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James Anderson on Retention

On November 21, 2000, Dr. James Anderson, Provost at North Carolina State and renowned thinker on retention, mustered forces  at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College who are interested in improving student retention.  


Best Practices

Worst Practices




A Strategic Model



Success Advising Diversity Learning a Culture

General Session: Student Success and Retention

Having met with the college’s Executive Committee before the general session highlighted below, Dr. Anderson met with an Implementation Team after the general session.

Dr. Martha Lou Greene, who was at the University of Richmond in the early ‘90s as an ACU Fellow when Dr. Anderson was there, introduced Dr. Anderson. Dr. Anderson has spoken to the VCCS and at J. Sargeant Reynolds twice each regarding retention and diversity, as well as 275 other learning institutions in America, half of which have been community colleges.

Best Practices

· Everyone is involved in retention, e.g. in Seattle, in Florida, and at Isothermal CC in North Carolina.

· NC State’s Virtual Advising Center gets an answer for a student within 72 hours, which is especially important for distance education students.

· People are accountable—getting one strike before the job is turned over to someone else.

· 200 secret shoppers at NC State fill out service cards immediately after a transaction. If enough complaints arise, that service becomes targeted for improvement.

· Maximum assurances are required for high-risk, working students with few funds and lots of insecurity in order to give them an equal chance at success.

Worst Practices

· It’s unethical to take students’ money for enrolling in the same course four and five times with no intervention despite this proof that students don’t know how to use the service a college provides.

· It takes a month to get an appointment with an advisor.

· If someone is ignored while workers chit-chat, that’s disrespect.

· Most colleges are organized for open enrollment and collecting tuition.

· Advise ill-prepared, full-time workers to take as many tough, hard-reading courses as possible.

· Self-advising at an open enrollment college

Questions for Executive Committee and Implementation Team

1. Discuss the options of developing a formal model of student success, persistence and retention, or focusing on a few high-priority, targeted program efforts.

2. Examine the readiness of the current organizational structure to promote student success, academic excellence, and faculty development.

3. Examine all college policies, practices and procedures that inhibit student success and time to degree.

4. Conduct a comprehensive assessment of program effectiveness.

5. Identify 5-6 outcomes that become your focal points for the next two years. Some should be academic (e.g. increasing retention from semester to semester in the 1st and 2nd year) and some student-centered (e.g. developing positive attitudes toward learning and expectations for success).

6. Initiate formal faculty development efforts for a) enhancing the quality of instruction in gateway courses (with low pass rates) and b) developing a consensus about the meaning of teaching for retention and teaching diverse learners.

7. Discuss how various plans link together or should link together (e.g. plans for enrollment of minorities to engineering, retention of minority students in pre-calculus, and diversity).

For all in the General Session:

1. As soon as possible identify mechanisms to introduce students to the academic expectations of faculty and the institution.

2. Develop a college-wide statement on student responsibility for learning (and consequences for missing class, etc.).

3. Identify best practices that you wish to incorporate into the part of the retention model that applies to your responsibilities.

4. As early as possible help students to connect three pathways: academics, career, and personal development.

5. Show students how to be more effective participants in the classroom culture in a seamless transition from one to the other.

6. Decide on how to expand your assessment effort so that information can be used in advising, course placement, self-assessment feedback to students, etc. We need data to help find where the money should be spent. Most colleges who made major investments in technology lost money because they don’t match the software with their institution.

7. Develop a systematic advising model (face-to-face and online) in which advisers are trained and share common objectives.

a. Mentoring programs that work have common objectives, e.g. by matching mentors and students by subject field.

b. What critical transition issues for returning adults are most crucial for targeting organizational change? For instance, an Arizona college that wanted to help young Hispanic females to value education. Students’ mothers had to come to selected workshops once per month, which led to an ancillary program that became more successful than the daughter program.

8. Develop skill-intensive courses or workshops that involve writing, math, and study skills and make these mandatory for all at-risk students. Don’t put technologically weak students into distance education courses; if students are far below a threshold, train them—regardless of whether you seem to "lose money." In Kentucky, a 16% pass rate for the last 10 years is average for the state’s distance education programs.

9. Familiarize faculty and support staff with the best research, models, and practices on student success, retention, effective teaching, and assessment.


Do you want JSRCC students to be better writers, better thinkers, active learners, responsible learners? Isothermal picked 3 specific, measurable goals. La Guardia CC picked critical thinking.

Identify students who are at-risk and give them more. Assess to see what’s working. Familiarize faculty with effective teaching. Interface academic and student affairs. Total quality. Excellence: What are your standards and how are you doing? Every area should report on how it is doing—even inter-campus mail—every area that delivers a service should report feedback from users.

What are your benchmarks in terms of what you want to become? Support great ideas with funding and moral support. For instance, a team of classified staff devised a plan for staff to move up the ladder that included time off to take relevant courses and tuition payment. Higher morale depends on upward mobility and a plan, supported by supervisors, for moving up.

