Student Persistence and Retention: How Faculty Can Embrace a More Active Role

Student Persistence and Retention: How Faculty Can Embrace a More Active Role

Years ago, when I was a Freshman Seminar instructor, one of my students—a first-year college athlete—became injured early in the fall semester. It was clear to see that his confidence and energy were hurt, too.

One day, I asked him to stay after class for a few minutes. We chatted briefly, and we talked about his injured shoulder. Nothing intense—just a little bit of listening, and a “Hang in there, I hope you recover soon.” After that, we would usually speak a little as he left class.

Eventually, he confessed that he was unsure about his athletic career—and, further, he was not very excited about being in college if he wasn’t playing ball.

While I didn’t address the weightier topics of his major or his career interests, I did encourage him to look into student organizations to see where else he might fit in. I also recommended that he consider taking a leadership class I was teaching next semester (which he did).

The story had a happy ending: he was able to discover and pursue new interests, and he went on to major in criminal justice, become a leader in student government, and go into law enforcement after graduation.

I share this story to illustrate that as faculty members, we have up-close and personal views of our students’ everyday behaviors and moods. We are well positioned to notice major changes in their academic performance. As such, we can be a first line of support when we notice our students struggling.

You can make a difference

As campuses across the country remain in a dynamic and uncertain state of operations, greater numbers of students are at risk than ever before. Targeted retention efforts are critical—and, more than ever before, you are essential to helping your students stay on track.

With many other student support systems diminished because of the pandemic, faculty members are best positioned to engage meaningfully with students. Whether you’re teaching online, in person, or hybrid, following are some promising practices to guide you as you:

  • Help online students feel connected with you, other students in the course, and your institution
  • Recognize the signs of at-risk students
  • Respond to students with care and concern
  • Connect students with key campus resources

The five aspects of mattering

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, you likely already had many meaningful mentoring relationships with your students. But there were other supports in place, too, like student affairs, residence life, athletics, and other co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Now, as many of those resources are less able to engage with students, your support matters much more.

Nancy Schlossberg’s developmental theory of mattering and marginality provides a relevant base to consider the changes students are going through. Her research affirms that students experience a more successful transition when they feel valued, attended to, and recognized. Schlossberg identifies five aspects of mattering that you can foster with students:

  1. Attention: Others notice me; I am not invisible or anonymous
  2. Importance: Others care about me; I am known by others
  3. Ego extension: Others share my successes and failures
  4. Dependence: Others are counting on my help
  5. Appreciation: Others recognize and value my contributions

Making personal connections

Even simple things are important in an online course. First, share things about yourself, choosing appropriate aspects of your personal life as you feel comfortable. As students find they have things in common with you, their comfort level will increase and strengthen their sense of connection. One easy approach: create a virtual background using photos of places or things that are important to you.

There are easy ways to show students they matter. Know and use their names, providing attention and importance. Respond quickly to students’ messages, as they may have a different sense of urgency about a simple question. When appropriate with your pedagogical approach, call on students to speak in class; this leads to dependence and appreciation.

Set the expectation that students should have their video cameras on, if they have a camera feature. Your use of virtual backgrounds may inspire your students to follow suit, or you can encourage them to create their own. Then, when in alignment with your pedagogy, assign students into small discussion groups in Zoom breakout rooms. Appointing a discussion group facilitator and/or reporter provides an additional opportunity for students to gain a sense of dependence. Similarly, when appropriate for your course, assign students into small groups for group project work. This teamwork can build ego extension and help students connect with each other.

Additionally, consider how you can weave in the heritage, values, or mission of your institution into your course. Learning more about their school can help students create a positive aspect of their identity that is linked to something bigger than themselves. The connection to the school may also serve to strengthen the connection to you and the other students in the course.

Signs of risk

The concept of an “early warning sign” is contradictory: by the time you see a symptom, it may be relatively late to resolve an issue. Yet you may still have an opportunity to see when things are not going well for a student—and by helping students feel that they matter, you can lower their risk. Common indicators remain the same from the pre-pandemic era:

  • Excessive multitasking during class
  • High levels of boredom or disinterest
  • Lack of participation in class
  • No longer on video in class
  • Not completing homework
  • Poor performance on quiz or assignment
  • Missing class

In my experience, a student dropping out is generally not because of a single catastrophic event (although it could be). Dropping out more commonly relates to a snowballing effect with a build-up of relatively minor issues. The best approach is to address minor issues quickly, before they can spread.

Responding with care

When you help your students get to know you and their classmates better, you’re building a sense of trust and connection that can make the difference between persistence and dropping out. I encourage you to reach out and check in with students—but I also recognize you may not have done so in the past.

So, how should you intervene?

When you recognize a student may be headed for trouble, suggest a one-on-one meeting with the student. You may be vague about the purpose of the meeting, but try to sound positive, as you do not want to contribute to a student’s anxiety level.

When you talk, you’ll have an opportunity to discern if the student is facing the typical ups and downs of being a college student or something more severe, possibly related to today’s unprecedented challenges. If the former, you could reassure them that what they’re feeling is normal and understandable, and to consciously take note of it. If you think it sounds more serious, and you suspect the student may be suffering from long-term or intense stress, let them know you’re concerned and encourage them to take action.

There are many ways to be an active listener and offer supportive communication. Here are just a few tips for these kinds of conversations:

  • First, it’s appropriate to help students navigate the institutional processes: “The registrar’s office can help you solve this. Here’s their direct phone number.”
  • Second, you don’t have to provide advice or a solution to personal issues (though this may run counter to your instincts). Many times, students simply need to vent their feelings to a good listener.
  • Third, you can gently challenge students to take responsibility for their decisions: “What do you think you should do?”
  • Fourth, try not to show judgment or disapproval regarding personal issues.

Connecting students with resources

In many cases, you may feel the student can be best served by other campus resources. When you make referrals to your students, consider the following, and think about how you’d like to communicate these sentiments in your own words:

  • “I want to be helpful.”
  • “I will still be a sounding board for you.”
  • “I think this person can be more helpful for this situation.”
  • “I will respect your privacy.”
  • “I am basically going to treat you the same in class.”

Referring a student to a resource person, not just an office, fosters trust. And it is optimal if you know the person and can speak to their skill. It’s also helpful if you know the general usage statistics for a resource: “It’s pretty common to use this resource. Around 70% of our students use them at some point.”

Some of the campus resources you want to be familiar with include:

You may also find that it’s valuable to consult with campus resources for guidance. You don’t have to discuss a particular student’s details, but instead can discuss the general issue. Or, you can discuss a student’s particular circumstances while protecting his or her anonymity. Either way, you are acting with an ethic of care and concern, and these consultations will have the benefit of helping you get to know the resources as people.

This is a uniquely challenging time to be a college student

Many traditional support resources are both less prominent and less available to our students. Your students may need your help and encouragement in new and different ways. I hope you are inspired to rise to the occasion and embrace your role as a key support to help students persist in their learning.

Meet the authors
Tim Coley
Tim Coley
Senior Strategic Consultant, Ellucian

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