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Subject:

from the Chron -- FYI

From:

Norman Stahl <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 13 May 2004 07:43:37 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (250 lines)

Back From the Brink

More colleges try to help students who struggle with their courses

By THOMAS BARTLETT

Edward Einbinder doesn't kid himself: He knows how close he came to flunking
out of college in his freshman year.

After two semesters at Lehigh University, his grade-point average was a lowly
1.7 and he felt defeated. "Realistically, I thought either I would try to get
a job or go to a community college for a while," he says.

Then he remembered a telephone call he had received several months earlier
from Cheryl Ashcroft, who runs a program for Lehigh students who are in
trouble
academically. Aware of his grades, she had asked if he needed a mentor. At the
time he blew her off, convinced that he could handle things himself. But
after a second lackluster semester, he was ready to try anything.

Mr. Einbinder, now a junior majoring in psychology, has since become one of
the program's success stories. His GPA last fall was 3.5; he is on track for a
3.9 this semester. And there is no way he could have done it alone, he says:
"If I hadn't gotten some guidance and some coaching, I really don't think I'd
be in school."

In recent years, more colleges have been asking how they can reach out to
students like Mr. Einbinder. While many programs exist for at-risk students,
those who study such issues share a sense that for every Mr. Einbinder,
there are
several others who disappear quietly from the campus, never to return. Part of
the reason is that colleges have trouble figuring out who is sinking in time
to save them.

"Everybody understands it's important, but most places get it done too late,"
says George D. Kuh, a professor of higher education at Indiana University at
Bloomington. "This is a real challenge for higher education in this country."

Another challenge is what to do for students once their colleges have
determined that they need help. The approaches vary but share common
threads, like
the necessity of figuring out what's wrong before trying to fix it.

"Probably the only way to do that is to forge a relationship with the
student," says Linda Pizzi, director of the Education Enhancement Center at
Arcadia
University, near Philadelphia. "It's not as if there's a magic potion or
something. I wish there were."

The Safety Net

Mr. Einbinder was a good student in high school. So when he started failing
classes in the fall of his freshman year, he was surprised but not overly
concerned -- at least not at first.

But when his grades didn't improve in the spring, he panicked. That's when he
called Cheryl Ashcroft.

One of the first questions Ms. Ashcroft asks students like Mr. Einbinder is
about their goals: Are they striving for A's or just trying to get by? Once
that has been established, she and the student come up with a plan. "It's
really
about prompting them to think through what they're doing, being very specific
with them about what would work," she says.

The next step is pairing a student with a mentor. The mentors in the program
are students who have had academic problems of their own but have managed to
overcome them. That might seem counterintuitive: Why not match a struggling
student with a high achiever? But Ms. Ashcroft says the mentors she selects
know
what the students they help are experiencing because they have been there
themselves.

That kind of emotional support is crucial, says Daryl G. Smith, a professor
of education and psychology at Claremont Graduate University, who has written
articles about mentor programs. Students who are having academic trouble, she
says, "need to see other people who have struggled" and were able to succeed.
"It's got to be in a context with plenty of peer support."

Giving students the support they need is the purpose of the "mentoring
ladder" developed by Isiah M. Warner, a professor of chemistry at Louisiana
State
University at Baton Rouge. His program, which was begun in 2002 with a
$1-million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to pay for the
mentors,
focuses on math and science. It encourages graduate students to help
undergraduates
-- who, in turn, do the same for high-school students.

What he has found is that the mentor activity quickly takes on a life of its
own. Soon undergraduates begin helping their classmates. Some high-school
students have even been of help to college students. All of which is fine
with Mr.
Warner, who says that as long as everyone is learning, it doesn't matter to
him who is teaching whom.

Along with getting students to work together, Mr. Warner and the program's
staff members also teach note-taking and time-management skills. They start by
giving students a diagnostic test to determine their learning style.

Mr. Warner recalls one student who took the test and deemed the results
"crap." The test said she should study in the morning. "But I'm not a morning
person," she protested.

After a few weeks of going to bed early and hitting the books at the crack of
dawn, she returned with a revelation: She was a morning person. It turned out
that she had just been too tired to concentrate. "It completely changed the
way she studies," says Mr. Warner.

Too Simple?

The Louisiana State professor understands that talking about who is or is not
a morning person may sound silly to some. But, he argues, such little things
often have a big influence on a student's academic performance. He, too, was
skeptical at first, but now he is convinced, especially after tracking how
students in the program fared over the past two years. "It is so basic that
people
say, 'It's got to be more than that,'" says Mr. Warner. "But looking at our
data, it's not more than that."

