7 Steps for Post Spring Break Student Success

Leonard Geddes 1 Comment

Click on the clip to view the full video on YouTube.

7 Steps for Post Spring Break Student Success

Students who are falling behind in college are far more capable of success than they may believe. As educators, parents, and casual observers of human behavior, we often see these students’ potential even as they fall short of it. Creating the conditions for student success is a multifaceted challenge. It includes activities for students, faculty, and, at times, learning center personnel.

I can assure you of two things. One, learning is an intrinsic human function. We are born to learn, just as Rita Smilkstein, PhD, popularized in her book by that name. Two, students are far closer to consistent, across‑the‑board high‑performance than it may appear. This is good news because it means we don’t have to shove students toward success. We just have to nudge them gently and strategically.

ABCs of Academic Work

The student challenge has two issues. First, students are using the wrong thinking skills on test material. The specific cognitive skills and processes that they use to study and learn the material don’t match the cognitive skills that are being assessed on their tests and tasks. Second, students are attempting to do complex, abstract work in their heads. Each of these problems presents its own challenges, and they are combining to create a real headache. Let’s pull these issues apart.

There is a formula for doing cognitively complex academic work. In my forthcoming book, Avoiding Transition Traps: How to Successfully Transition Students into College, I call it the Learner’s Formula. If students get any factors of this formula wrong, then they will underperform. By underperform, I mean that they will not learn sufficiently and therefore won’t perform well on assessments.

The Learners Formula

productive learning = correct content + appropriate cognition + time

Most students get the content part right because content is the most visible and obvious factor in a course. However, very few students get the cognitive factor right, which leads to getting the time factor wrong.

Thinking and time apportionment go hand in hand. Students are poor at apportioning time for academic work because they aren’t acutely aware of the thinking that they must invest in the task. So a key outcome is to get students to do the mental work that they will be required to do on assessments while they are studying, attending class, and doing other types of academic work. This is why we must start with ensuring that students can differentiate their thinking skills. If they lack this skill, then everything else will be much, much harder.

Once you’ve helped students differentiate their thinking skills, the next step is doing complex abstract work correctly. If I asked you to multiply four times six, you would quickly do this work in your head. But if I told you to multiply 246 times 379, you would likely write the problem down and then solve it on paper. The work required to solve the second problem is too complex to do in your head. It’s not that you are incapable of solving the problem; the challenge is that your mind cannot mentally represent working through the math in your head. This is the challenge with abstract work.

One key reason students can be successful in high school but then struggle in college is because college work is much more complex and therefore requires more abstract labor. So if we want to empower students to do high‑quality academic work, then we must help them think properly while they are interacting with material, and we must make the work less abstract. The ABCs of Academic Work assignments were created to help you do just that.

Assignment A: Decoding Course Outcomes helps students discover the key thinking skills that are needed throughout the course.

Assignment B: Optimizing Your Thinking helps students use their notes to compare their current thinking to the thinking requirements of the course. Then it provides a framework they can use to adjust and ultimately optimize their thinking.

The mental work students must engage in to do assignments A and B create the conditions for cognitive fusion. We want to fuse together the thinking elements of the course to the thinking work students must do. This macro‑level work creates the proper cognitive context for students to work.

Assignment C: Redefining Your Role helps students reconceptualize how they must think as they engage with the material throughout the course.

Getting students to complete these three assignments will help them think well, learn well, and perform well, and will lay the groundwork for the seven‑step solution.

Seven Steps for Success

1. Provide context for the course.

Use the course learning outcomes to provide context for the course. The learning outcomes provide context for the vast array of content students will be exposed to throughout the course. Students who lack context for their courses are likely to get lost in a vast sea of content.  However, with context settled for them, students have the clarity needed to do the work required.

2. Assess students’ thinking skills.

Conduct a notes analysis to determine the types of thinking skills students are currently investing in their academic work. Students’ notes provide useful windows into how they’re thinking about the material they’re attempting to learn. We know that the thinking skills students use will determine the outcomes their minds produce. So if the thinking skills students are using don’t match the thinking skills that they’ll have to activate on their assessments, then we know that they’ll be underprepared, regardless of their capabilities or how much they study.

When you analyze students’ notes, discern the modes of thinking they’re using. Then compare their modes of thinking to the quality of thinking needed to produce the course outcomes.

3. Get students to think properly in your presence.

A powerful metacognitive experience for students is to show them how they can change the outcomes their mind produces by simply changing the thinking skills they use to think about the material.

Students tend to engage in outcome stagnation: using the same thinking skills on a wide array of academic material. Students who work hard to memorize material will do well on tests and tasks that are assessing them for memory‑level outcomes. These students will not perform well on tests and tasks that are assessing for higher‑level thinking skills.

Students must shift to outcome variation: producing different outcomes with the same content. If students are going to do well on cognitively complex material, then they must be able to activate thinking skills consistent with the modes of thinking that are being assessed.

4.  Reflect back.

A key part of metacognitive work is making students more attuned to what is going on in their minds as they interact with information. By this point, students have engaged in some rich metacognitive activity. Now, it’s time for them to reflect on how the work they are doing in your presence differs from their default way of thinking on academic work.

For example, you can use the following types of questions to prompt their thinking:

  • Did you previously use the course outcomes to guide your thinking and learning?
  • What were you previously using to gauge your learning?
  • Were you previously consciously selecting your modes of thinking?
  • How does this process of thinking feel different than your usual way of processing?

You can ask students to verbalize their responses, or they can write them down or journal if you are in an asynchronous setting. The key point is that you want to search for whether students have gone beyond the content and become more attuned to their own cognitive processing. This is metacognitive growth!

5. Project forward.

Have students forecast when, where, and how they will use these ways of thinking on upcoming material. This is a critical step because it is forcing students to put the practice into action in an independent manner. You may have to push students beyond vague statements. You want them to be specific. For example, notice how specific the students get on Assignment B.

6. Assign students to use the skill in some meaningful way between now and when you see them again.

7. Invite the student to share the next session by sharing their experience. You can build forward from there.

Get the whole 7 Steps for Post Spring Break Student Success article in PDF form by leaving a thoughtful response in the "comments" section. It has been a great resource for many students on several campuses. Share it throughout your community as well!

See you in the comments!

Comments 1

  1. Post

    I apologize that the comments were not immediately available. Now that they are, I’d love to get your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *