The Habit of Research: Tips for Community College Educators

Louise Yarnall

At the end of each workday, when American community college educators reflect on their day, it’s the little successes and setbacks that stand out.

I got my papers graded before dinner? Cool!

The student who flunked the last exam just turned in a great assignment? Awesome!

The electricity went out just as I was presenting today? Chocolate – stat!

My point is that these daily high notes and low notes are loud in an educator’s life. By comparison, the voices of policy makers and college leaders calling for student success and completion can seem like a distant Greek chorus. It is natural to drown them out by saying, “Yep, I get that student success and completion is a big problem, but, I’m doing what I can every day, and I don’t see what more I can do.”

As a researcher, I see college student success and completion from the perspective of a social scientist. I am interested in collecting data, testing theories, and finding what works and what doesn’t. At first glance, my perspective may seem pretty distant, too. Put it this way: If policy makers are the Greek chorus of student completion and success, researchers are the ones drafting the choral music sheets.

So rather than blasting you with data and official findings, I want to offer in this blog post – and other blog posts in the future – usable tips from the world of research that can help community college practitioners feel more engaged in improving student completion and success.

My first tip: Get the data.

Now wait, hear me out. I know how abstruse and time-consuming that tip must seem. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting you to do my job. I am also not suggesting that you immediately trudge down to the institutional research office for a long overdue confab.

Instead I am suggesting that you figure out what information you need to get a clearer picture of the student success and completion problem in your college. We’ve all heard the expression “Information is power.” What I’m saying is a slight variation on that theme, and it is this:

“Make it a regular practice to find the accurate information that empowers you to make a difference in the mission to improve student success and completion.”

In my work as a facilitator for the Faculty Voices program, I’ve already seen terrific examples of practitioners finding and sharing empowering and accurate information that inspires them to come together and take action to solve problems of student completion and success. Here are just a few:

  • A team of educators noticed that they had a lot of students who had recently concluded stints in prison, and they also noticed that these students felt isolated from the larger college community. This information spurred them to create a program tailored to supporting those students, and today those students are completing courses and landing good jobs at a higher rate.
  • Another group of educators noticed that too many students were dropping out of science majors because they lacked the time and skill to study sufficiently and effectively. This information inspired them to create a program that fostered more study time around science and mathematics fundamentals. They have obtained multiple grants to grow and refine the program.
  • Instructors noticed that their college’s application procedures and reimbursement caps to support faculty conference attendance were broken. This kind of broken procedure negatively affects the capacity of faculty members to grow as professionals and to refine their skills that can help the college be more successful in addressing its problems of student success and completion. Armed with this information, they have begun the process of finding out how to raise the funding cap and reduce the paperwork.

My point: What you see and observe each day as an educator counts as data and critical information. If you frame what you see each day as critical information, it is no longer part of the noise of your daily life. Instead, it becomes the key input into your thinking about how to solve your college’s problem of student success and completion.

Make information gathering a habit. Take a note each day: What are you noticing about your students who don’t succeed? Talk about your observations with your colleagues. Do they confirm your observations or disconfirm them? What theories do you and your colleagues have about the causes of your college’s student success and completion problem? Such is the beginning of the kind of research that practitioners can do to make a meaningful difference.

Louise Yarnall is Senior Research Social Scientist at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International and a facilitator in the League’s Faculty Voices Initiative.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on January 6, 2016.