Strategies for Student Success Through Living, Learning, and Knowing Self

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2016

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

Strategies for Student Success through Living, Learning, and Knowing Self

For years, the scholarly literature on teaching has been challenged with identifying individual and holistic ways to define, promote, and assess student success. This paper focuses on three strategies to improve our understanding of and approaches to student success and learning outcomes—namely applications from service learning, metacognitive awareness training, and capstone e-portfolios. These evidence-based strategies and models are pathways through which students can discover their own potential for success, prepare for future challenges, and strengthen their skill development, and make better decisions about their chosen career options.

Living: Service Learning

Over the last several decades, there has been increasing emphasis on ways to integrate traditional classroom instruction with learning approaches that involve civic engagement. Collaborative efforts initiated by entities such as the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), Bringing Theory to Practice Project, the U.S. Department of Education, and other organizations have spearheaded several civic engagement initiatives (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012).

Service learning is a form of active learning in which structured learning activities are linked to educational goals and objectives, and projects are defined and developed collaboratively by educational institutions and communities. There are learning and service benefits for students, educational institutions, and the community. Service-learning activities provide a deeper understanding of the course knowledge base, connect theory to practice, and apply critical thinking to understand and address real-life issues.

The benefits of service learning are well documented. Research findings indicate that student engagement in service-learning activity has a positive impact on several student learning outcomes, including knowledge base, multicultural awareness, and social/civic responsibility, regardless of how it is assessed (Celio, Durlak, & Dymnicki, 2011; Novak, Markey, & Allen, 2007; Warren, 2012). The service-learning model is commensurate with critical 21st-century learning skills, for example being able to effectively communicate, work, and collaborate with diverse groups of people in an atmosphere of inclusiveness and respect. Finally, the service-learning experience complements the preferences of millennials who value “doing” more than just “knowing,” and want to make an impact on communities (Rivera & Huertas, 2006).

While there are several models of service-learning instruction, ranging from specific assignments to service internships and independent directed study, this paper describes how faculty might include students in community-based research projects that connect theory to practice, expand research skills, and foster appreciation for diversity, civic responsibility, and community leadership. The example community-based research and service-learning project discussed here involved students in a psychology research seminar course at Spelman College. The seminar assessed prevention strategies to reduce aggressive and violent behaviors among middle-school youth in a local public school. Teachers and officials in the selected school identified this need and engaged in a collaborative partnership with the college course professor and students. Program themes and methods were developed collaboratively using social-cognitive behavioral approaches within the framework of a youth-leadership ecological model to address a range of behaviors, including violent and aggressive attitudes and behavior, social skills, self-esteem, anger management, conflict resolution, coping and stress management, diversity, and civic responsibility.

Students volunteered for the afterschool intervention program, meeting weekly for two hours during the school year. College students in the research seminar course were trained as group facilitators using interdisciplinary, active-learning strategies (e.g., group exercises, role-playing, problem-solving simulations, multimedia games, videos, and reflections). Each student had to achieve a 90% proficiency level on selected group facilitation skills, group activity development, and being able to identify, understand, and demonstrate applications of theory to practice. Another group of college students (not enrolled in the course) were trained as group facilitators for youth who volunteered to participate in a comparison group (weekly tutorial sessions). All college students completed a post-service-learning survey to assess student civic learning outcomes and impact.

Over a four-year period, the results of this service-learning, community-based research project yielded positive gains for middle school and college students, faculty, staff, and parents. Selected summary results (pre- and post-test self-reports) indicated that among middle school program participants, there was a significant decrease in acts of fighting, bullying, expressed anger, and pro-violence attitudes, and an increase in students’ self-esteem, positive attitudes towards school, social and coping skills, and perceived social support from school, home, and community. College students’ outcomes (self-reflections, research papers, ratings as group facilitators, class and research conference presentations) revealed improved learning in connecting theory to practice, improved research and leadership skills, and a greater sense of civic engagement and responsibility.

In sum, this community-based research and service-learning project demonstrated several benefits for the middle school students, faculty, staff, and parents in this community. College students were engaged and challenged with meaningful service-learning activities that enhanced learning of the course knowledge-base and problem-solving applications. College students also expressed a significant increase in their understanding of civic responsibility and their role as leaders in responding to issues affecting youth. This project, therefore, demonstrated how student participation in a community-based research, service-learning project provided a dynamic and holistic approach to connecting theory to practice, through which students learned to make informed decisions about community concerns and social activism.

