"What is Student Success?"

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October 2009

Terrell Jones

Connecting with students, both in the classroom and outside of it, is the key to student success according to a panel of Penn State students and University staff. The panel convened on Friday, October 9, 2009, as the first of three Quality Advocates sessions this fall focusing on student success. W. Terrell Jones, Vice Provost for Educational Equity, moderated discussion among four students and three staff members. Jones posed six questions to the panelists focusing on how they defined student success, how critical processes at the University facilitated or hindered student success, how engaged students are in the classroom, and how well Penn State promotes itself in advertising.

Panelists included:

  • Kristin Gillead, a Senior in Immunology and Infectious Disease, College of Agricultural Sciences
  • Amirah Heath, a Junior in Marketing, Smeal College of Business
  • Quortne Hutchings, a Senior majoring in Sociology, College of the Liberal Arts
  • Sean McGrath, a Senior majoring in Geography, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences
  • Laura Brown is a Senior Undergraduate Studies Advisor in DUS
  • Randi Congleton is the Director of Multicultural Programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences
  • Diane Farnsworth is a Counselor in the Multicultural Resource Center

Student success goes far beyond simple measures like graduation and good grades, and may look different for each student, depending on their goals. Diane Farnsworth suggested that the first semester is a critical time for students to find their “own niche” and make connections with student groups, University offices, and other resources. According to Farnsworth, “A University of this size is very, very complicated, but one of the beauties of a … research institution this size is that there is so much in the way of rich resources.” To this, Randi Congleton added that student needs differ, and Penn State may need to provide different support mechanisms. We should treat a student as an individual and come to them where they are, to help them to grow, not only academically, but professionally, personally, and emotionally.

Randi Congleton
Congleton gave the example of the grants given to some student-parents for day care as an example of how the University tries to promote student success based on differing student needs. To Sean McGrath, student success is students achieving their goals, but beyond that, incorporating their experiences within and outside of the classroom to grow. Laura BrownLaura Brown felt successful students needed to feel empowered. This empowerment may come from involvement in student clubs or other organizations, rather than academic success. Jones asked the panelists about the effects of being too involved outside of the classroom. Both Kristin Gillead and Amirah Heath admitted that they had been overextended at various points in their time at Penn State, but their connections with staff in support offices helped them to realize this and take steps to address the issue.

Sean McGrath and Quortne HutchingsCritical processes in the student experience can help to facilitate and sometimes hinder student success. One of these critical processes is the admissions process. Panelists cited rolling admissions, the easy to complete application form, recruitment programs such as the Student Minority Advisory and Recruitment Team (SMART) and Achievers Weekend, the 2+2 program for students who complete their first two years at a campus other than University Park and move to UP in their third year, and the Division of Undergraduate Studies as factors which facilitate student success. For McGrath, “The fact that Penn State had a college dedicated to students who don’t know what they want to do was extremely tempting to me. That really helped me to pick Penn State.”

Other important areas to student success are financial aid processes. Financial aid can alleviate much of the financial stress that families face in sending their children to college. If there is something I would challenge us to do, it is to look at how we disempower students by having them graduate with such incredible debt loads.

Laura Brown
Heath, who is a Lenfest Scholar, received scholarships during her first two years at Penn State, but has received Lenfest funding in all years. She pointed out that the stability of the Lenfest funding, along with the other Lenfest Program support, such as tutoring and residential learning, also contributed greatly to her success. Current trends in higher education may place additional financial burdens on students. Panelists mentioned encouraging students to participate in study abroad programs, enroll in summer sessions, and apply for credit cards, as some examples of increasing financial burdens.

panelThe panelists also discussed some of the ways that business processes at Penn State lead to or hinder student success. The panelists agreed that Penn State is a large institution, and students may have some difficulty navigating the processes and policies. Some examples of how business processes and student misunderstanding of them may hinder student success included:

  • Students who had not paid their bill by the start of the semester who were unable to change their schedule.
  • Students who are doing poorly in a course, but are unable to drop it because they may fall below full-time level and lose tuition and health benefits. (The panelists recommended Penn State offer more late start classes to help students who need to drop a class.)
  • Some parts of the entry to major process which may discourage student entrance to certain colleges.
  • Students who are allowed to continue to live in residential housing although they have not paid their bills, thus accumulating additional debt which they may be unable to pay.
  • Courses needed for graduation which are offered only once per academic year.

Kristin Gillead and Randi CongletonTimes of transition are difficult for students and the support processes Penn State has implemented for these transitions may affect student success. Farnsworth feels the first ten days of a student’s first semester are critical for students to understand the system. She meets with students during this time to make sure they understand critical policies and processes. Based on her experience transitioning to University Park, Gillead added “Transitioning from another campus up here was pretty difficult.” She suggested that University Park could better help facilitate students in the transition, socially, academically and physically. Heath also pointed out that even within University Park, transitioning from college to college could also be difficult. McGrath commented that he and other students have sometimes been able to use their connections to people they know in the University to make change happen for them, by working around system policies. In such a large organization, McGrath pointed out it is beneficial for the organization to have structured policies and practices, but it is helpful for students to know who to go to for help when these policies impede their progress. Connections with office staff, support systems and faculty are important at times like these.

Engagement in the classroom depends on both the instructor and the students. It is not the size of the classes that matters, because even in large classes, with 700 students or more, some faculty are able to engage students in their classes. [Student Innovation and Quality] IQ teams meet for one credit during the semester to discuss some of the things we like and dislike about interactions with the course, the PowerPoint, and the way exams are formatted. We use that feedback to give to the professors to make the course better.

Amirah Heath
All four student panelists had been in large classes in which they were engaged. Quortne Hutchings recalled a race relations class he had and the engagement he felt through the recitation period that went along with the large class format: “It was just amazing to bring back the material that we had in the class and to bring it into the recitation period. We all got to know each other (all fifteen of us) better as individuals, and understand race more, because we all talked and contributed”. Amirah Heath and Diane FarnsworthIn large classes, the student panelists also felt the use of clickers, faculty interacting with the full class rather than focusing on the first row, recitations, and the use of “out-of the box” learning activities engaged students and added to learning.

In the final segment of the session, the panelists discussed how Penn State promotes itself through advertising. Many of the panelists felt current advertising doesn’t emphasizeaudience the strong academic atmosphere and strengths of Penn State, but instead focuses on the social aspects. Panelists suggested that there should be more emphasis placed on activities inside the classroom and research opportunities in commercials.



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.