Dear Professor—How do you move the needle on student success?

There is a lot you can do to change the situation.

Let’s focus on how you teach introductory courses. Nationwide, as many as a third of students flunk those big classes. They must retake them, which slows their progress to a degree. Disheartened, they may conclude that they don’t belong in college, and they leave without ever meeting a professor or a counselor. The biggest barrier to graduation is the algebra course required by many universities—almost half of all students fail.

What can you do? For starters, even if your class numbers in the hundreds, stop teaching your course as a series of lectures, with you as the sage on the stage. Take a leaf from Georgia State, among other schools, and switch to “flipped” classes, where students watch your lectures and do the reading on their own time, they are quizzed during the class, to see what they have absorbed, and they are assigned in-class group projects. When math laboratories replace the traditional lecture course, a strategy pioneered at Virginia Tech, or when a college replaces Algebra with the combined remedial math-statistics course devised by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the passing rate soars. Students are also more motivated to take advanced courses in the field.

How freshmen fare during the first semester significantly affects whether they’ll drop out. As the individual they see two or three times a week, you play a pivotal role in determining their fate. Instead of waiting until final grades are in to discover who hasn’t mastered the material, you need to pay attention to students’ performance on their first exam.  Why not email students who do badly, urging them to come to office hours, and if they don’t show up, ask the academic advisers to dragoon them.

At the first sign of failure, many students disappear into their shells. Nurturing a sense of belonging provides an antidote to such despair. So is helping them develop what Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” as Long Beach State professors like Kris Slowinski are doing. Explaining to students that they shouldn’t give up if they don’t solve a problem immediately and encouraging them to seek help from professors and classmates when they are stumped can make a world of difference.

Professors believe in making decisions based on evidence, and there’s solid data from social psychology that backs up these ideas.  When I asked Stanford professor Geoff Cohen, a leader in the field, where these ideas come from, he said that “we stole them from good teachers.” Though none of these techniques is brain-surgery tough, I don’t want to underestimate how hard it is to reinvent the way you teach. It is easier to put a new pedagogy into practice if you have colleagues to work with or you can get help from knowledgeable practitioners. Still, if you’re truly committed to your students, you should give some of these ideas a shot.

Redesign the classroom and you are likely to see a dramatic improvement in students’ performance. At the University of Texas, most of the freshmen in David Laude’s introductory chemistry class earned A’s, not because he dumbed down his course—they took the same final as students in other chemistry sections, who fared far worse—but because he smartened up as a teacher. He became their coach, not their judge. I’ll bet that if you change your classroom habits your students will respond. Although they may not do as well as those in David Laude’s class, for he’s a remarkably gifted teacher, their grades will improve and so will their enthusiasm.

If you have implemented some of these changes, you may become like Kris Slowinsky, trying to persuade your fellow professors, many of whom will be skeptics, that they ought to try them out. It’s a godsend to have a president like Jane Conoley at Long Beach State, who has made “growth mindset” a campus priority, but of course you cannot count on that kind of leadership. You can speak out, though, nudging your chair to encourage faculty to learn about pedagogical innovations like the flipped classroom and the math lab.

Show, don’t tell—invite professors and administrators to your classroom; develop a weekend mini-course for faculty on belonging or mindset. If you are a campus politician by inclination, you can press your case with higher-ups. You can become a department chair, like Kris Slowinski, or the campus graduation czar, like David Laude.

Most of you will decide that your appetite for change is bounded by your classroom—that reinventing the courses you teach is enough of a challenge. Fair enough—you can rest assured that your students will be the beneficiaries.

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