Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Which exceptional students get our attention? Which deserve it? Why?

As Dean I met two types of students--super-achievers who because of their grades, or their interests or their insights have become prominent, and struggling students who because of their grades or their challenges have become prominent.  Both groups of students share a characteristic--they become visible to administrators because they are exceptional and seek exceptions.

Colleges are good at working with the first group of students, and not always good at working with the second group.  I have been wondering why that is.  The answer is probably straight-forward--the first group of students are good at school and so are good at getting the attention of schools.  But some of the reason turns on the ability of students to fit into standardized ways of working with them.

Take the curriculum, for example.  High achieving students by-and-large flourish within the sort of curricula we offer--academic programs that include lots of pieces and require lots of student-directed choices about electives.

Or take policies on exceptions--high achieving students build connections with faculty who tend to be leaders, and who therefore understand things like exceptions policies, opportunities for withdrawal from academic programs, or ways to discover research or job opportunities.  Struggling students don't routinely build connections with faculty (in fact they often say they don't want to bother their professors or ask for special help) and so when it comes time to seek some sort of leg up, they don't always get it. Instead, their interaction with faculty or administrators often comes ex post facto--the opportunity has been missed, the exception not granted, the course failed--and then the student wants to know why.

There are plenty of solutions to this set of problems, but the thing I am most interested in is how the sort of experiences we provide send signals to various types of students.  As I suggested above, high achieving students work well in standardized systems--they learn how the systems work, and they learn how the system builds connections that can be then used to deal with exceptions.

Struggling or isolated students don't work well in standardized systems.  Instead they work well in systems with two components.  The first is perhaps obvious--personalization.  Struggling students need individualized attention.  Brochures mapping out the curriculum aren't particularly useful; personalized conversations with real human beings are. 

The second is less noted--such students flourish in a school that values common experiences.  Limit the curricular choices, or ensure that all students participate in learning communities, or require that all students read a particular book, or achieve a set of learning outcomes, and you establish a system that values common experiences.  Note that common experiences are different from standard systems.  In standard systems the focus is on the well-being of the system--completing or waiving prerequisites for example, or ensuring that students complete a particular number of credit hours.  In a common system, all students are expected to have the same experiences.

There is a final point to be made--personalized and common experiences are deeply connected.  Require all students to study abroad and they have both a powerful common experience--learning in a foreign setting--and a powerful personal experience--making sense of who they are by learning in a foreign setting.  Put them in a standard system, and the range of personal learning decreases, because the point of reference is the requirement, the system, not the experience.  And when all students have both powerful common and powerful personal experiences, the struggling student becomes center stage as a person, not just as a seeker of special favors from the administration.

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