Learning: Metacognitive Strategies

In “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School,” the National Academy of Sciences presented an analysis of decades of interdisciplinary research on the science of learning. The volume’s authors identified three key findings, one of which was that a metacognitive approach to instruction can help students take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; Cooper, Robinson, Slansky, & Kiger, 2014). Metacognition, defined as “thinking about thinking,” refers to awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. It is a fundamental learning skill, yet most students enter college without ever exploring their own thinking or learning process. More importantly, many instructors fail to make explicit for students the skills and mindsets required for success in college.

Examples of poor metacognitive awareness become evident in the classroom when students believe they performed well on an exam, and are surprised to find out they did not pass. Or, when students stop studying prematurely because they believe they have mastered the concept, but are unable to apply or accurately explain the concept when asked. Research shows that weaker students tend to be extremely overconfident in how well they understand material (Miller & Geraci, 2011). Poor metacognition may indicate that students have poor study skills, and research indicates that poor study skills can increase confidence without increasing understanding (Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger, 2009). Being accurate in one’s judgement of what one knows and does not know is critical for decision-making in learning. By teaching metacognitive awareness in the classroom, instructors can help students become more aware of their learning and understanding. Years of empirical evidence support the success of teaching metacognitive strategies (Hacker, Bol, & Keener, 2008; Tanner, 2012).

There are three stages of metacognition: 1) Planning involves the processes prior to the learning stage such as selecting a strategy, making predictions, and allocating time; 2) Monitoring is one’s real-time awareness of comprehension or performance, such as self-testing over the course of a learning task; and 3) Evaluating is the post-task activity, when one assesses outcomes and performance in light of goals and strategy choices. The foundation for several successful instructional techniques is “instructor-guided modeling.” When implementing metacognitive strategy instruction in the classroom, emphasis is placed on the growth of thinking skills and processes as a means to enrich learning. The purpose is to train students how to become strategic, independent, and flexible in their learning endeavors (Scheid, 1993).

In 2015, the US Department of Education awarded Spelman College the First in the World (FITW) Development Grant to track the impact of metacognitive instruction on student success. The project goal is to develop and test instructional techniques that guide students to greater awareness of their own thinking and learning. Pilot data, collected prior to the grant award, show that students who were exposed to metacognitive strategies and instruction in the classroom demonstrated a significant increase on assessments measuring metacognitive awareness in comparison to a control group of students. There was also a significant relationship between students’ metacognitive awareness and their course grades. At the end of the pilot, over 70% of the students who received the metacognitive intervention reported that they believed that engaging in metacognitive training was beneficial. When asked if they changed any learning or studying behaviors as a result of the metacognitive training, 100% of the students reported “yes.”

Spelman College has traditionally used innovative instructional strategies and the FITW project expands on that tradition by examining innovative metacognitive strategies that have the potential to impact positively the academic performance of 2,200 first-year students during the four years of implementation and beyond. Project findings are forthcoming.

Knowing Self: E-portfolios

Capstone e-portfolios provide a means for students to assemble documentation of their educational journeys, integrate what they have learned across courses and extracurricular activities, and support their professional development (Cambridge, 2009). Typically, e-portfolios include a reflective component as well as examples of work, artifacts that the student has produced across his or her college career. “Collect, select, and reflect” has become a common guiding phrase for e-portfolio development; “connect” is sometimes added as a fourth component to emphasize the integration of experiences across different contexts (e.g., Parkes, Dredger, & Hicks, 2013).

Some institutions use these document collections primarily as department- or institution-wide repositories that support assessment of student learning outcomes. However, e-portfolios are of greatest value to students if they also serve as a point of reflection that supports meaning-making and connection between the student’s curricular and life experiences as well as their future plans. Importantly, as Klein (2014) found, the deep-learning impact of this reflection is substantively enhanced if it is supported by guided prompts that encourage the student to think deeply and intentionally about their achievements and challenges. Yancey (2009) suggests that student engagement in building e-portfolios is critical, and is best supported when students are involved in design and content decisions.

Students sometimes need assistance in “connecting the dots” between their educational, professional, and life experiences. The e-portfolio process provides a space for faculty to help students learn how to tie together their different learning contexts and life goals. It can be used within a course or integrated throughout a major or educational experience. Ideally, the processes and documentation involved in creating e-portfolios support the student’s intentional integration of past, present, and future selves, and facilitates development of one’s life narrative that can be carried forward into later personal and professional contexts.

