Removing Barriers to Student Success

Abandoning old policies to support student success brings a sense of freedom and fulfillment that is far superior to adhering to outdated notions of rigor.

Removing Barriers to Student Success

During the spring 2020 semester, I set out to resolve two powerful and seemingly contradictory influences from my life as a professional educator:

1997: While earning my grades 7-12 teaching certification, my mentor encouraged me to go to the ends of the Earth to support all students and cautioned me to remember that we can never take away students’ abilities to “shoot themselves in the foot.”

2019: My partner has a “success is the only option” approach in his seventh grade classroom, and he uses that approach as a parent, too.

In an upper-division university-level course, I endeavored to blend my partner’s approach and temper my mentor’s wisdom. In response, I set out to redefine what I metaphorically recognize as the ends of the Earth.  My mentor’s cautionary metaphor was intended to allow me to recognize that sometimes students won’t take advantage of the support I offer and not blame myself when some do not succeed. I imagine she shared those words as a way to help me develop a sustainable outlook on teaching so I would remain in the career instead of abandoning it as approximately 8% of K-12 teachers do each year. Yet so often the stories of students who don’t succeed are the result of barriers to success that result from systemic inequalities and institutionalized racism. Reframing the ends of the Earth led me to set out to create a student-friendly course design that promotes success.

My pedagogical project was the result of participation in a faculty learning community facilitated by my university’s Center for Teaching and Learning. The experience provided me with opportunities to connect with colleagues who share an interest in promoting diversity and inclusion. We met bi-weekly during the Fall 2019 semester, reading and discussing powerful pieces about bias, racism, and inequity. One reading had a profound impact on me: Tema Akun explained how white supremacy culture influences organizations, creating norms and standards that are damaging both to people of color and those who are white. As a heterosexual cisgender white woman who grew up in a middle class home with highly-educated parents, my positionality meant I benefitted from an abundance of privileges from the day I was born. Akun’s insights left me forced to consider the possibility that my tendency to over-plan for every class period and assign more readings than we had time to thoughtfully discuss was a result of white supremacy culture. That thought was uncomfortable because I had long chalked it up as being the result of the classroom management disaster that unfolded in fall 1997, my first year of teaching middle school, when I under-planned instruction for the first day of classes.

Once I started to question one aspect of my teaching, it became easy to question more and open up to new possibilities. For example,  Asao Inoue described how writing assessment contributes because people engage, “idiosyncratically with structured language systems that confine and pressure us in uneven power relations, relations that are mediated by our varied racialized, gendered, and linguistic embodiments…. I’ve always wanted to unlock the chains around my students’ hands and feet. Grades based on my own judgments of quality seemed to be the links in those chains” (21). Inoue’s vision of unlocking chains helped me realize that in order to achieve the goal of redefining the ends of the Earth, my efforts to become more student-friendly would have to include adjustments to my assessment plans. Before long I had goals to create a more reasonable reading list and develop more varied assessment options.

Another educator further opened my heart. Catherine Denial described transforming pedagogy to an approach she can sum up in one word: kindness. Her approach is based on believing students and believing in them. The latter means viewing students as potential collaborators, with “valuable contributions to make to the way in which syllabi, assignments, and assessments are designed, and life experiences that should be respected in the classroom.” For Denial, believing students includes flexibility in attendance and deadlines, choosing to take the small risk that some will take advantage of her flexibility instead of the certainty of making “life more difficult for my students struggling with grief and illness, or even an over-packed schedule or faulty electronics. It costs me nothing to be kind.”

One discussion with my faculty learning community helped transform the ideas swirling around in my head as a result of reading Asao Inoue, Tema Akun, and Catherine Denial into a course of action. A colleague mentioned how faculty and administrators make decisions for students without including them in the decisions that affect them. My mind connected to a conversation with Tai Simpson, a local Indigenous activist who I had invited to be a guest speaker. Tai underscored the importance of being invited to work with people from marginalized communities instead of deciding, from a position of privilege, what people in a community need. Although many of my students come from dominant culture backgrounds, there are still risks in unilaterally deciding what my students need before I meet them. That is what I had done for more than a decade of teaching in the academy;  the expectation of sharing the syllabus on the first day of class made me feel pressured to have made all the decisions in advance. Including students in decisions would provide the chance for me to embrace words long championed by disability activists “Nothing about us without us.” My next step was clear: invite my future students to a feedback session where I would share possibilities for the upcoming semester and get their input. Before the meeting I was almost giddy at what this could mean: Instead of deciding for my students, we would decide together. I would be released from wondering if I had made the right choices.

My concerns about making the right choices date back to fall 2004, when I began my first full-time faculty position. While teaching in graduate school, my students were part of a cohort and took the same set of classes. The other instructors and I met before the semester and staggered our major assignment deadlines. Once I left graduate school, that collaborative student-friendly practice was gone, and I hoped for the best when I designed the calendar. Every semester, I wrestled with the same dilemma: How do I create a sequence of instruction and assignments that best support success in my course and the other courses students take?

