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March 28, 1996

Education, not retention, is the problem to address, speaker says

As Pitt and other universities struggle to reduce their drop-out rates, especially among minority students, a national expert on student retention told an audience here last week that "retention is not, and never has been, the real issue.

"If the only question you're asking is how you can keep more students, then you're asking the wrong question. The secret of retention has nothing to do with keeping students. It has to do with educating them," said Vincent Tinto, a professor of education and sociology at Syracuse University and author of "Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition" (University of Chicago Press).

Once a university admits a student, it is professionally and morally obligated to help that student to learn, Tinto said. "Effective minority retention follows, as it does for all students, sound education," he said.

According to Tinto, sound education is most likely to be found at universities with the following characteristics, among others:

* Strong support from the top administration. Whoever calls the shots — whether that's the chancellor or provost or Board of Trustees — must clearly state the university's commitment to high quality teaching and back up that statement with incentives and resources. Most campus administrations pay lip service to teaching "but meanwhile, everybody knows that research is what gets you tenure," Tinto said. Under Syracuse's tenuring system, he noted, teams of professors interview at least 20 of the candidate's former students from the previous three years, including 10 students recommended by the candidate. "Then we select 10 other names from class rosters, looking for a diversity of race and gender," Tinto said. These evaluations of a candidate's teaching performance are an integral part of the promotion process at Syracuse, he said.

* An emphasis on collaborative education techniques. Tinto cited the example of student learning communities, through which small groups of students register together for a series of courses and work as a team on assignments, both in and outside the classroom. Students in the groups tend to socialize as well as study together, and they encourage one another to learn, Tinto said. Contrary to popular prejudice, recent studies indicate that learning is not necessarily linked to classroom size, he added. A droning lecturer can put a class of 15 students to sleep, while an inspired instructor employing collaborative teaching techniques can get excellent results with a class of hundreds, Tinto said.

* Frequent and immediate assessment of student learning. For many students, by the time they take their mid-term exams it's already too late to salvage a worthwhile learning experience, let alone a passing grade, Tinto pointed out. Especially during the critical first semester of freshman year, students need a steady flow of feedback from their instructors — preferably, in the classroom, he said. Supplemental instruction outside the classroom tends to stigmatize students as slow learners, according to Tinto.

He recommended a technique called the one-minute paper, in which an instructor asks students at the end of each class to spend a minute writing one- or two-sentence answers to questions such as "What didn't you understand about today's lecture?" Students aren't required to sign their names to the papers. The instructor spends the first five minutes of the next class replying to students' comments. Not only does the exercise give the instructor immediate feedback on the day's class, Tinto said, but it also encourages students to focus on each lecture, knowing they will be asked to comment on it at the end of class.

Tinto was the featured speaker at a March 20 colloquium sponsored by Pitt's University Challenge for Excellence Programs and University Council on Minority Support Services. The colloquium was called "Warming Trends: Improving Campus Climate and Minority Retention." The title seemed either ironic or defiant given the wintry weather outside the William Pitt Union, where Tinto spoke to an audience of about 60 people, and considering a pair of apparent setbacks to affirmative action early last week.

On March 18, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to end affirmative action in state government.

The following day, a federal appeals court struck down an admissions policy at the University of Texas law school that gave preference to blacks and Hispanics. The decision is widely seen as a precedent for dismantling affirmative action programs at other public universities.

Tinto said he believes universities must intensify their efforts to hire more women and/or minority faculty, staff and administrators to serve as role models for students. But he argued against the notion that faculty must be of the same race as their students in order to get through to them.

Asked by an audience member how whites can be effective in instructing and advising minority students, Tinto replied: "By being good.

"It's like waiting for Godot," he continued, with a heavy sigh. "If we assume that it's only people of similar gender, race or religion who can make it work, we'll never make progress.

"Please don't get me wrong. There's a need for a diverse faculty. But that's not really the long-term solution. The solution is having faculty who are good at teaching all students, not just some." Minority student concerns sometimes obscure the fact that "higher education is not structured to serve the learning needs of most students, not just minority students," Tinto said. "Higher education in general is not organized to teach students. It's organized to serve faculty." Colleges and universities are the only educational institutions that don't require faculty to be trained as teachers, he noted.

Racial tensions and other social problems undoubtedly affect learning environments, Tinto said. "But I would argue that there is no campus climate more important than the climate in the classroom. Why? Because, typically, climates outside the classroom emerge from and reflect what goes on in the classroom." In response to a question about an alleged conflict between raising academic standards and achieving student diversity, Tinto said: "It's funny. That point wasn't raised when the GI Bill was popular in the 1950s" and campuses admitted large numbers of students who previously hadn't been considered college material. "All of a sudden, these new students [minorities] are not prepared," he said.

— Bruce Steele

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