Thursday, May 15, 2014

How UT Austin Helps Students Graduate

Apologies for quoting heavily, but there's a lot in this article -- "Who Gets to Graduate" by Paul Tough at www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html that applies to teaching, professional development for teachers -- whether those teachers are classroom instructors, TA's,  or tutors.
When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.
The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.
When you read about those gaps, you might assume that they mostly have to do with ability. Rich kids do better on the SAT, so of course they do better in college. But ability turns out to be a relatively minor factor behind this divide. If you compare college students with the same standardized-test scores who come from different family backgrounds, you find that their educational outcomes reflect their parents’ income, not their test scores. Take students like Vanessa, who do moderately well on standardized tests — scoring between 1,000 and 1,200 out of 1,600 on the SAT. If those students come from families in the top-income quartile, they have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating with a four-year degree. If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation.

The full article begins with a profile of University of Texas, Austin student Vanessa Brewer, the challenges and choices she makes, putting her face and story on the kind of data above, and then shifts into a profile UT's David Laude, a chemistry professor by degree who is now a senior vice provost focusing on improving graduation.
In 1999, at the beginning of the fall semester, Laude combed through the records of every student in his freshman chemistry class and identified about 50 who possessed at least two of the “adversity indicators” common among students who failed the course in the past: low SATs, low family income, less-educated parents. He invited them all to apply to a new program, which he would later give the august-sounding name the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP. Students in TIP were placed in their own, smaller section of Chemistry 301, taught by Laude. But rather than dumb down the curriculum for them, Laude insisted that they master exactly the same challenging material as the students in his larger section. In fact, he scheduled his two sections back to back. “I taught my 500-student chemistry class, and then I walked upstairs and I taught this 50-student chemistry class,” Laude explained. “Identical material, identical lectures, identical tests — but a 200-point difference in average SAT scores between the two sections.”
Laude was hopeful that the small classes would make a difference, but he recognized that small classes alone wouldn’t overcome that 200-point SAT gap. “We weren’t na├»ve enough to think they were just going to show up and start getting A’s, unless we overwhelmed them with the kind of support that would make it possible for them to be successful,” he said. So he supplemented his lectures with a variety of strategies: He offered TIP students two hours each week of extra instruction; he assigned them advisers who kept in close contact with them and intervened if the students ran into trouble or fell behind; he found upperclassmen to work with the TIP students one on one, as peer mentors. And he did everything he could, both in his lectures and outside the classroom, to convey to the TIP students a new sense of identity: They weren’t subpar students who needed help; they were part of a community of high-achieving scholars.
Tough goes on to profile one more person in some detail, David Yeager, a UT assistant professor who does work on the psychology of education and who studied how best to help students through their anxiety about college, especially students like Vanessa Brewer.

Before he arrived at U.T. in the winter of 2012, Yeager worked as a graduate student in the psychology department at Stanford, during an era when that department had become a hotbed of new thinking on the psychology of education. Leading researchers like Carol Dweck, Claude Steele and Hazel Markus were using experimental methods to delve into the experience of students from early childhood all the way through college. To the extent that the Stanford researchers shared a unifying vision, it was the belief that students were often blocked from living up to their potential by the presence of certain fears and anxieties and doubts about their ability. These feelings were especially virulent at moments of educational transition — like the freshman year of high school or the freshman year of college. And they seemed to be particularly debilitating among members of groups that felt themselves to be under some special threat or scrutiny: women in engineering programs, first-generation college students, African-Americans in the Ivy League.

The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas. One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things. Why study if I can’t get smarter? Why go out and meet new friends if no one will want to talk to me anyway? Before long, the nagging doubts became self-fulfilling prophecies.
[ . . . ]

Yeager began working with a professor of social psychology named Greg Walton, who had identified principles that seemed to govern which messages, and which methods of delivering those messages, were most persuasive to students. For instance, messages worked better if they appealed to social norms; when college students are informed that most students don’t take part in binge drinking, they’re less likely to binge-drink themselves. Messages were also more effective if they were delivered in a way that allowed the recipients a sense of autonomy. If you march all the high-school juniors into the auditorium and force them to watch a play about tolerance and inclusion, they’re less likely to take the message to heart than if they feel as if they are independently seeking it out. And positive messages are more effectively absorbed when they are experienced through what Walton called “self-persuasion”: if students watch a video or read an essay with a particular message and then write their own essay or make their own video to persuade future students, they internalize the message more deeply.

The piece goes on to explore Laude's creation of a "University Leadership Network, a new scholarship program that aims to develop not academic skills but leadership skills. In order to be selected for U.L.N., incoming freshmen must not only fall below the 40-percent cutoff on the Dashboard; they must also have what the financial-aid office calls unmet financial need. In practice, this means that students in U.L.N. are almost all from families with incomes below the national median."

There's a lot of useful detail in the piece, more insights, and it's really worth reading in full.