In Higher Education (HE), lack of student engagement is a common issue, and not an easy one to fix. This is an issue for HE professionals to take on without placing blame on students, faculty, or staff. For Tim Littell, Associate Vice Provost for Student Success at Wright State University, it has been best tackled by changing the fundamental structure of how the institution works.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews sat down with Tim to discuss the array of impressive initiatives he has been a part of to increase student engagement and success, as well as his outlook on valuing the voices of students.
I first applied for an RA job during my undergraduate degree and did that for three years. When I graduated in engineering and got a job in that field, I really missed doing it but didn't know I could do it for a living. I quickly moved from that job in pursuit of doing something in HE and became a placement director, which would be Career Services today.
The engineering degree allowed me to teach Math while also working in Student Affairs, so I was working at a community college doing both. I ultimately became Dean of Students. We knew that students continued to come to us less prepared in Math and English than we wanted them to be. When I came to Wright State, I had the chance to look at the developmental education program. There was legislative change in Ohio to the funding model meaning we would no longer get funding for remedial education. That sounded like bad news at first, but really, it inspired us to change how we taught developmental Math and English. We then started to see huge changes in the success and completion of these courses, from 40-50% to 70-80%.
It just shows that public policy is what makes a difference, not just the desire to do so.
When looking at preparing students for college-level work, we see a lot of colleges prioritizing one point of measurement, like the SAT scores, for example. We decided to step away from that and move to look at multiple measures.
Now, we consider test scores, but we also consider other measures too. We found that we could put more students at the college level, and that was a data-driven process that brought in more students with the potential to succeed. This also really needed to be embraced by faculty in order to work.
It’s really about honoring the academic mission of the institution. Historically there has been tension between faculty and staff, and I have been in both of those positions. So I purposefully try to build teams that honor the content experts I need at the table. I also recognize that faculty might have students in classrooms that aren't engaging, and that isn't their fault; there can be larger structural issues causing the problem. We’re often too quick to blame faculty for student outcomes, but sometimes it's about course design.
So when I came here, I hired two faculty members that were embedded in the departments of Math and English. They were academic directors and experts on the content side of the course, and I provided them with the resources to make policy changes and build an academic team. This meant we could majorly restructure these developmental subjects.
I see my role as the voice of the student to academics and the Deans. For example, we had a long conversation about office hours the other day; Deans asked how they could be improved and engaging for more students. Because of my student connection, I was able to say that students don’t necessarily need to come to your office hours; they just want you to reply to their emails. I try to always give them the perspective of the student.
It’s no use referring to our own times as students because we aren’t students now — we didn’t have smartphones, and many of us barely even had internet when we were students! We must listen to what students are saying now and value that voice. It’s not about saying that a student is ‘college ready’ but asking what we need to do to be ready for the student. We pride ourselves on access as a public college, which means we need to take students as they are and change how we do things if we want to be relevant.
Moving towards a centralized advising model. It wasn’t popular when I first brought it in, because it was disruptive, but it was necessary. We were in a severe budget crisis at the time, and all of our advisers were reporting to colleges or departments. We knew there would be budget cuts in the colleges, which meant letting staff go, not faculty. I went to the Provost and said it was time to centralize it, so all those positions were protected. I knew if we started letting staff go, it would be severely detrimental to our retention.
This has worked really well. There are challenges because there are different ways of doing things across that model, and consistency is what we want, but we think the way we’re doing it works on the whole.
If you love working with people who aspire to make a difference and you are willing to roll up your sleeves and do that with them, it becomes an honor and privilege to do so. It’s the most rewarding job you’ll ever have.
Our students. We have some amazingly smart leaders in HE, but the common theme is that they listen to their students rather than fight them. The students have the answers, and paying attention to them pays off.
It’s a Michael Chabon book on manhood. He tells a great story about being a dad and the double standards of being praised for doing the same things his wife would do. I always remember that sometimes your privilege gives you things you don’t earn, and that story really resonates. I am always trying to look for talents and gifts in genuine individuals, not as a result of privilege.