Student Voices Impacting Change

By: Professors Dan Hogan, Miguel Reid, and Monique Greene

The community college system has played a monumental role over the last century in helping students in higher education to bridge their education to future career choices. Although there are foundational structures that support the students’ experiences, there is still a need to truly identify which support mechanisms aid in their success. As an institution, it is our duty to better understand the complexities of the students’ lives as well as the wealth that they bring so that we can respond to their needs, strengths and ambitions in a timely and effective manner.  

The student experience should be at the core of our decision-making process as we work to redesign our institution in a just and equitable manner.  The three of us have spent the last three years researching various topics on how to better serve students at our college.

Dan Hogan – Doctoral Candidate, Educational Leadership, Cal State San Bernardino 

In my research, I wanted to study how the big structural changes in English associated with AB 705 might affect the ways students and faculty interact in the classroom. Barhoum (2017) notes that while structural and curricular changes in education are easier to assess and change, the andragogical and relational elements of education (i.e. how professors actually interact with students) are often equally important; research confirms that addressing these non-traditional success measures correlates highly with traditional success markers like course grade and transfer (Cuellar, 2015; Garcia, 2019). One such non-traditional measure is Rendon’s (1994) concept of faculty validation, which consists of actions initiated by the faculty member, including but not limited to affirming student abilities, celebrating a student’s culture, maintaining high expectations, initiating personal connections, and demonstrating genuine care – all of which have been shown to mitigate equity gaps (Barnett, 2011; Gardenhire-Crooks, et. al, 2010; Newman, et al., 2015; Rendon, 1994).

In fall 2019 I surveyed 1,044 English students about faculty validation; then in spring-summer 2020 I interviewed nine Black and Latino men to ask them about their experiences taking English. Here were my major findings:

  1. The average male Black or Latino student reported feeling “somewhat” validated by their professor, but faculty validation was significantly predictive of course grade: the higher the validation, the higher the course grade. 
  2. Male Black and Latino students in co-requisite English classes reported higher levels of validation than those in standalone English courses, partially because they spent more time in the classroom developing skills and relationships.
  3. While professors validate students in a variety of ways, the most salient ways reported by the Black and Latino men I interviewed were individualizing instruction (i.e. offering freedom for project topic choice); providing clear feedback and support (i.e. comments on an essay that clearly explain how to improve); having high expectations (i.e. assigning rigorous projects and encouraging students that they could complete them); and demonstrating genuine care (i.e. taking time to provide individual feedback; slowing down to answer questions or re-explain concepts; inviting students to office hours; or checking in on how students were doing both emotionally and academically).
  4. While cultural identity was important to the students, the identity of the professor was not a significant determining factor for whether students experienced validation; this supports Noguera’s (2008) claim that “Differences in race, gender, or sexual orientation need not limit a teacher’s ability to make a connection with a young person… They tend to respond well to caring adults regardless of what they look like.” While Noguera referred to K-12 students, the adult men I interviewed felt similarly about their professors.

Dr. Miguel Reid 

My research was prompted by my experience as a Black student. Although I failed almost every class throughout high school, I do remember reading two books: The Color Purple and The Autobiography of Malcolm X – nothing else. Despite being a young man who didn’t care about school, I somehow found interest in those two texts that highlighted the African-American experience. These experiences inspired my research, which focused on bolstering the success of African-American students, especially Black males.  

Rather than spending energy and time on practices that may impact only a handful of Black students in one class in any given semester, my research suggested the importance of developing larger-scale support systems, such as a culturally-focused, first-year English composition learning community within a student success programs such as Umoja. My research yielded findings such as these:

  1. Programs with culturally-responsive learning communities have proven success in raising the self-esteem in African-American students and a sense of purpose in society.
  2. The success of first-year experience initiative/mentor programs, such as Umoja, demonstrated the importance of promoting engagement, meaningful connections, and self-empowerment as a means of navigating school more successfully.
  3. Studies recommend networking and connecting among Black males in support programs and the development of groups that highlight rites of passage programs emphasizing an Afrocentric model with mentoring from older African-American male models and proximal peer mentors.
  4. Through support-affiliated classes such as Umoja, Black men focus more and apply more effort to academics when encouraged by Black staff and faculty through validation, accessible services, and promotion of help-seeking behavior.

Equity-minded discourses in academia often fail to acknowledge the data-supported impact that culturally-focused initiatives such as Umoja can have on Black student success. This kind of resistance is addressed in the anchor text that we have all been asked to read for this year, From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education. On pages 21-51, the authors point out ten obstacles blocking the path toward racial equity:

1. Claiming to Not See Race

2. Not Being Able or Willing to Notice Racialized Consequences

3. Skirting Around Race

4. Resisting Calls to Disaggregate Data by Race and Ethnicity

5. Substituting Race Talk with Poverty Talk

6. The Pervasiveness of White Privilege and Institutionalized Racism

7. Evasive Reactions to Racist Incidents

8. The Incapacity to See Institutional Racism in Familiar Routines

9. The Myth of Universalism

10. Seeing Racial Inequities as a Reflection of Academic Deficiencies

In what ways might your well-intended, equity-minded efforts reflect these obstacles?