Examples of Specific Measures of Effectiveness

Which ones will your college keep and which suspend? For instance, NC State’s employer interviews identified needs for effective math knowledge and not just high GPAs. User satisfaction cannot be your only measure; for instance, in a program that had been going on for 18 years, Black students liked it but only 4% had graduated.

Embrace change because that’s the only way to improve.

JSRCC sees diversity of many kinds in its student population. Most community colleges don’t have technology-assisted components to teaching and learning—which is breaking the law with lawsuits resulting.

A Strategic Implementation Model of Student Success and Retention

Includes these 10 features

1. Conceptualization

a. Student-centered learning environment

b. Seemless transition model

c. Total Quality or Continuous Quality Improvement

2. Data-Based Program Management uses comprehensive assessment for

a. Enhancing the profile of incoming students

b. Performance-based outcomes

c. Skill assessment

d. Program improvement

e. Technology-based assessment

3. Critical Interface among

a. Academic Affairs

b. Student Affairs

c. Student Support

4. Development of a Comprehensive Academic Plan

5. Faculty-Student Partnerships

a. In-class and out-of-class faculty-student interactions

b. Incentives for partnerships

6. Critical Transition Issues – What’s your college’s focus?

7. Critical Skill Development in thinking, writing, computation – If your college’s student population exhibits various kinds of diversity, which group(s) do you target for assistance?

8. Connecting the academic pathway to the career pathway

9. Student-appropriate group supports

a. Tutorial groups (and Supplemental Instruction?)

b. Study groups

c. Problem-solving groups

10. Use of enhanced technology

Details on the first point above—conceptualization

· A student-centered learning environment refers to a student success effort which is characterized by

1.) clearly defined and measurable outcomes in teaching, learning, retention, and student social-psychological development

2.) front-loaded activities which engage the student, as soon as possible, with the academic and social expectations of the college

3.) an ongoing assessment effort associated with student and program improvement

4.) faculty and staff who are well trained to deliver the appropriate services

· A seamless transition model refers to the connections among service areas and their contribution to student success and development. The model will answer questions like these:

1.) What is the relationship between Admissions, Orientation, and student expectations?

2.) How do the activities in Student Affairs interface with those in academic areas?

3.) How does advising carry students through an academic plan which explains all areas of academic support?

4.) Does a summer bridge program connect in systematic ways to the first sets of general curriculum courses that students will experience?

· Total Quality or Continuous Quality Improvement focuses upon the needs and services that we deliver to our clients and the methods by which we assess the quality of those services. This model is characterized by:

1.) A comprehensive knowledge of who our students are, what are their expectations, and what needs we can and cannot satisfy

2.) A clear definition of excellence (standards) and effectiveness (how well are we doing?)

3.) Benchmarks

4.) How we define continuous program improvement


Dr. Anderson displayed a grid with typical goal areas across the top—"minority retention effort, other retention efforts, advising, diversity, faculty-student interaction." Down the side of the grid are features of smart implementation—"based on a model, resources, program evaluation, outcomes assessment, pre-entry assessment, connected to teaching and learning, strategic/political importance." Each box in the grid could contain two scores or responses: "yes, no, don’t know, or not applicable" and an effectiveness rating on a scale of 1 to 10 for which 1 = "not at all important/effective" and 10 = "extremely important/effective."

Use the grid to assist with implementation and assessment. 

For instance,

Are any goals supported by a model? Provided with sufficient resources? Most licensure programs show a differential performance for mainstream vs. minority students. Find out if the program is effective.

If you want students to be successful, you must address these--

Process Variables in Academic Success Identified from Best Research and Practices

· Students’ perceptions of faculty and staff

· Academic Integration (besides taking classes)

· Social Support: Students who need tutoring the most are the least likely to use it? Why not require developmental students to use the tutoring available? For instance, the transition program at NC State for the bottom 200 students includes a mandatory 2-hour study hall. These students now outperform the other mainstream students with a 2.7 GPA at the end of their first semester. The same students form groups that are actually self-regulating, with nonperforming students excluded.

· Academic Skills: Tacoma CC offers "Math for Math Haters"—returning adults with a high amount of math anxiety are connected in a collective identity of learners to they don’t feel like they are on their own, spends the first two weeks showing effective group practices and email skills to build group self-concept.

· Academic Knowledge

· Academic Self-Concept: Women in engineering program led to women and minorities outperforming white males

· Socioacademic Integration: Do students study together, share class notes, discuss academic issues outside of class.

· Involvement: Do we expect students to select a major from our list of technical terms and pick out some courses?

Are your students in front of the tv watching "dope operas" or in the library studying or in study groups? Is your staff willing to have the difficult conversations with students who are not being responsible about academics?

NC State’s research says that students who transfer from community colleges into their computer and engineering-based curricula MUST have proven math skills or not get in. So the two-year and four-year math faculties must implement an effective, attitude-changing math curriculum.