It is not easy to randomly get the sequence right, as this memory from fall 2004 demonstrates: I overheard two of my students talking in the hallway about all the assignments they had due that week. I called them into my office and asked if an extension on the paper due in my class would help. Both seemed shocked by the offer. We talked about the demanding week they had, I reassured them there would be no grade penalty, and said I’d prefer to read their best work. They accepted the extension and both  turned in outstanding work. Thus I began a policy that was well-intentioned yet ultimately disempowering: I was very willing to give extensions to those who had the confidence, agency, and assertiveness to ask, yet I had severe penalties for late work for those who didn’t ask. More than a decade later,  Catherine Denial and Asao Inoue forced me to reconsider what some of my policies were really about. As I read more about critical pedagogy, I had to wonder if my approaches were grounded in a misguided understanding of rigor and a tendency to distrust students. Even though I had long considered myself a champion of diversity, it was becoming crystal clear that I needed to unravel my misperceptions about my own policies — some actually served as barriers to students who have been marginalized.

As I set out to implement my plans for a more student-friendly course design that challenged me to act on what I had learned about diversity and inclusion, I had no way of anticipating the dramatic changes to instruction that would unfold in March 2020. My university moved to fully online instruction on March 16, 2020, joining institutions across the country in the effort to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Years ago a military veteran whom I played cards with at the local veteran’s nursing home used to utter the following phrase after a winning hand: “It’s better to be lucky than good.” I regularly echoed those words when friends asked about teaching online: I am lucky to have made student-friendly choices because aiming to remove barriers for marginalized students made the transition relatively easy for my students and myself.

Before COVID19 profoundly changed the educational landscape, I had come to realize the most significant impact of my student-friendly course design project: My outlook about what mattered had changed for the better. That shift led me to move away from approaches that were years, nearly decades, old.

In the sections that follow, I offer five insights from the experience of trying to remove barriers to student success that may be generalizable for other educators.

Obtaining Student Input

I invited all of the students who were registered for my spring 2020 course to attend a feedback session in December 2019. I held the meeting during the noon hour and bought an abundance of healthy food. Offering food seemed particularly important because more than a third of students on our campus experience food insecurity, and the issue disproportionately affects our Students of Color. I set the meeting time based on shared availability of the majority of my students. I had opportunities for input via email or phone for the students who had schedule conflicts — which is inevitable at a university where more than 80% of the students live off campus and 23% attend school part-time. Including as many voices as possible — and not privileging those of the minority who live on or near campus — was important. I had four aims to reach in this gathering:

Student Goals

I asked students to identify their goals for taking the course. Then I shared the course learning objectives I had designed, and we discussed whether the two were in alignment. This goal ranking and matching protocol allowed me to obtain valuable feedback about student needs, wants, and hopes for the course. I was fortunate in that there was alignment. Had there not been, I still had time to consider changes to accommodate student interests.

Course Policies

I asked students to share student-friendly course policies so I could learn about experiences they felt supported learning. One idea came up that led me to change my practice: I created a space on our digital platform to upload any notes or slides I shared in class. I’ve never done this because I don’t lecture, but students agreed that if they miss class, having access to my plans would still be helpful in their efforts to catch up. When we had guest speakers, I took photos of my hand-written notes and shared them.

Course Schedule/Timeline

I shared decisions I’d been wrestling with regarding the course timeline and due dates. In the conversation that unfolded, everyone agreed that a front-loaded timeline that allowed them to finish their final projects in week 14 of our 15-week semester would be most supportive, with our final week reserved for reflection and catching up if needed. This possibility appealed in part because our university’s “dead week” policy only excludes exams in the final week of instruction; students have multiple major assignments due the week before final exams.

Course Projects

My fourth goal felt the most challenging: I shared the two service-learning opportunities I had lined up and asked students if they could see themselves contributing and learning through one or both. This felt a bit like Pandora’s box; if there had been even one student who did not find one of the opportunities meaningful, I was committed to finding an additional community partner that would be a match. Again I was lucky: All of my students could see themselves with one or both of the service-learning options. Serendipitously, I learned that half of my students have immediate family members who are part of disability communities. One service project had the potential to directly impact the lives of people they love: collaborating with the Idaho Access Project, a group with a mission “to eliminate physical, attitudinal, and policy barriers to ensure people with disabilities can live, work, and play in our neighborhoods and communities.” Despite my luck, there was danger with my approach; students who have not had opportunities to develop their voice and a sense of agency could have remained silent instead of sharing their lack of interest in the opportunities. I recommended using an anonymous survey before a pre-meeting to provide another way for students who are used to being marginalized to share their voices.

I left the meeting energized (an unfamiliar feeling during finals week!) and excited about the semester ahead. My students seemed amazing, and I had a reasonable to-do list to support a student-friendly course. The meeting allowed us to start building a supportive and collaborative community before the semester began. By collaborating with my students about decisions, I was able to release the worry that I may have made the wrong decisions. The meeting also allowed me to learn a bit about my students, most of whom were non-traditional. Half of those enrolled were parents or care-givers, bolstering my commitment to offering flexibility and support for this population of students.

