if what we are doing is good enough.

Members of the audience were interested in how we evaluate student success and how we make changes. Gaudelius explained that positive evidence is starting to mount for some of the currently offered targeted programs. The panel agreed that changes need to start small and start locally and efforts need to be revisited often.


The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.