Most community college students use rote memorization as their primary study method, so will JSRCC faculty let students use that main mode, which they don’t do very effectively anyway? If students use the "Big Bin" method instead of relating and networking concepts, they are checking every term on the test against every item in their big memory bin. Categories help students sort the items, e.g. Elvis vs. Aretha records.


Who are you now and who do you want to become—That is, what are your current traits as a learner? What do those traits say about your academics?

Relating Course, Major, and Career Selection

Who are you now? What are your interests, developmental needs, learning skills, preparation, and background knowledge?

Who are you trying to become? What are you curious about? What are your future goals, career aspirations, desired skills, knowledge, and attributes?

Decisions about course selection should be based on the student’s available time and energy (considering work, family obligations, transportation), the demands and requirements of courses, ways to use courses to fulfill degree requirements, desires for personal growth and development, and even extra-curricular activities [plus work].

Do students who want "to help people" belong in the nursing curriculum? Maybe. Do they know what the curriculum demands when they enter college? Not likely at an open door college.

Does it work? At one college, students noted that the place they hated to go because they got "trashed" there was the Business Office. So that became the target of a change effort to integrate it into the culture of the college.

Diversity isn’t a statistic. Every group, e.g. women or minorities, have within group diversity, e.g. level of willingness to see the instructor if they are having trouble.

Diversity includes

· Social/human relational skills and characteristics

· Learning styles or strategies and task completion skills

· Psychological characteristics

· Information processing skills

Students who have difficulty with pattern recognition don’t distinguish the example from the principle. Any group will differ within itself on pattern recognition ability.

Between-group diversity includes race, age, gender, etc. on top of within-group diversity, so diversity goes way beyond demographic statistics.

As early as possible, your college has to identify limitations.



1. weakness (e.g. in math, verbal, or writing skills)

2. difficulty in problem solving

3. difficulty in reasoning development (e.g. not following analogies)

4. lack of experience and content


1. unrealistic perception of skills levels

2. unrealistic perception of college

3. low or different standards for academic achievement

4. non-traditional anchors for self-esteem


1. cultural values which inhibit performance

2. lack of socially reinforcing environment

Undecided students vs. indecisive students present different advising problems. Undecided students may know a range of majors, e.g. business, but not chosen accounting vs. management.

Retention, Diversity, and Teaching Effectiveness Interrelate

Our jobs mainly center on maximizing retention and teaching effectiveness. Where are we not succeeding? Where do we need to change?

What is your model of each? That is, do you have a model of teaching effectiveness that is related to student success? Do staff take opportunities to relate to students about student success?

How do your models interconnect?

Is your focus on efforts and not models?

Models are systematic (based on a plan), comprehensive (across areas), and sequential (staged in development). For instance, if students will improve their academic self-concept, several areas of the college will have to cooperate.

Griping about better students is useless at an open-enrollment college. Commit to dealing with the students you have.

Examples from the question session—

Nursing students at one college who were below an entry threshold benefited from a seminar in their first semester designed to salvage them for the program.

Nationally, Accounting I has a high pass rate and Accounting II a low pass rate. Is II a weeding out course? Ethical?

Exit interviews are too late. Surveys of withdrawals are too late. Assessment needs to be more formative. Talk to students when they are enrolled. Send around "secret shoppers" to check service.

Organizational change, to work best, must be bottom line. "Here are three models of physics courses who deal with the same kind of students we have; do you want to do one of these? If so, I’ll fund it."

At NC State, students weren’t able to do writing for thinking; the leader’s job is to create the incentives for faculty to embrace a writing across the curriculum.

Handouts not used during the General Session included these two:

Faculty Problems with Students Who Exhibit Diverse Skill Levels Which Suggest Academic Difficulty

1. A faculty member might determine too late that students have a problem if

a. The instructor is focused on the content and not on the student

b. Little or no classroom assessment occurs other than with tests or quizzes

c. The instructor does not realize when or where "bottlenecks" occur in the course for the students.

2. Feedback is inappropriate when

a. It is not used diagnostically to detect students’ academic problems

b. Even if a problem is detected, the feedback does not respond to that problem

3. Promoting general cognitive skill for each student requires using techniques or strategies to help students become better thinkers, questioners, problem-solvers, writers, and more.

4. Detecting variations in student skill levels requires altering one’s teaching approach to deal with the level of abstraction in the content, e.g. by increasing instances of relevance or meaningfulness with less abstraction. So every instructor needs to know about many different teaching approaches.

To Learn to Participate in the Classroom Culture, students need to

· Clarify expectations so that they can see as soon as possible what the class will and won’t do.

· Understand the differences among different kinds of college classes—large lectures, seminars, [labs, studio courses, practicums, internships].

· Assess the nature of classroom discussion so they can tell when it is encouraged and rewarded.

· Be assertive about forming or participating in a study group.

· Practice metacognition by

o Reflecting on how they think

o Thinking about confident they are

o Identifying their own "bottlenecks"

· Learn how to move from one learning style to another, especially if the other is more appropriate for the activity at hand.


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