Welcoming Parenting and Care-Giving Students

During the fall 2016 semester, a student enrolled in one of my classes helped me better understand how the responsibilities of parenting can impact academic performance. Her story and our ongoing collaborations transformed my understanding of what it means to support students and promote social justice. I have become a proponent of supporting students who have parenting and care-giving roles.  After a colleague shared Melissa Cheyney’s family-friendly syllabus language, I got her permission to use and modify it for my own syllabus. I expanded the language to include care-giving students, a decision that was influenced by knowledge that one in four Millennials serve in a care-giving role for an adult family member and more than half of those young care-givers are African American/Black, Hispanic/Latinx, or Asian American/Pacific Islanders. One parenting student told me that the language made a huge difference because she felt empowered to bring her children to class the one time she needed to instead of asking permission and trying to negotiate.

Flexibility in Attendance and Late Work

I embraced a shift in attitude about attendance and late work. I found myself amazed by how easily I was able to embrace Catherine Denial’s pedagogy of kindness and trust student needs for extensions or missing class, especially since it meant departing from the strict late work policy I’d held since 2004. The absence of judgement was refreshing: I did not ask or care why a student needed an extension. Some shared of their own accord; others did not. One student repeatedly asked to extend one deadline, ultimately turning in a major assignment on the last possible date in the semester.  Surprised by my newfound flexibility, I was curious so I counted: they turned the assignment in 49 days after the original due date.  I wanted the student to earn a grade that reflected what they had learned, not challenging life circumstances after COVID-19 turned their world upside down. For anyone considering reframing their pedagogical choices in dramatic ways, my personal experience leads me to conclude: Jump in and don’t underestimate yourself! Abandoning old policies to support student success brings a sense of freedom and fulfillment that is far superior to adhering to outdated notions of rigor.

Varied Assessment

Tema Akun described how white supremacy culture leads to a “worship of the written word” (3), overlooking the possible “value in other ways in which information gets shared” (3). Akun’s insights challenged me to consider why the vast majority of my assessments involve writing. I had to acknowledge that success in my courses reflects the writing abilities students possess at the start of the semester. True, I offer writing consultations and encourage use of my campus’ writing center, yet too often those most in need of support are the ones with busy schedules that limit their abilities to use these opportunities.

Pete Rorabaugh, Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel offered ideas that helped me expand my conception of the form and format rigorous assignments could take. I challenged students to use multiple “non-schoolish” genres in their assignments. I shared a list of possibilities that I had learned about while in graduate school and observed that while some students stuck as close to “schoolish” as possible, others embraced creative expression. One particularly inspired student composed and recorded a song, playing their guitar in accompaniment. Asking students to create non-schoolish genres provided them with opportunities to develop non-written communication skills that aligned with course learning objectives. It also pushed me to move past my tendency to worship the written word, as did asking students to complete two oral presentations. The first was a “quick report” – a chance to practice oral communication in a low-stakes environment and the second was a more comprehensive presentation that was part of a final project.

Less Saturated Curriculum with Time for Reflection

I wrote the following note-to-myself in November 2019 as I was designing the course:avoid the risk of assigning lots of readings just b/c there are so many good ones you haven’t gotten to at other points in the semester! Assign what matters… avoid recreating white supremacy culture in the classroom w/ an over-saturated curriculum!” This goal is my greatest area for continued improvement: the most common feedback from students was that they would have enjoyed more time to discuss and reflect on the books we read. Despite my intention, I fell short. My journey to create a balance between time for reflection and exposing students to meaningful readings will continue.

The Journey Continues

Overall, my attempt to redefine the ends of the Earth and remove barriers to student success seemed effective. Student feedback on course evaluations and through exit-interviews suggest they felt supported by student-friendly policies. And yet my mentor’s cautionary metaphor about not blaming ourselves when students don’t succeed remains with me: I was lucky. Members of my faculty learning community, who also implemented pedagogical projects to support diversity and inclusion during the spring 2020 semester, had students drop their classes after COVID-19 changed our world. Their disappointment in losing those students reminded me of the pain I have felt when a student does not succeed. My colleagues offered meaningful support, yet it was not always enough to overcome the outside-of-school stressors some students faced. Their stories and others remind me not to take anything for granted: each semester I will have a new group of individuals with unique stories and life circumstances. What worked once may not be enough another semester. COVID-19 will continue to have a resounding impact on instruction and students’ lives. Finding ways to remove barriers is a journey, not a destination.

One aspect of my partner’s “success is the only option” approach to parenting offers a meaningful strategy that we in the academic world can try on our journey to support student success: How can we make choices that will contribute to a good relationship 20 years from now? For my partner, emphasizing the relationship means offering compassion and support instead of pushing. What if we were to engage in a professional thought experiment and view each of our students as talented individuals with the capacity to be our future colleagues? How would we nurture their abilities if we knew that 20 years from now they will have been honored with prestigious international accolades for their contributions? For me, that means viewing each student a future Nobel Peace Prize laureate. That possibility underscores my resolve to remove barriers to success so I can support each student in reaching their potential. The next stop on my journey is new-to-me assessment strategies that promote learning. Where will your journey take you?