Student Reality Checks to Stay on Track

Ann M. Pearson

Student success is certainly an educational buzz word. But honestly, what institution would claim not to want their students to succeed? The concept may be familiar, perhaps even hackneyed, but as faculty and students know, success is not automatic, and it isn’t easy. We’re rather intense about student success at San Jacinto College, and we’re always reviewing what we actually mean by that phrase and how we can practice what we preach. One innovative means to monitor student success in the moment is a practice initiated by my esteemed colleague Barbara Lindsey Brown, the long-time, well-respected English Department Chair on our Central campus (which makes her my boss when I’m wearing my adjunct hat and teaching English classes). Ms. Brown asks all her faculty to document a student reality check at crucial points several times in the semester. Faculty record explanatory notes on any students who are at risk for ultimately failing the course as reflected by their current assignment grades, attendance, participation, and general engagement in the class. Faculty must also indicate what deliberate success interventions they have employed to help these potentially failing students, including but not limited to calling the students after absences, inviting students to meet faculty during office hours, and encouraging the use of tutoring and other campus services.

Not only do the faculty share this information with their Department Chair, but also, and more importantly, they share this periodic check with their students. Preliminary data is promising that this effort is making a difference in student retention and success. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the key to this student success project is the awareness factor. Critics may assume that college students should know by now how to average grades or predict their course grade using the assignments they already have completed. Maybe they should, but given that each of their instructors may have a different way of calculating final grades, various policies on make-up work or accepting late assignments, opposing viewpoints on the availability of extra credit, and disparate opinions relative to grading on a class curve, student confusion is at least partially understandable if not excusable. Additionally, most college students only have experience in educational practices from high school, which is and should be vastly different from their college experience. Maybe no one ever took the time to explain these complex concepts to the students. Maybe someone did take the time, but the students didn’t make the connection then. Now they may be too embarrassed to ask, so just shuffle through hoping they are doing well enough to get by without fully understanding how they could more actively take control of the process. Whatever the reason, holding students accountable and demanding personal responsibility for their work, including course progress, is a laudable goal and as such presents us with numerous teachable moments.

With the reality checks, students see intentional efforts on the part of faculty to hone in on barriers the students may face—someone cares and is acting on their behalf. This check is not absolving students from completing rigorous college-level work; it’s showing students a fluid, real-time status report. Likewise, faculty have a systematic process to investigate, review, and reflect on individual students who need help and to determine appropriate measures to assist these students in getting back on track in a timely manner. Late in the term, showing students they missed so many assignments that they can’t possibly pass doesn’t offer students any route to success other than mustering up the energy to repeat a class and try harder next time. Early and frequent interventions can help students recover and be accountable for improving upon less-than-ideal results early in the course.

Student reality checks are non-discipline specific formative feedback. It’s taking the guess work out of “how am I doing?” for students. This is particularly helpful for students who may have only a vague notion of the big picture of progression toward a college certificate or degree. Faculty additionally have a chance to take a bird’s eye view of the entire class by probing into the progress of individual students, perhaps realizing that if the majority of students are struggling on one particular concept, looping back around to review that material may be beneficial. Student success doesn’t just happen, but it isn’t impossible either. Faculty and students working together can make sure it is a reality.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on November 17, 2016.