Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Secret to Increased Student Retention

There is a big push in our local community and technical college system to both increase retention and move more students towards degree completion.  This is an ongoing struggle, as we are working with students whose lives are split between work, family and school. Sometimes it feels like the harder we - the institutions -  try, the harder it gets. My own institution, Renton Technical College, has an open entry system that  allows for anyone in the community to register for the program of their choice with relative ease and get started on learning job skills.  The problem is keeping them until program completion.  Why would someone invest the time, money and effort  in starting a program only to leave after one or two quarters? The pat "look on the positive side" answer is usually that they found a job; the less flattering one is that their language skills or study skills weren't up to par.  But amazingly,  it is never that they weren't being taught well.

This is the elephant in the room. We need to train our teachers to reach our learners where they are at.  At community and technical colleges we have so many teachers who are subject matter experts from the field who have very little or absolutely no training in how to teach.  This is a glaring problem that we need to face.  We have older teachers who have been teaching in a "sage on the stage; read a chapter and take a test" form for years who are now seeing internet-savvy students walk away because they can get so much of what they need on their own, and who want to learn from someone who engages them on multiple levels. And immigrant students  - who used to be a classroom minority - are now the majority, and need to be recognized and have their needs identified and their abilities acknowledged.

This could all be solved with some expectations and guidelines for teachers to be updated with current teaching practices and ongoing chances to experiment, share and collaborate.  Just like students, they need a clear pathway to success, not a foggy "go and do it" approach to their jobs. Unlike K-12 educators, higher education does not require teachers to be certified in any way on teaching itself, but perhaps this is the moment where that should shift.  No amount of expertise in any given field will help you when you are working with students from all ages, backgrounds, and goals. If a system and a school want to increase retention and completion rates, they should look first and foremost at improving the very thing that education is all about: Teaching and Learning.

English 101 students at RTC