"Connecting Policy and Practice to Student Success"

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November 2009

Damon Sims

On Friday, November 13, 2009, Damon Sims, Vice President for Student Affairs, moderated the second Quality Advocates session offered this fall focusing on student success. The panelists included one faculty member, one administrator, and two students. Informed by the first session which focused on defining student success, Sims asked the panelists to talk about policies and practices that help or hinder student success.

Panelists included:

  • Bob Reason, Associate Professor of Higher Education and Faculty Fellow in Student Affairs
  • Andrea Dowhower, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs
  • Mohamed Raouda, a Junior majoring in History and International Politics and Academic Affairs Director of the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments
  • Kirin Kennedy, a Junior majoring in Physical Geography and Climatology and Vice President of the Penn State NAACP Chapter

Dr. Reason started the discussion by suggesting the University move away from the conception of student-centered policy-making to learning-centered policy-making. The former can result in changes that while favorable to students, may not be effective in improving learning outcomes. He suggested that this change could facilitate the identification of meaningful metrics for determining the success of new policies.

Bob ReasonHe also suggested thinking about engagement practices as the processes that can lead to success rather than goals in and of themselves. If time and energy are going to be spent on these practices, it must be determined that they be educationally purposeful and supported by the research on what does and does not work. As examples of practices that promote the acquisition of knowledge and higher order thinking skills, he identified instructional methods like supplemental instruction and service learning, undergraduate research, and providing students with opportunities to engage across differences (political, ethnic, religious, and so on) with other students. Policies that promote practices like these encourage student reflection and should be tied to curricular outcomes. Engagement is the process, it is not the end goal, but it is the process that leads to those ends.

Bob Reason
Likewise, Reason stressed the importance of working from the research to identify policies that encourage practices known to have a negative influence on student success while being mindful of the context in which students engage in these practices. He offered as an example the mixed results of fraternity participation on academic learning.

Andrea DowhowerFollowing the points made by Reason, Dr. Dowhower expressed the importance of looking at the programs and services the University offers and examining the degree to which they are educationally purposeful. We need to ask if the expected outcomes are well-defined and if they are being clearly communicated to students. Learning outcomes have been defined at the university level, but they need to be delineated at the program or service level.

Dowhower talked about how Penn State uses the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to measure how well we are doing on process measures like those identified. While not perfect, the instrument is one of the few that attempts to measure student engagement and allows for comparisons to other universities nationally. It asks questions about practices we are interested in, such as whether students have participated in community-based projects as part of a course, discussed career plans with faculty and advisors, and interacted with faculty outside of a course. Is it acceptable for a Penn State student to graduate without having made a classroom presentation?

Andrea Dowhower
She suggested that if students are engaging in these activities, it would be difficult to argue that the University was not promoting student success. Regardless of issues people may have with possible ambiguity in the response options for some of the items on the tool, it is instructive to look at the percentage of students that report never having had some of the experiences that have been identified as important.

panelThe data from NSSE and instruments like it can also be used to look at the impact of some of the universities policies and practices on student success. However, it is important to consider subgroups of students in an analysis like this. Differences that exist at the subgroup level can be masked when looking at the larger population. These data can be supplemented with other sources as well, such as that from the student satisfaction survey or through data gathered from focus groups.

Mohamed RaoduaAfter sharing how he was pleased with his experiences of working with faculty and staff and how open they have been to his concerns, Mohamed Raouda talked about some specific policies he believes impede student success. He talked about how some students see the IT fee as unfair. Unlike most other fees, students do not know how the money is spent. He also talked about how the student government is no longer able to recognize student organizations and the negative impact this has had. Students miss the responsibility and opportunity for the leadership this function afforded them. The policy is inconsistent as the other campuses away from University Park allow their student governments to recognize organizations.

Mo identified the course retake policy as one that specifically penalizes motivated students. Under the current policy, when a student retakes a course, both grades are counted toward the student’s GPA. At some other institutions, the old grade is dropped and replaced by the new grade (or better grade depending on the policy). Motivated students are the key to the success of any educational institution.

Mohamed Raouda
Mo suggested that Penn State’s policy only hinders motivated students who want to demonstrate that they can master the material in the course. Less motivated students do not bother to take the course again. Policies should be reviewed and implemented with an eye toward assisting more motivated students. Mo cautioned against assuming that a good portion of the student body consists of lazy students.

Mo suggested that policies should be implemented that better facilitate students engaging in out of classroom experiences. It can sometimes be difficult to arrange a class absence for an extra-curricular activity for example. Students, faculty, and staff need to work together to determine how activities in and out of class support each other. This includes working to make sure students are aware of all the opportunities available to them.

Kirin KennedyKirin Kennedy continued Mo’s discussion by suggesting that engagement is both academic and social and that while some students are academically engaged, they are not socially engaged. Likewise, some students are socially engaged, but not academically engaged. We have to look at how we can encourage students to tie their academic and social worlds together while keeping in mind that the students of today are very concerned about a work and life balance.

Kirin agreed that fees need to be assessed to determine how they may impede student success, especially for at-risk subgroups. Printing fees, the IT fee, and book costs can all be difficult for low-income students to bear. There are some programs to assist students in these risk groups, but they need to be targeted more heavily.

When measuring student success, one of the things we need to look at is not necessarily what is going on inside the classroom, but also if they are socially engaged.

Kirin Kennedy
We need to encourage the development of academic and professional skills. Some students feel like they do not get the feedback or encouragement they need to improve in their classes. They need outside experiences so they can learn how to effectively lead others, manage finances, and conduct themselves in a professional manner.

Sims then invited questions from the audience after noting the complexity of this topic and how the integration of student experiences seems to be an essential part of this effort. The panelists were asked if they thought there were opportunities to better prepare students while in high school. It was offered that NSSE can inform students about what colleges are doing and help inform what they need to do to get ready. I hope we keep in mind, as we go back to the places we work, the policies and practices that are there now and reflect on how they might impact student success.

Damon Sims
It was asked if the tenure process and reward structures might hinder the improvement of teaching, especially at a research university like Penn State. There was a discussion about how late dropping  a class can negatively affect students with financial aid and what needs to be done to better accommodate students who wish to engage in experiences outside the classroom.audience

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.