Using research to improve student success in higher education

I have been thinking lately of a more effective approach to student success in our colleges and universities.  I am reminded of Tinto's lectures on the importance of engaging students in the classroom.  With so many students working, the classroom is often the only engagement they have in the university's learning community.   Substantial research has been conducted on learning styles and we need to adopt the best practices for college teaching that use this research. 

Nowhere is this topic more IMPORTANT than in the STEM disciplines.  In one of Dr. Charles Vest recent speeches to the National Academy of Engineering, he likened the current crisis to a Category 5 storm.  We don't have enough scientists and engineers and as my report "Diversity of STEM Majors" shows, interest in engineering by entering freshmen has been about the same for the past 20 years. Are we attracting more students into STEM disciplines? Yes--into the medical fields, not into the physical science and engineering  fields.  Furthermore, few students transfer into engineering. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that we need to engage and keep STEM students that are initially interested in STEM.  Some of my ideas are discussed in a recent editorial in Quality Approaches in Higher Education.

We also have a need for more college graduates in all fields, not just STEM.  Jo Anderson, Jr., senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education  in a  keynote address at NQEC , compared the President's education goal, "by 2020, America will once again  have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world"  to the moonshot goal.  The United States is currently ranked 12th in the percent of the population that has a college degree. While the U.S. has stayed constant in its degree attainment, other countries have placed much more emphasis on education.  For economic growth, we must improve our education system and the percent of college graduates; thus this "moonshot" goal.    In the current Department of Education reports, it is clear that we are not graduating students and especially minority students at the rate we should be. The overall 6-year Bachelor's graduation rate has remained stubbornly constant in the range of 55-58%.  

 I will be attending the ASHE conference over the next several days.  Many researchers in higher education will be discussing their educational research. If we are truly to address student success and higher graduation rates, we must also look more seriously at the quality of education we are delivering and our educational processes.  Key to this is connecting research to practice and educational policiesand feeding success patterns of teaching practice back into informing research.  Dr. Eric Dey was a strong advocate for this and often addressed the need to connect research with practice.  From the research evidence, we need to use  the PDSA continuous improvement cycle (Plan-Do-Study-Act).  Typically, we will  interpret the research evidence and publish it in research journals. If we don't go any further, we don't get the benefit of the research.   We must be more proactive in the "Act" step, implementing the best practices from research into teaching practice in the researchers' department, and in the researchers college, university and related discipline. This will not be easy; this will require collaboration, educational leadership and innovative thinking.

As I travel around, I see and hear that in many classrooms we are not addressing the learning styles of all students, especially when a faculty member primarily using the lecture style of teaching  and does not engage students in discussions or classroom activities that would help them learn.    We must take a systems approach.  After all, students randomly chose a class based on their schedule. We have the research, know the best practices but are not consistently using them.   One paradigm is for all faculty to develop a student-focused culture, not the current faculty-centered culture.  Research supports this view.  Develop a teaching process that will help students learn, rather than a faculty-focused culture that is mostly centered on conducting research and getting through all the material in the textbook.  Teach students how to learn, how to use the key ideas in your discipline and they will take these ideas into the world and come back as dedicated alumni.  There are other reasons that student dropout (such as lack of financial aid) but having a student-focused culture has been shown to contribute significantly to student success. All students enter college wanting to learn.

 When I worked at Motorola,  I learned the importance of having reach-out goals--e.g. 10-fold improvement in quality.  Motorola is where lean six sigma got started.  In the beginning, it focused on understanding processes and internal customers, on innovation and being data-driven.   Higher education is starting to explore using lean ideas to improve its processes, usually from a cost-savings standpoint, but we need to use "lean" more to eliminate walls between departments and make student success a primary goal. Departments  need to integrate their research and day-to-day approaches to make a more lean, seamless process for students' learning and related educational processes.  Then we can improve college graduation rates . 

Using higher education research and systems thinking  will generate a higher level of educational quality,  an improved graduation rate and a higher rate of job placement of graduates.  If each university adopted these approaches , the United States could again have the highest percent of the population with a college degree.