Paul Tough has a very strong essay in the New York Times called “Who gets to graduate.” It is a snapshot of the strategies used by caring teachers and administrators at the University of Texas at Austin to help students succeed. I appreciated the emphasis on successful strategies. Here are a few of my favorite points. Chemistry professor David Laude gets props for his initial approach:
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 naïve 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.
Laude’s interventions have been successful with many students. Inspired by Laude, UT has developed a research tool which helps them discover which incoming first year students are likely to need some help.
I have a pang of concern about privacy and labeling. There is something terrible about telling a student from a poor family who has worked really hard that they are “unlikely to succeed” because of some algorithm. This notion of a computer assessing students seems particularly soul crushing. I appreciate that the folks at UT have something similar in mind in their communication strategy about their interventions. Paul Tough again:
Perhaps the most striking fact about the success programs is that the selection criteria are never disclosed to students. “From a numbers perspective, the students in these programs are all in the bottom quartile,” Laude explained. “But here’s the key — none of them know that they’re in the bottom quartile.” The first rule of the Dashboard, in other words, is that you never talk about the Dashboard. Laude says he assumes that most U.L.N. students understand on some level that they were chosen in part because of their financial need, but he says it is important for the university to play down that fact when dealing directly with students. It is an extension of the basic psychological strategy that he has used ever since that first TIP program: Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but because you are confident they can succeed.
UT has turned to psychologists to help figure out how to best communicate to at-risk incoming students that they belong. How do you best re-articulate the fears and doubts to make them manageable? Here is Paul Tough explaining UT professor David Yeager and his insights about persuasion and argument:
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.
In one experiment after another, Yeager and Walton’s methods produced remarkable results. At an elite Northeastern college, Walton, along with another Stanford researcher named Geoffrey Cohen, conducted an experiment in which first-year students read brief essays by upperclassmen recalling their own experiences as freshmen. The upperclassmen conveyed in their own words a simple message about belonging: “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too.” After reading the essays, the students in the experiment then wrote their own essays and made videos for future students, echoing the same message. The whole intervention took no more than an hour. It had no apparent effect on the white students who took part in the experiment. But it had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study: Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A. It even had an impact on the students’ health — the black students who received the belonging message had significantly fewer doctor visits three years after the intervention.
As a communication professor I’d like to claim some particular insight into these persuasive pathways. Communication and Rhetoric teachers tend to think about exactly this kind of strategic approach to making messages, but it is also kind of common sense. I bet English, Ethnic Studies Women’s Studies and Social Work professors all recognized some of our core principles in our fields in these insights.
I don’t think it is about credit. There is certainly work to go around. Part of the story is the structural support of administrators and the other part of the story are the good teachers primed to implement these ideas. You’d need administrators and informed teachers working in cooperation for a while to get results. And you’d need all those teachers from all those fields who already know this to implement change successfully at a university.
Much of the ‘ah-ha’ arguments of the article are about a communication practice known as inoculation — that you pre-warn someone about a coming moment of persuasion in order to steer the person’s understanding of that moment when it happens.
Often used by political candidates to warn about an argument about to be spoken by an opponent in a debate, the tactic works equally well when thinking about education. Here is Paul Tough analyzing UT’s online messaging module which helps to intellectually-inoculate first year students about belonging and doubt:
Our first instinct, when we read about these experiments, is that what the interventions must be doing is changing students’ minds — replacing one deeply held belief with another. And it is hard to imagine that reading words on a computer screen for 25 minutes could possibly do that. People just aren’t that easy to persuade. But Yeager believes that the interventions are not in fact changing students’ minds — they are simply keeping them from overinterpreting discouraging events that might happen in the future. “We don’t prevent you from experiencing those bad things,” Yeager explains. “Instead, we try to change the meaning of them, so that they don’t mean to you that things are never going to get better.”
Nice essay and more to think about as we do the important work of hustling to make change.