Faculty Resource Network

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Excerpt from the Plenary Panel “Diverse Perspectives on Student Success”


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Marilee Bresciani, San Diego State University

The perspective that I’m sharing today is a very unpopular one. My perspective differs a little bit from Patrick’s individualized education/individualized student success, but it builds on Margarita’s perspective of institutionalizing student success. I would argue that — borrowing from Margarita’s quote from earlier today — “the enemy [to institutionalizing student success] lies within”. In other words, our ability to improve student success may be hindered more by the enemy that lies within.

Please humor me for a moment as we take a business perspective of how student success could be identified, delivered, evaluated, and determined to be successful to our constituents.

If we took a business perspective of student success, we wouldn’t be focusing so much on the individualized product. Rather, we would be focused on how we could efficiently and effectively mass produce a quality product. Furthermore, the product would not be student graduation rates, or retention rates; rather, the product would be student learning, evidence of student learning. If we think for a moment that we’re being held accountable, not for individualized student learning, but for student learning that is general to the needs of our citizens, if you will, or general across institutional types, general across individuals. And that general learning would consist of reading, writing, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, etc. So, if we think about how we talk about general learning, we would be focusing on how we could generally “design” effective ways for students to learn.

Now the challenge of this is that, as you know, the individuals, the raw material if you will, are truly individuals. The students are individual students, the faculty are individual faculty members – – these are the “raw materials” involved in producing the product of student learning. This is challenging, yet unless we can come up with some sort of general way to evaluate general learning across institutional types, we’ll continue to be held accountable by performance indicators that have very little to do with student success: retention rates and graduation rates. So when we get back to the conversation of “the enemy lies within” it’s not all of you within the room, of course it’s not. It’s more so the way we conduct our business.

For example, as I look at the FRN banner, and I see the words “connection, collaboration, and collegiality,” I think, “I just went up for promotion and tenure, and none of that was in my evaluation process.” My process of promotion and tenure was purely based on my individual contributions. As I prepared my papers for promotion and tenure, wherever I spoke about what we did as a team, I was advised to re-word the team work concept and discuss my individual contribution. Good thinking, creative teaching, and profound inquiry do not occur in isolation. Planning for student success does not occur in isolation. Isn’t it the faculty itself who decides how its members should be promoted and given tenure? If so, where is the focus on how well I contribute to delivering the product of student learning? Where is the focus on how well I contribute to student success in a collaborative, connected, and collegial environment? How can we institutionalize student success if we ourselves don’t focus on it when we make decisions to “keep” members who are instrumental to student success?

If we chose a business model for student success, wouldn’t we consider how we promote and tenure faculty based on their collaborative contributions to student success? If not, how are we going to motivate faculty to coordinate designing, delivering, and evaluating student learning particularly within writing, reading, quantitative reasoning, and analytical thinking? These are the general learning attributes or the competencies for which we are being held accountable. When you look at the conversations that the federal government is having, they’re not having conversations about what makes engineers good engineers, they’re having conversations about whether our students are literate or whether our students are able to behave responsibly. Again, while the raw materials of the students and instructors vary, couldn’t we collaborate in order to come to some sort of agreement around what [success] looks like and then design some comparable indicators of learning so that we could begin to move away from performance indicators such as graduation rates and retention rates? I believe we can, but we need to institutionalize values of collaboration, and collegiality. We need to design opportunities for connections so that creative solutions can be designed and evaluated, rather than to continue to reward isolated behavior. We need to come together to plan more effective and efficient solutions for students’ achievement of general student learning.

In the time left, I share just two other things for us to think about in this business model for designing student success. 1) How we would begin to guarantee student learning [our product] and 2) how we would guarantee student success? I’ll give you an example: I was thinking about getting a coaching certificate, not an athletic certificate, but a personal coaching certificate, because I’m not a counselor and my advising needs to be improved with my students. I checked into a coaching certificate from a particular institution (not SDSU). The institution guaranteed the learning: if at any time I needed to brush up on my coaching skills, I could go back and take a course, free of charge. I thought, “We don’t do that with our students. Maybe we should consider that”. If at any time you need to brush up on something say writing or public speaking, you could come back, re-take a course for free, and brush up on that subject.

Finally, then, I would like to think about how, once a student has graduated, the commodity of student learning would be perceived and judged by those who are the consumer, if you will, of that student learning? In other words, how would the consumers of the student learning such as employers, graduate schools, civic community organizations, etc. judge or receive the students’ ability to demonstrate their learning? How valuable would it be to them? And what advice would they have for us to improve it? How could we better connect with them to improve our product of student learning? Thank you.