Retention in the Trenches

What can you do in your own classroom to keep students on track? / Creative Commons

May 18, 2015

Anyone who has worked at a community college for more than a few years knows that the current emphasis on "college completion" is really just a repackaging of an age-old concern: retention. Essentially, the question before us is: How do we keep students in our classrooms and on our campuses long enough for them to either transfer or earn a credential?

That’s a question two-year colleges have been asking for decades. What’s changed lately is that many states are now factoring retention — or "completion rates" — into their funding formulas, which raises the stakes for colleges even higher.

Solutions to the retention dilemma have been both varied and recurrent — meaning that, over the past 30 years or so, we’ve not only tried a lot of different programs and gimmicks to keep students on track but have recycled many of them. I’ve lost count, for instance, of the number of times the colleges where I’ve worked have switched from faculty-based student advising to using professional advisers … and then switched back. The result: Many seasoned faculty members are understandably dubious — not about retaining students but about the latest administrative retention scheme du jour.

Obviously, we haven’t yet discovered the magic formula, or else we wouldn’t still be talking about this problem, much less potentially losing money because of it.

The good news is that faculty members can take steps on their own that might actually have some impact. Studies show that one of the most important factors affecting students’ persistence and success is the quality of their classroom experience, or what the student-retention expert Sherry Miller Brown calls "academic integration." That’s especially true for students who are most at risk of falling by the wayside, such as nontraditional students and those in developmental courses.

So what can you do, in your own classroom, to help?

Be a teacher, not a gatekeeper. When I first started teaching composition — as a part-time instructor at a large research university — the program director made it clear that my job was not really to teach writing but rather to determine which students could write well enough to succeed on the campus and "weed out" the rest. That’s what I refer to as a "gatekeeper" mentality.

I never cared for that approach. I love the craft of writing, believe anyone smart enough to make it into college can learn to do it reasonably well, and get a charge out of seeing students progress as writers. In short, I want to teach, not guard the gate to some mythical land of the intellectual elite. That’s why I was attracted to the mission of two-year colleges: meeting students where they are and helping them get to where they need to be.

I’ve found that if at-risk students perceive their professors as gatekeepers rather than teachers, those students are more likely to quit when things get tough. After all, what’s the point? They’re not going to make it anyway — or so they conclude. But they’re much more likely to stick it out if they see their professors as partners in the learning process.

Be flexible. One of the keys to stemming student attrition is to have a modicum of flexibility. At open-access institutions, our students deal with such a wide array of challenges — problems with their personal lives, health, and finances — that we sometimes have to make allowances. It’s either that or else watch the failure of students who, with a little understanding, could have succeeded.

Some might argue that those students shouldn’t be in college to begin with, because they clearly "haven’t made it a priority." I would disagree, but the point is moot. Those students are in our classes, whether we like it or not. And we have the same responsibility to them as to any other students.

This past semester, I had: a student whose father died suddenly of a heart attack; a student undergoing extensive tests to determine the cause of her excruciating migraines; one who was diagnosed with leukemia; one who was hospitalized for two weeks for an unknown ailment; and one who is going through a messy divorce. As of this writing, it looks like all of them will complete my course. They’re all bright, determined young people (younger than me, at least), who I’m convinced will earn college degrees. I don’t intend to let one difficult semester send them into an academic tailspin.

But don’t be a pushover. We all know that some students will take advantage if the professor is too wishy-washy. Not every "crisis" is life-threatening, and many aren’t even crises at all. It’s vital for professors to have guidelines for student performance and behavior in the classroom. It’s equally vital to stick to those guidelines, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Indeed, many of our most at-risk students crave structure. In some cases, that’s why they’re at-risk to begin with — because they’ve never had much structure in their lives, either at home or at school. They come to us expecting and needing clear boundaries, and if we don’t provide them, that fact alone could be enough to send some of them reeling into academic limbo.

In other words, being too flexible can create just as many problems as being completely inflexible. Sometimes students just need a little understanding, and sometimes they need us to hold their feet to the fire. Erring too much in either direction could cause us to lose them.

Be accessible and approachable. Most of us know it’s important to be available to students. That’s why we dither around at the front of the room for five minutes after class, waiting to see if any students need to talk. That’s why we keep office hours and publish our office phone numbers and email addresses. That’s why we check email at 10 p.m., after the kids have gone to bed.

But too few of us recognize the importance of being approachable. That may, in part, be a matter of personality. People who become college professors tend to be somewhat shy, even taciturn, which students can mistake for aloofness. It never occurs to us that we don’t seem approachable. We know we’re nice, empathetic people who just want to help. Can’t students see that?

Not always. For many students, professors represent imposing and sometimes intimidating figures. We have to go out of our way to seem more human, perhaps by chatting occasionally with students in the hallway or before class, asking them not-too-probing questions about their lives and sharing not-too-intimate details of our own. Otherwise, however accessible we are, many students are unlikely to come up to us after class or swing by our office (although they might still email at 2 a.m.).

Make the material relevant. If there’s anything we’ve learned from all the "student engagement" literature, it’s that a bored student is a student at risk of failing. And nothing causes students to disengage faster than feeling like what they’re studying has no connection or relevance to their lives or future. That’s why we have to work so hard to demonstrate that what we’re talking about is actually important in the bigger scheme of things — especially if we’re teaching core courses that students are required to take.

In my composition classes, I constantly preach about the importance of writing. Every time I introduce a new strategy or approach, I explain how it relates to "real world" writing, illustrating my point with actual scenarios and relevant examples. My goal is not to entice them to love writing, as I do (that’s not going to happen, in most cases), but rather to help them understand that: (1) It’s in their own best interests to learn to do it well, and (2) they can do it if they apply themselves.

Take some personal responsibility. This is the one I’ve struggled with the most. For much of my career, I felt that whether or not students succeeded in my classroom was mostly up to them. I provided the framework for learning, but if they chose not to attend or turn in their work, well, they’re adults and that’s their decision.

It’s not that I didn’t care if they succeeded. I just believed the onus was on them, not me.

I still believe that’s mostly true. You can’t force students to do something they absolutely don’t want to do. And yet, over the last few years, I’ve begun to step outside my comfort zone and reach out to students who have multiple absences, who haven’t turned in an assignment, or who clearly seem distracted in class (and not just by their cell phones).

The results have been remarkable. I’ve discovered that, in many of cases, these students really wanted to talk to me but were afraid, either because they thought they had screwed up beyond hope of redemption or they found me personally intimidating. (Apparently I still have some work to do in the approachability department.) Most have been tremendously relieved and grateful that I took the first step. And in most cases, they were able to complete the course. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t reached out. I suspect many of those students would have dropped the course and maybe left college.

Not all such interventions end happily. Even if we try, we can’t reach every student, and sometimes we don’t try as hard as we should and sometimes they don’t respond. But even my relatively modest efforts in this regard seem to be paying dividends: Just in the last four years, the completion rate in my courses has gone up nearly 15 percent.

Those students I’ve helped represent just a tiny percentage of the ones who somehow fall off our radar. And helping them complete a particular course doesn’t guarantee that they’ll finish college or get a degree.

But one point that is often overlooked, in all the rhetoric, is that in order for students to complete college, they first have to pass individual courses. The retention battle is won one student at a time, one course at a time. And that’s something we as faculty members do have some control over, whatever the latest administrative scheme.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges. He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for Vitae. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @HigherEdSpeak.