At AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship held in April, Council for Student Success (CfSS) member Danette Howard, PhD, provided an inspiring presentation on the key factors that impact student success. Throughout her talk, she emphasized the types of experiences and support programs that research has shown to have a lasting and significant impact on student success. She highlighted what students say contributed to their success, like having an engaging professor and being involved in an in-depth academic project with a faculty member.
She also highlighted how high-impact practices, or HIPs, have been shown to significantly and positively impact learning and student success, especially for those students from demographic groups historically underserved by higher education. These practices take many different forms but include such activities as first-year seminars, service-learning projects, diversity and global experiences, and undergraduate research.
The big takeaway from Howard’s presentation? An engaging, high-quality teaching and learning experience matters. A lot. Her presentation set the stage for the Council for Student Success to take up the topic at its quarterly meeting that followed.
Led by Council members David Scobey, PhD, the director of Bringing Theory to Practice, a national initiative to renew the core purposes of undergraduate education, and Steven Kelts, PhD, a lecturer in Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, the council examined the critical but sometimes challenging topic of engaging in effective board-faculty dialogue to encourage effective teaching to impact student success.
Scobey and Kelts described how innovations in teaching practices, including the emergence of experiential and immersive learning, the rise of interdisciplinary fields, and the inclusion of culturally responsive pedagogies, are reshaping the classroom. But they also recognized that there are real challenges to widespread adoption of these practices—even though they have been shown to positively impact student success—because many of our current policies and incentives do not prioritize high-quality teaching or provide the support needed for faculty to innovate and adapt their own teaching practice.
Any discussion of the intersection of board governance and what happens inside the classroom is a delicate one, as the role of faculty in determining the content of the curriculum is an important tenet of academic freedom. But there are productive spaces in which boards can be advocates for both students and faculty in a discussion of how they can better support curricular and instructional innovation in their shared goal of enhancing student success outcomes. This is where the council dove into the topic. What emerged were a set of themes that could guide boards as they seek ways to engage in collaborative conversations with faculty about key policy and resource allocation decisions that impact student success, especially as they related to improving the academic experience.
Invest in great teaching and effective pedagogical practices
“Excellent educators aren’t born… they’re built,” is the motto of the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE), an organization dedicated to transforming how colleges and universities approach faculty development. They have solid evidence that institutions that have focused on effective teaching through evidence-based practices have shown significant increases in student retention, closed equity gaps, and saw decreases and D, F, W rates and course withdrawals, which are leading indicators for student attrition.
ACUE’s motto puts words to an issue we all know is true but have done little to address: that many of our faculty have had no specific training in teaching. Our country’s graduate schools do an excellent job of preparing the next generation of researchers but do little to prepare them for the other part of their job, which is to teach undergraduates from a diverse set of backgrounds and levels of academic preparation.
Boards should be asking how their institution is supporting the ongoing professional development of their faculty in the area of teaching and learning. How well is your center for teaching and learning supported and what resources are provided to expose your faculty to emerging evidence-based practices that are targeted at improving student success?
Address the disincentives embedded in the existing system
Supporting faculty development and rewarding great teaching is an important step. But major change will come only when institutions start asking what disincentives are currently in place that detract from a high-quality academic experience and how those incentive structures might need to change to elevate student success outcomes.
The reality is that evidence of high-quality teaching is not always the determining criteria for tenure decisions at many institutions. If student success is core to an institution’s mission, does this historic approach to determining tenure criteria need to be revisited? Another consideration is the growth in the use of adjuncts or contingent faculty, especially for delivery of early or gateway courses. The use of contingent faculty provides access to unique expertise, schedule flexibility, and cost savings, but adjuncts also are the least likely to have access to professional development resources or exposure to innovations in instruction.
Boards should be asking how they are establishing a culture that recognizes and rewards superb teaching in addition to superb research productivity. They also should be asking how contingent faculty are trained and supported to ensure students, regardless of the category of faculty in front of the classroom, are exposed to the types of instructional approaches that are proven to support their learning and success.
Be curious about the types of academic experiences that are available to all of your students
High-impact practices are a category of 11 educational practices that have been proven to positively impact student learning and success. But students only benefit from them if they have the opportunity to participate in them. At many institutions, HIPs are limited to certain majors or are voluntary based on student choice, instead of being embedded in the core curriculum or requirements for all students. If HIPs, such as study abroad, writing-intensive courses, or internships are offered as options outside of the core experiences, underrepresented and low-income students can be unintentionally excluded from the very opportunities that research has shown helps them thrive. Boards should be asking how high-impact practices are integrated into the curricular and cocurricular requirements for all students and how their institutions are innovating to address the barriers to participation that many of our disadvantaged students encounter, such as cost and scheduling.
Changing traditional curricular structures is notoriously difficult but will be critical if students are to have access to transformational learning experiences that we know make a difference. Boards should invite faculty and students to help them understand how the traditional curriculum structure might need to change in order to integrate these experiences more fully into the curriculum and what resources and support will be needed to make it happen.
Seek out your innovators
Finally, it is very likely there are faculty innovators on your campus right now who are regularly exploring ways to improve the academic experience of their students. Find out who they are. Look for the pedagogical skunkworks that are already happening on your campus. Elevate these educational entrepreneurs and support their efforts. What a board recognizes and celebrates matters to the campus community. It sends a clear message about what is important to the board and communicates more than words what the institution values and the value it places on your students and their success.
Lisa Foss, PhD, is the ambassador to AGB’s Council for Student Success and a senior consultant for AGB.
With thanks to AGB Mission Partner, AT&T for its support of the Council for Student Success.
Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.