Trudy Cunningham, too, has discovered that sometimes the simple approach is
best. A professor of mathematics at the University of the South, in Sewanee,
Tenn., she is in charge of an informal program for struggling students. She
meets with several administrators each week to discuss which students are
falling
behind in their work. "We ask each other, 'Who are you worried about? What
have you heard?'" she says. After each meeting she puts together lists of
students and asks them to come to her office.

One such student was Don Rodgers. When he arrived at the university, there
was no sign that he was going to have trouble with his studies. He was, after
all, a National Merit scholar with near-perfect grades. Yet in his first
semester he failed three of his four courses and earned a D in the other one.

That's when Ms. Cunningham stepped in. After several discussions, it was Mr.
Rodgers who came up with a plan. He asked if it would be OK if he brought his
books to her office and studied there. Sure, she said.

"I don't think I ever actually helped him," Ms. Cunningham says. "He just sat
there in a chair and did his work."

His grade-point average jumped from 1.5 to 3.5.

'Early-Warning Flares'

Grades aren't the only indicator that a student needs help. Stephanie C.
Reynolds, director of the Student Success Initiative at Syracuse
University, looks
for other signs, too. "If they're repeatedly dropping a particular type of
class, like math, then that tells us something," says Ms. Reynolds, who also
looks at the number of absences a student has and whether he or she is
participating in class.

What Syracuse does appears to be working. Among students in the category of
"most likely to drop out" over the past 10 years, more than half of those who
didn't take part in the program have left the university. Among participants,
only 12 percent have dropped out.

Determining how a student is doing usually falls on the shoulders of
professors, who should be on the lookout, say teaching experts, for
evidence that a
student is foundering. It can be a challenge, however -- especially in large
lecture classes -- for a professor to monitor the progress of every student.

"We have to convince faculty that they need to send up early-warning flares,"
says Indiana's Mr. Kuh, who is director of the National Survey of Student
Engagement, which offers a wealth of data on teaching and learning. One way
professors can find out how students are doing is by giving them quizzes
early in
the semester. "To know if they're slipping," he says, "you have to collect
data
on student performance."

Mr. Kuh favors approaches like Lehigh's, in which underachieving students are
matched with students who have overcome academic challenges. "They don't
learn physics from peers," he says. "But the motivation to learn, the
willingness
to learn, often does come from peers."

That may be why students in so-called learning communities -- a concept that
has become increasingly popular at many colleges -- seem to perform better
than their counterparts do. In learning communities, students in small groups
take the same classes and often live together as well.

From Struggling to Stellar

There are many reasons why students have trouble academically, including
causes as difficult as the death of a family member or as simple as not
having a
good place to study. Ms. Ashcroft, at Lehigh, recalls how one student's grades
plummeted after he broke up with his longtime girlfriend. (Ms. Ashcroft
persuaded him to get some counseling. Now he is "doing well," she says.)

For Mr. Einbinder, who rebounded from his academically disappointing first
year at Lehigh, the culprit was a lack of focus. "I was not ready, really,
to be
in a college atmosphere," he says.

So what changed?

Having someone help him create a plan, including exactly what he needed to do
for each course, was the key, he says. Also important was that both his
mentor and Ms. Ashcroft made sure that he followed through on his plan.
"It's more
about emotional and psychological support," he says. "To have someone set the
guidelines with you -- it's almost like they're taking half the load."

Now Mr. Einbinder is helping others. In the past year, he has become one of
Ms. Ashcroft's most reliable mentors. It's a job he takes very seriously. "My
geology students -- I mean, the students I work with -- they do very well," he
says.

This semester Mr. Einbinder and one of "his" students happen to be in the
same psychology class. The student, Jason Thomas, had been close to
flunking out
last semester. After Mr. Einbinder began studying with him, however, his
fortunes changed. On a recent test Mr. Thomas outperformed his mentor,
scoring a 92
to Mr. Einbinder's 91.

It was, Mr. Einbinder says, one of his proudest moments. "He sent me this
e-mail that said, 'Thanks so much. You really helped me.' That e-mail means as
much to me as getting a good grade."

http://chronicle.com
Section: Students
Volume 50, Issue 36, Page A39



Norman A. Stahl
Professor and Chair
Literacy Education
GA 147
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115

Phone: (815) 753-9032
FAX:   (815) 753-8563
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