In what ways can you understand/support/promote a culturally-focused program such as Umoja? 

Dr. Monique Greene 

My research was on the Career Exploration Process for Non-Traditional Students in the California Community College System undergirded by the theoretical framework of Donald Super’s Career Development and Life Span Theory (1984).  I was curious to understand how life roles shaped or influenced the career decisions of our older student population.  Through this research, I found that enrollment in the community college system is a huge part of the career development process for many students.  Our student’s expect to gain valuable knowledge,  transferable, and career skills needed to secure employment in the workforce.  

However, many CCC students have various life roles and responsibilities that they juggle in addition to their education.  On top of their roles and responsibilities, the CCC system has designed barriers (whether intentional or not) that they have to hurdle through in order to be successful in completion.  Key findings from my research include the need to address the following: 

  1. Access to resource support (evening and weekend hours)
  2. Curriculum redesign (culturally inclusive content, programs that can be completed solely in the evening or online)
  3. Building a Sense of Belonging (Andragogy vs. Pedagogy teaching practices, building on previous life experiences in the classroom, social engagement opportunities for older students on campus)
  4. Adult reentry program (bridging the gap from Adult Education, Formerly Incarcerated, Community, and NonCredit Programs)
  5. Career Center Services (direct connection to employment, internships and networking opportunities)

Based on these key findings, we have discovered the meaningful impact of student voices in guiding the change that is needed inside of our classrooms and across our campus.  

Incorporating the Student Voice

We will hear throughout this series from different faculty members, but using students’ voices to frame the discussion is critical.  Many of us use assessment measures throughout the semester that allows for students to provide critical feedback of the course.  Here are a few questions about the student voice to consider:

  1. How often do you take into consideration the feedback that you receive from students to make your classroom more engaging or conducive for learning?  
  2. How often do you stop and chat with a student outside of class who may have questioned or challenged the content or the relevance of an assignment? 
  3. How often do you allow your students to choose the topic that they want to write on?
  4. How often do you allow your students to choose the topics that they engage or dialogue in the classroom?  
  5. In what ways do you facilitate the centering of students’ experiences/voices in the classroom, whether through writing or other activities?
  6. What does “faculty validation” mean to you? How does it manifest in your classroom?
  7. In what ways do you gather and examine student feedback in order to improve practices?

Through these meaningful interactions and dialogue with students you begin to gain insight into their lives, their passions, and their minds.  Open discussion and intentional conversations about how to relate your content to real life experiences in which they see themselves could make the difference between increased success rates or drop rates for your class.

2 thoughts on “Student Voices Impacting Change

  1. Thank you for putting this back on the professor and the institution. Now while we do not absolve our students of responsibility and ownership of their own success, we as instructors, facilitators of information, mentors, bridge keepers, have to take a close look at what are we doing with our power, our authority, our sphere of influence that ensures that we are not harming our students more than they are. The first two questions that you all ask at the end should be a gut check to all of us because those two questions are the crux of teaching and learning: how do we respond or dismiss student feedback and do we just “teach” within the confines of our classroom walls? Thank you all for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wendy L. Silva

    This is great ya’ll. Thank you for sharing the details of some of the research you’ve all been doing.

    I want to zoom in on question #6 because I’ve been thinking about this more lately, especially in an online environment. For me, faculty validation means encouragement and support. In what ways am I encouraging students (and which students), and in what ways am I supporting their success. It is important to me that I validate all my students, but particularly the ones that are insecure about writing, those whose grades start to slip, those who might not be turning in all assignments, and my male students of color. I know that our equity gap lies with males of color, and so I’m trying to be more intentional about validating their work and encouraging their strengths. In my classroom, this might look like praise over something they contributed to the discussion, or even just making space to hear their ideas, showing that I value what they have to see (and indirectly am telling others in the room to also value their ideas). In Canvas discussions, that might look like taking time to comment on those posts (I usually try to reply to just a few weekly), or, in the next zoom lesson, bringing in their ideas and asking them to say more.

    I’m jump in on question #1 as well. The past few years, I’ve been making most of my assignment, text, and lessons revisions based on student feedback, but this took a long time. It can be scary to open yourself up to criticism from students, because you know some will be constructive, and some might not. But, I think leaning into this discomfort, like with most equity work, can result in some really amazing feedback. For example, last semester I did everything asynchronously, and at the end of the semester I had student write an essay giving me feedback on what worked, what didn’t, revisions they’d make to the course or text options, etc., and most of my students told me they’d have liked a synchronous session weekly. So, this semester, I am doing just that. I like to check in with my student every few weeks about how lessons themselves are going. They can tell me what is working for them, what is not, and give suggestions for what they want more or less of. I also try to be very transparent about how their feedback influenced the changes I made. If I make a change, I let them know that I’m doing it thanks to them. This helps them see that their feedback is actually being used. In my 91 class, where we have more room for this, I also get their feedback often about what they want to work on or how they want to spend class time. I’ve even started coming up with lessons that have like 2-3 extra activities, and I let students vote or discuss which activity they’d rather do and why. This helps me cater to their needs a little more directly. Creating this kind of classroom culture, I’ve found, really just opens the door for students to feel comfortable asking questions and telling me what they need.

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