E-portfolio structures and content can be tailored for the needs of the students, instructor, and institution. We present here an example of a capstone course electronic portfolio used in the psychology department at Spelman College. This portfolio has been modeled after the University of Michigan Integrative Knowledge MPortfolio developed by Melissa Peet and colleagues (Peet & Fenton, 2011; Peet et al., 2011). As adapted for the Capstone Portfolio and Critical Review course, this portfolio represents an easily implemented, compact collection of documents and reflections that can serve as an entry point into academic e-portfolios.

This e-portfolio includes six organizer pages, a few of which subsume multiple subpages. Specifically, the pages include a welcome page; a description of the student’s short-term, long-term, & life-long goals; the student’s life philosophy statement; a work showcase highlighting multiple key learning experiences on subpages; a page to which to attach the student’s capstone research paper; and a section for one or more exemplary assignments from other major courses. Each page incorporates guided reflection and a visual element, and is evaluated on appropriateness and depth of content, readability, and sophistication of technical and layout elements. With an e-portfolio platform (in this case, Chalk & Wire) that includes embedded rubric scoring, evaluation can be completed quickly and results made available for institutional assessment. With senior students who meaningfully engage in the portfolio process, outcomes are typically positive, with most students scoring at Level 3 (i.e., satisfactory) or Level 4 (i.e., proficient) on the 4-level rubric categories.

Bringing It All Together: Enhancing Students’ Journey Through College

Service-learning, metacognitive awareness training, and capstone portfolios each provide an opportunity to enhance students’ understanding of their educational, personal, and professional journey. Taken together, the three practices have the potential to transform this journey from one that focuses strictly on learning course content to one of self-awareness—of one’s thoughts, experiences, goals, and relation to others. We believe that these learning strategies and others are critical for 21st-century students who come to college with diverse backgrounds and experiences. These students will continue to challenge us to expand traditional instruction and aggressively embrace more active and interactive learning strategies. This educational movement will, therefore, influence the direction of the curriculum and redefine the classroom to guide students in self-directing, crafting, and taking ownership of their own academic success, personal development, and professional endeavors. At Spelman College we are ready to test these innovative approaches and eager to collaborate with colleagues at other educational institutions to explore ways to increase positive educational and lifelong outcomes for all students.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC, US: National Academy Press.

Cambridge, D. (2009). Electronic portfolios 2.0: Emergent research on implementation and impact Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Celio, C.I., Durlak, J., & Dymnicki, A. (2011). A meta-analysis of the impact of service-learning on students. Journal of Experiential Education, 34, 164-181.

Cooper, J. D., Robinson, M. D., Slansky, J. A., & Kiger, N. D. (2014). Literacy: Helping students construct meaning (9th edition). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Hacker, D. J., Bol, L., & Keener, M. C. (2008). Metacognition in education: A focus on calibration. In J. Dunlosky and R. A. Bjork (Eds.), Handbook of metamemory and memory, (pp. 429–455). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479.

Klein, N. (2014). The e-portfolio as a pedagogical tool: Searching for data to support theory. Paper presented at the 26th Southeastern Teaching of Psychology annual meeting, Atlanta, GA.

Miller, T. M., & Geraci, L. (2011). Unskilled but aware: reinterpreting overconfidence in low-performing students. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory, and Cognition, 37, 502-506.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012). A crucible moment. College learning and democracy’s future. Washington, DC: Association Of American Colleges and Universities.

Novak, J.M., Markey, V., & Allen, M. (2007). Evaluating cognitive outcomes of service learning in higher education: A meta-analysis. Communication Research Reports, 24, 149-157.

Parkes, Dredger, & Hicks, D. (2013). ePortfolio as a measure of reflective practice. International Journal of ePortfolio, 3, 99-115.

Peet, M., & Fenton, S. M. (2011). Infusing the electronic portfolio across the curriculum: Spelman-Smith conference manual (unpublished).

Peet, M., Lonn, S., Gurin, P., Boyer, K. P., Matney, M., Marra, T., Taylor, S.H., & Daley, A. (2011). Fostering integrative knowledge through eportfolios. International Journal of ePortfolio, 1(1), 11-31.

Rivera, B., & Huertas, M. (2006). Millennials: Challenges and implications to higher education. Retrieved from:

Scheid, K. (1993). Helping students become strategic learners: Guidelines for teaching. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11, 113–120.

Warren, J.L. (2012). Does service-learning increase student learning? A meta-analysis. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring 2012, 56-61.

Yancey, K. B. (2009). Electronic portfolios a decade into the twenty-first century: What we know, what we need to know. Peer Review 11(1), 28-32.

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2017: Teaching a New Generation of Students