On Purpose Student Success

photo of students studying

Conversations abound these days about non-cog factors in student success. From engagement to mindset to grit, educators are exploring how striving students can better bring these “X-factors,” as some describe them, to their learning journeys. I’m not sure they are X-factors, they are simply a core set of traits that have always been associated with successful students. We’re just getting better at recognizing their influence and importance in relation to the ubiquitous high-stakes testing and cognitive-focused summative assessment. There are some good discussions on this topic in both New York Times Magazine contributor Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed and NPR education correspondent pic of book The TestAnya Kamenetz’s newest book The Test, if you want to dive deeper and learn a lot more. They are both great reads.

Finding and effectively pursuing a purpose, however, is emerging as one of the most important X-factors. Purpose can ground and gird students for the most challenging education pathways like few interventions or inspirations can. But what we all-too-often see is students lost and confused on their learning journeys, particularly first-generation and low-income students. This lack of connection to purpose is made worse by the fact that navigating our bureaucracies and program pathways has become almost heroic, especially for non-traditional students who have to attend on different schedules at different paces because of complicated work expectations and diverse life situations. These students simply can’t follow guidelines that are designed for traditional full-time, on-campus students, especially if they don’t know why they are doing all this work in the first place. Not surprisingly, too many students are accumulating far-too-many course credits that don’t apply to their degree choices, or they are lurching from major to major in search of their real purpose. The result for institutions is one or both of the terrible two: low completion rates and high student-loan defaults. The result for students, they end up giving up on degrees and having to pay up on student loans.

art of maze

Read this interview with Davis Jenkins discussing guided pathways in the Civitas Learning Space.

To tackle this challenge, universities and community colleges now are offering helpful options like meta-majors and guided pathways that better scaffold learning journeys, creating a type of choice architecture to support purposeful course taking behavior. Davis Jenkins from the Community College Research Center is one of the strongest proponents of these models. I’m a fan of most of these programs as well for two reasons: (1) they recognize the importance of and provide tools and techniques that support finding and achieving purpose, and (2) many are taking into account the diversity of learning journeys, providing options such as block scheduling, flex modalities, and other more personalized options like WGU’s competency-based model to make achieving the purpose possible in a reasonable time frame at a reasonable cost.

Still, many educators are concerned that pushing purpose too soon on students will stunt their intellectual growth or track them into career paths they don’t want or that are simply the desired end state of business interests. Another key problem is the “borrowed purpose”—students adopting a major because they were pushed that way by a counselor, advisor, or parent. Students with a borrowed purpose don’t feel an authentic sense of ownership, drive, or connection to their stated purpose. It feels like what they’re supposed to do, not what they want to do. Both of these challenges are important, but neither negates the need for our putting in place tools and techniques that help students explore, refine, adopt, and pursue purpose. Indeed, the right tools to explore and pursue purpose can help address both of these challenges.

My feeling is that a predicate part of most of our student success innovation should involve supporting students on two fronts: achieving their purpose or finding their purpose. If they don’t have a sense of ownership of their purpose or even have one in mind, then we should focus on helping students do what Dr. Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College, calls “the work of purpose”—asking hard questions about why they are pursuing education and what they really want to do with their lives. Whether it’s their mission or their major—a wonderful distinction the folks at Stanford advocate—the power of purpose is significant. Getting clear on the why makes the way clearer.

We’re doing students no favor, especially low income and first generation students, by assuming that dabbling in unfocused course taking is a good and necessary thing. Let’s get real: only wealthy students have the luxury of dabbling. When they dabble, they are backstopped by family funds and employment options that most middle- and low-income students don’t enjoy. Moreover, it’s likely not a particularly useful process even for them given how many of them end up approaching it. Wealthy or not, off-purpose students are typically scrambling, fumbling, reaching, and searching for help. They have neither the time, nor the interest in dabbling. What they tell me in focus groups and conversations is that they welcome the encouragement around finding purpose and the tools to help achieve it. They expect their education institutions to help them in this work—not do it for them, but support, encourage, and reinforce the powerful force that is purpose.

Tim Fish, Associate Headmaster, McDonogh School

Tim Fish, Associate Headmaster, McDonogh School

In addition, there’s an important truism on purpose. I was reminded of it during an interactive session with the Board of Visitors at the impressive McDonogh School in Maryland last week when their Associate Head Master, Tim Fish, argued:

“For students, having A purpose helps build the capacity for finding THE purpose”  

Exactly right. Even if students don’t ultimately achieve a currently stated purpose, developing the skill, will, and capability to define and pursue a purpose helps them build the right kind of intellectual, conceptual, and planning muscle necessary to eventually go after what really matters to them in the long run. They learn to successfully strive. Yes they may need to change majors or missions; but in these cases, it’s usually a good thing.

Put simply: students are better on purpose. Coming together to learn how best to catalyze this purposeful work might be the most important student success work we do.

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