The subject of low community college graduation rates has been a popular topic in education as of late.
According to the U.S. Department of Education in 2013, only 18% of community college students complete their Associates degree and transfer to a four-year school, and the American Association of Community Colleges in 2013 claimed that graduation rates are at around 40%.
If you’re a college professor, these rates sound discouraging after putting so much time and effort into helping students be successful. Fortunately, there are ways for instructors to single-handedly impact student success.
With such low transfer and graduation rates in the past few years, I think it’s time community college educators started focusing more on what they can do as individuals to keep their students motivated and get them one step closer to graduation.
These are the top 4 things I’ve found to make a huge difference in the classroom.
1. Have a positive attitude.
Research in positive psychology shows that a positive attitude leads to better performance at work and in college classes.
Studies have shown that positive managers have happier and more productive teams, while managers who focus on criticism and are generally unpleasant to be around have more negative and less productive teams (The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, 2010; The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, 2003).
In the classroom, you are essentially the manager of your students, so if you want your students to succeed, it all starts with a positive attitude.
2. Give your students choices and a sense of control.
Based on research in andragogy (‘adult learning’), my own observations and fellow colleagues’ observations, the key to helping adult learners in community colleges is to make them part of the teaching process and give them more control in the classroom.
For example, if a due date for a certain assignment can be made flexible, I’ll ask students which of two class periods would work better for them, and we’ll vote based on a raise of hands. Group activities are also a great way to let students have some control. During these activities the instructor can provide supervision, while letting students work with their teams to take on various tasks and delegate responsibilities to each other.
It’s not hard to implement these small changes in the classroom, but it benefits students greatly.
According to studies by Sparr, J.L., & Sonnentag (2008), Spector, P. (2002), and Thompson, C.A., & Prottas, D.J. (2005) regarding well-being, stress, and control in college and the workplace, students who feel that they have some control over classroom situations have higher level of happiness, higher grades, and motivation to pursue a career. Likewise, employees who feel they have higher levels of control tend to have better job performance (Drive by Daniel H. Pink, 2009).
Many of the changes I’ve made and kept over the years are changes my students asked for when I gave them choices and a sense of control in the classroom, and they’ve not only been beneficial for my students, but they’ve actually improved the quality of the courses that I teach.
3. Focus on praise rather than criticism directed at student work performance.
One of the best management techniques one can take away from a college business class is to praise the work your employees do for you. It seems that managers get better work results from employees who are given constructive comments sandwiched between two pieces of positive feedback (Achor, 2010; Blanchard and Johnson, 2003).
This popular management technique also works well in the classroom.
I tend to use this method when I give my students verbal feedback, and when I write feedback on their graded papers.
As a pleasant surprise, I’ve had numerous students tell me they liked the the way I provided feedback. They claimed it not only made them become more confident students and public speakers due to the verbal praise, but it also helped them see the areas they needed to work on without feeling that they had failed in any one way completely.
That was the hoped-for result in my classroom, and apparently, a very common result for other teachers and employers.
4. Encourage your students.
Isa Adney’s article in the Huffington Post titled “How Professors Help Community College Students Transfer” is one I agree with strongly. She mentions that all it takes is one encouraging professor to impact a student enough to keep them moving forward in their academic pursuits.
Sure, it takes a little extra time as an instructor to take a personal interest in your students, but isn’t it worth it?
I believe it’s important to truly care about your students in order to keep them on the road to success. Adney’s website communitycollegesuccess.com and her book Community College Success, as well as Ellen Bremen’s website ellenbremen.com and book Say This NOT That to Your College Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success, note the importance of giving students some much-needed guidance through college, especially when many of them are starting all over again after a 10-year hiatus to help a sick parent or raise a family.
When I go through phases where I start forgetting what it’s like to be in my students’ shoes, I pick up community college success books like Adney’s, and reference helpful college websites like Bremen’s to remember what my students are going through and what they might need.
As college professors, we have the tools to help our students, and the ability to implement positive changes in the classroom. If you use them, I promise you will see more success in your own classroom that will help your students get one step closer to graduation.
This article was originally posted on BuzzFeed.com on August 21, 2014.