Two Polk State College administrators have authored a study that could have far-reaching implications for all levels of education.
Naomi Boyer, associate vice president of strategic initiatives, and Peter Usinger, director of institutional research, effectiveness and planning, co-wrote the study, “Tracking Pathways to Success.”
“Tracking Pathways to Success” found that even students who succeed academically are not using critically important learning strategies — strategies that also happen to be in-demand skills in today’s ever-advancing workforce.
“Nationally, there is an emphasis on colleges helping students complete their degrees. We wanted to get to the bottom of why students have difficulty academically so that we can identify what sort of assistance they need,” Usinger said.
Carrying out the study involved surveying 1,500 students enrolled in both traditional and online courses in fall 2011 and spring 2012.
The survey was two-pronged. For one, it gauged students’ motivation — did the students believe they could succeed, were they driven to reach a certain goal, did they consider the class to be relevant to their future academic or career goals?
Secondly, the survey assessed students’ use of higher-order learning strategies, such as collaborating with other students to deepen their understanding of the material; and critical thinking — that is, being able to take something they’ve learned and apply it to new situations.
The survey was later compared to how well students performed in their courses.
The results were eye-opening, Usinger said.
“The difference between success and failure was almost entirely motivational and confidence related,” Usinger said.
Translation: Even the students who passed the classes with flying colors were doing so simply because they believed they could or because they were focused on reaching a goal. Instead of employing higher-order learning strategies, they were relying on pure effort and study techniques such as memorization. They were also studying simply to pass a test, not to gain more complete knowledge of a subject.
“The successful students aren’t using critical learning strategies toward their future success,” Usinger said.
“That would be like learning to climb a wall without any tools, just your will and the strength of your body. That may work for the wall just fine. But when you go from the wall to a mountain, and you don’t know what any of the ropes or tools are for because you’ve never had to use them, then you’re in trouble.”
In the case of this study and its findings, the “ropes and tools,” Usinger said, are actually critical-thinking and higher-order cognitive skills expected in today’s ever-competitive labor market; an example is collaborative problem-solving competencies. Students may be able to get by for a time, but eventually — whether it’s in higher-level coursework or in the workforce — the lack of those skills will catch up with them.
To be more successful, students need to study smarter, not just harder. That is precisely why the College, based on the Boyer-Usinger research, is exploring enhancements to its curriculum.
“We’re sharing the research with the faculty. Among the ideas that are in development is the creation of learning strategies videos that could become a college-wide resource to integrate learning strategies into their instruction,” Boyer said.
“In a bigger sense, the research will usher in a change in the way we think about learning, and help make sure Polk State is integrating best practices in teaching and learning in the classroom. By doing so, we’ll prepare our students to succeed in the long-term educationally, as well as in the workplace.”
Boyer said the use of critical learning strategies was slightly lower among students enrolled in online courses. That angle of the study is especially important as the College — and institutions everywhere — continue to increase online offerings.
Boyer and Usinger say they plan to continue their research, but the results of “Tracking Pathways to Success” are already reverberating through the world of education.
The study was published in the spring edition of the “International Journal of Self-Directed Learning,” a biannual publication of the International Society for Self-Directed Learning, an organization established in 2005 to promote self-directed lifelong learning and encourage relevant research.
The paper was also well received by several colleges at the recent Florida Association of Institutional Research, where several other colleges in the state expressed interest in joining or replicating the project to determine how they can help their own students increase their use of learning strategies.
The Boyer-Usinger research is applicable even outside the realm of higher education, said Polk County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent David Lewis.
The findings of the research directly align with Common Core Standards, a set of educational benchmarks for K-12 students that has been adopted by nearly every state in the country; Florida adopted Common Core in 2012, and full implementation will come in 2014-15. One of the ultimate goals of Common Core is college readiness, he said.
“This is a timely study that mirrors earlier research findings regarding course delivery models. It is particularly important given that students who entered 9th grade last year (2011-12) must take an online course to meet high school graduation requirements,” he said.
“Likewise, the study points to significant implications with both the explicit and implied knowledge and skills associated with the transition to the Common Core State Standards and new ways of assessing students on these standards. It will be incumbent upon pre-K-through–12 educators to provide scaffolding and support to develop the skills and strategies students need to be considered college- and career-ready, regardless of online or traditional course formats or content area. Ultimately, the study will provide the impetus for further articulation on this topic with our post-secondary partners.”
Boyer joined Polk State College in 2011. Since then, she has facilitated the development of the College’s five-year strategic plan for distance learning, which calls for totally online associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. She has also played a leadership role in the College’s exploration of additional bachelor’s degrees and helped to build its first international student-exchange program.
Usinger has worked at Polk State since 2002. He currently also serves as president-elect of the Association of Florida Colleges, the professional association of Florida’s 28 public colleges. He is the first Polk State employee to ascend to the highest level of leadership within the AFC.