Monday, August 28, 2017

Impacting Students for a Lifetime - Part 1

by Sally Heilstedt, Associate Dean of Instruction - Engagement and Learning at LWIT 

A little over a year ago, I walked into a session at the Achieving the Dream (ATD) annual cohort kick-off event (LWTech was there to learn more about ATD). Now, I can’t recall the exact title but it was about faculty-student relationships and success. I was thrilled to see it on the agenda. When the session began, I felt like I had been duped – data, data, data…yadda, yadda, yadda. After only a few minutes, however, the session was handed over to Don Wood of Odessa College. He began to share his journey, and the college’s, as he discovered a profound truth about student success: connection to faculty members matters, a lot.

Don, then dean and now VP of Institutional Effectiveness, was worried about course success. Students at Odessa were dropping out at high rates. Odessa’s overall in-class retention was only 83 percent. Initially, Don investigated the impact of commonly identified variables that impact courses success: subject, course, time of day, rigor, and student preparedness. There was no significant correlation to high dropout rates (I was shocked by this, too!). Then, he looked at the instructional side of the equation. Do different teaching methods impact dropout rate? No, again. What?!? Don moved to a qualitative approach to try to understand why some instructors had very low dropout rates. He interviewed them and coded their responses and something wonderful emerged (my embellishment added). The faculty who had the lowest dropout rates demonstrated “a common thread of connectivity to their students” (Kistner & Henderson, 2014).

Yes! I felt reinvigorated in my commitment to teaching and to faculty development and to student success and to completion and all the work that had lost a little of its luster for me. Here was the core of everything. But, what does connectivity look like? Well, Don didn’t leave it there. He broke down the responses further into four common practices shared among the faculty with the highest in-class retention: 1) Interact with students by name; 2) Check-in regularly; 3) Schedule one-on-one meetings; and 4) Practice paradox. Over the next few weeks, I will write about each of the four and the different ways faculty at LWTech and across the Washington State Community and Technical College system have chosen to practice them.

Odessa asked all faculty to practice what they came to call The 4 Commitments for at least one quarter. Their in-class retention rate went from 83 percent to 95 percent!!! And, that new rate was “regardless of gender, age, race/ethnicity, or Pell status” (Kistner & Henderson, 2014). Incredible! Few practices in higher education have been able to increase student success AND close equity gaps – here is a simple (but admittedly, not easy) approach rooted in the hearts of students and teachers. I can’t wait to share more about what The 4 Connections (LWTech’s adaptation) has meant for the faculty with whom I work.

If you can’t wait for the next post, visit to learn more.
Reference: Kistner, N.A., & Henderson, C.E. (2014). The drop rate improvement program at Odessa College. Achieving the Dream’s Technology Solutions: Case Study Series. Retrieved from

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