Increasing Student Success: A Developmental Approach

Two graduating students hugging as they wear their graduation gowns and caps

Just as spring brings the promise of new life, the new year brings hope for a new beginning. It provides an opportunity to identify aspects of the previous year that brought joy and fulfillment, pinpoint unmet goals, and consider how you might do better moving forward. A new academic term offers a similar opportunity for continuous growth and fulfillment. After four decades of such reflection, I am keenly aware that understanding effective teaching strategies, the students I serve, and how learning works requires my constant attention. As the director of a Center for Teaching and Learning, I have a window into how many faculty think about teaching, learning, and preparing for a new course/term. If you are like most of those with whom I work, you spend hours identifying the desired learning outcomes, essential understandings and skills, and appropriate materials. This then leads to countless hours of designing assessments and learning experiences. This is critical work. Increasing student success requires tight alignment across course learning outcomes, assessments, and planned learning experiences, but why, after all the hours spent planning for student success, do large numbers of students still struggle in college? When it comes to increasing rates of student achievement, satisfaction, and graduation, what really makes the difference?

Developing the whole student

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) has long been instrumental in shaping educators’ beliefs about human behavior, motivation, and learning. According to the theory, an individual cannot direct cognitive resources toward learning if his/her/their most basic physiological and safety needs remain deficient (e. g., food, water, warmth, rest, and security). Once these basic needs are met, the individual then focuses on cognitive resources such as meeting psychological needs like belongingness, connectedness, love, self-worth, accomplishment, and respect from others. In other words, Maslow (1943) argues that it is only when lower level “deficiency needs” are met that one will be motivated to focus on “growth needs” such as goal setting, creativity, and achieving their full potential (i.e., self-actualization).

Although there have been some misunderstandings and criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy, his theory amplifies the importance of attending to the whole student. Indeed, if our students are to thrive inside and outside the classroom, educators and their institutions must address a multitude of student needs: food and housing insecurity; mental, social, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being; and accommodating the needs of diverse and neurodivergent learners.

Sense of belonging

The recent pandemic prompted a wealth of research indicating students’ sense of belonging significantly impacts academic adjustment, motivation, persistence, achievement, and degree completion (Korpershoek, et al., 2020). In school, a sense of belonging refers to a general feeling of being accepted, respected, connected, and supported by one’s peers, teachers, and other staff. We also have come to understand that sense of belonging is highly individualized. Differences in lived experiences, values, beliefs, histories, identities, and more will influence how individual students experience the learning environment (Lovett, Bridges, DiPietro, Ambrose, & Norman, 2023). For example, underrepresented minority and first-generation college students attending four-year institutions report a lower sense of belonging than their peers (Gopalan & Brady, 2019). The good news is that research points us to several aspects of inclusive and supportive classroom environments that positively impact belongingness.

Five strategies to foster sense of belonging

  1. Be caring and authentic: Syllabus policies and language, as well as introductory comments on the first day of class, set the tone for an entire term. Creating a three- to five-minute introductory video or spending a few minutes of class sharing with students a) why you are passionate about the subject and b) how you have planned for their success humanizes the educational experience. It is also important to provide office hours in-person, virtually, and at various times of the day to accommodate a diverse set of student needs. Flexible policies such as dropping the lowest quiz/assignment score and offering one free pass for a “no-questions-asked” due-date extension can reduce anxiety and logistical rigor.
  2. Establish and maintain an inclusive community: During the first days of class, it is important to initiate an anonymous survey and a follow-up discussion about what makes students feel valued, seen, respected, included, challenged, and supported by the instructor and their peers. Data gathered by the survey and the subsequent discussion can lead into co-creating a set of classroom agreements regarding in-class behavior and communication with the students. Revisit these agreements throughout the semester to assess classroom climate and how the students are feeling through anonymous surveys or polling. Based on student feedback, make necessary adjustments and/or remind students of the shared agreements (Lovett, et al., 2023).
  3. Focus on challenge and relevance: We all hope our courses will engage students, challenge their assumptions, require effort, and facilitate the development of deep understandings and skills. This type of intellectual rigor is desirable in course design. However, courses characterized by rigid policies, bell-curve grading, and multiple assignments that lack clarity, purpose, and/or authenticity create a level of logistical rigor that depletes students’ motivation, engagement, and limited cognitive bandwidth. When students are distracted and/or overwhelmed by logistical rigor, they are unable to focus on the more important, intellectually rigorous aspects of the course. Analyze your course policies (i.e., syllabus) to identify any logistical rigor that may distract students from what is most important about the learning process and outcomes for the course (Supiano, 2022).
  4. Exercise transparency: Assessments, both formative and summative, play a key role for both faculty and students in that they reveal what has been learned and any remaining misunderstandings, misconceptions, and/or weakly developed skills. These assessments must be valid and reliable. For example, I want to make sure my quizzes and/or exams consistently measure deep content understanding and analytical skills as opposed to my students’ competency in reading, writing, or the English language. Students must understand why the assignment is important, what is expected, and how the quality of their work will be judged. At the time, I go over any written assignment, I provide students with clear and detailed instructions, as well as the rubric I will use for grading their work. To help students understand my expectations and exactly how the rubric can guide the development of their work, I group students into dyads or triads, provide each group with a sample assignment product, and then ask each group to use the rubric to justify the grade they would assign to the fictitious student.
  5. Cultivate a growth mindset and student agency: It is important to communicate to students that effort and effective study strategies, not a fixed IQ, predict academic success. I often embed study and time management strategies into the curriculum. For example, before an exam, I discuss how and why I would prepare differently for a multiple-choice versus an essay exam. With a major project, we work together to break the project down into smaller tasks and assign each task a due date so students have feedback along the way. Lastly, we map the various due dates onto a calendar. Whenever possible, I include students in the development of the course content, attending to various interests. I also provide students with a menu of choices for how to demonstrate what they have learned (e.g., in-person presentation, multimedia/recorded presentation, project proposal, marketing brochure, poster session, etc.). Research also suggests that both voice and choice in learning lead to the development of self-regulation and student agency (Lovett, et al., 2023).

The tyranny of the urgent for many instructors seems to be determining course policies, content, materials, assessments, and planned learning experiences. And while these are critical to your success and your students, you must not neglect the urgency of determining how you will establish and maintain a learning environment that fosters students’ sense of belonging and overall development.

Cathy A. Pohan holds a PhD in educational psychology and is currently executive director of Chapman University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Prior to this role, Pohan served as a professor of teacher education at four different institutions. As a Fulbright Scholar to Chile in 2015, Pohan conducted worked intensively with PK-12 and university educators working in professional development schools (PDS). She was instrumental in establishing and evaluating a PDS in one of Santiago’s most vulnerable communities. 

Gopalan, M., & Brady, S. (2019). College students’ sense of belonging: A national perspective. Educational Researcher, 20 (10), 1-4. Doi: 10.3102/0013189X19897622

Korpershoek, H., Canrinus, E. T., Fokkens-Bruinsma, M., de Boer, H. (2020). The relationships between school belonging and students’ motivational, social-emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes in secondary education: A meta-analytic review. Research Papers in Education, 35 (6), pp.641-680. Doi: 10.1080/02671522.2019.1615116

Lovett, M.C., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Ambrose, S. A., & Norman, M.K. (2023). How Learning Works: 8 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (2nd Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-396. Doi: 10.1037/h0054346

Supiano, B. (2022). The redefinition of rigor: What’s it really about? The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 29, 2022.