Faculty Interventions that Work

Ann M. Pearson

A faculty member friend of mine, Dr. Karen Hattaway, tells the story of a student in her writing class who stood up about six weeks into a 16-week course and said, “I finally get it! You want us to cite the article so the other person can find the source! I could see it all along, and I couldn’t figure out why you kept telling me to sight it.” Wow—for over a third of the term, this student had no idea what this award-winning, caring, articulate professor meant when she was asking the class to cite sources, which is such a commonplace task in professional writing, that experts can easily forget what it means to be just beginning in a discipline. This student revelation, followed closely by classmates acknowledging similar confusion, made an immediate change in the way this intuitive faculty member progressed through the rest of the semester. She checked in more often; she paused; she asked probing questions to ensure students hadn’t fallen into a fog of what they should have already learned previously or what they thought faculty expect students to know. My friend Donna Donnelly entreats us to stop should-ing all over the place.

This disconnect doesn’t happen only with discipline-specific topics. Many students come to college knowing very little about the process of eventually receiving a degree. Most of us who work in higher education have multiple degrees—let’s admit it: we like school and probably always have. And we understand how the system works by dint of personal and professional experience. Not so with many of our students. Processes and concepts that we as institutional personnel work with daily and possibly even take for granted can be daunting barriers to students who didn’t grow up in a college-going environment or who may be one of the first members of their immediate family to attempt post-secondary education.

Going with your gut can only get you so far if you struggle with the vocabulary and don’t have the big picture in mind. If a student doesn’t know what a syllabus is or where to find it in the learning management system (LMS), the crucial information most syllabi contain will not benefit that student. Not grasping the cumulative nature of courses adding together in distinct programs leading to specific degrees or credentials could leave an unguided student to amass an unconnected array of courses that don’t lead to any identifiable goal. Likewise, not understanding the overall negative impact of low grades on an official transcript could cause students unwittingly to decrease their chances of future job opportunities or acceptance into professional programs because of indelible stains on their early undergraduate grade records. These aren’t intuitive concepts.

This possibility for confusion is why so many colleges, my own included, are becoming more deliberate—even intrusive—about ensuring students start out armed with timely, relevant guidance to set goals, make informed decisions, and work through a viable plan for success. Crucial to this intentional assistance for students are the interventions of faculty who see on a daily basis when students are lagging behind, misunderstanding, or allowing themselves to ignore warning signs of behaviors or habits that may derail their plans for success in particular courses or in college generally.

Some of these faculty practices in our College show faculty:

  • providing frequent low stakes feedback for students early in the semester,
  • encouraging students to form study groups,
  • requiring face-to-face conferences with students,
  • re-evaluating classroom strategies to incorporate more student-centered activities,
  • using rubrics to provide students with feedback,
  • requesting and using continuous improvement feedback from students, and
  • making the classroom instruction time as interactive as possible.

Likewise, with this guidance, students recognize the importance of:

  • attending all class sessions,
  • participating actively,
  • completing assignments,
  • asking for clarification, working with others, and
  • persisting with difficult concepts.

Students must commit to hard work and perseverance, but knowing faculty are on their team, especially early in the semester, can make navigating the unfamiliar landscape of higher education much more do-able. Faculty interventions turn confusion and resistance into achievable challenges.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on November 30, 2016.