Should Institutions Provide the Rods When Teaching Students How to Fish?

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New York University made headlines recently when organic chemistry students signed a petition against their professor. The reason: Many students were struggling in and failing the class. Though the professor had previously won teaching awards and stood by his methods, and though colleagues and other students came to his defense, NYU ultimately decided to dismiss him. The decision garnered press and has placed emphasis on a series of questions for institutions and professors alike—questions about academic rigor versus academic gatekeeping and about changing student needs and expectations. While professors have asked themselves these questions for years, now administrators are asking: How much struggle is good struggle? How much help should an institution ultimately provide its students?

While many in higher education believe students should be held accountable for their own success, colleges and universities competing for a dwindling number of students have been forced to view students and their parents as customers they need to satisfy. Satisfying students—in other words, enabling their success—has become a fraught task. Institutions know there’s a difference between making sure a student has fish and teaching them how to fish. But with so many students showing up without their proverbial fishing rods, institutions are beginning to wonder—is it now a college’s job to provide these resources?

This is a difficult question to answer. It’s easier to focus, instead, on what resources students are missing and what tools could give them a better chance at achieving success. In fact, looking at some of the problems students face and the resources commonly available on college campuses, institutions might be more able than they think to provide the tools students need to succeed.

Academic Advising as a Tool to Support Student Success

Two main issues that students face when they first enter college are issues of motivation and of experience. Many students attend college not knowing what they want to major in or what they want to do after they graduate. Since they’ve never attended college before, they may not know what is expected of them or how to go about meeting those expectations.

Academic advisors are uniquely positioned to help students solve both problems—especially when these advisors are also faculty members. They can help students navigate the uncertainties of college by pointing students to necessary resources (tutoring services, counseling, etc.), and they can help them determine a major path. By providing students with clear educational goals and insight into where to find much-needed resources, academic advisors give students several of the tools they need to be more successful learners.

Mental Health Counseling as a Tool to Support Student Success

Student mental health has taken a turn in recent years, especially since the pandemic. In fact, many institutions have already started bolstering their mental health support. If institutions haven’t yet invested in mental health resources for students, they should start.

Not only are student depression and anxiety levels higher than ever, but many faculty and staff in higher education have also identified resilience as a problem for incoming students. Students no longer know how to cope with struggling, and professors aren’t sure how to teach them to do this.

Mental health professionals, on the other hand, are uniquely equipped to help students build resilience—which can also help them better cope with depression and anxiety. Whether working with individual students or instituting campus-wide workshops, counselors can help students view mistakes as learning opportunities and provide them with ways to persist through and solve problems.

Career Counseling as a Tool to Support Student Success

One of the things highlighted in the NYU case is that institutions are growing concerned that students do not see a return on their educational investment. Students feel they are paying too much money to be given Fs, and while these sentiments raise arguments regarding earning vs. paying for grades, these arguments may miss an important point. At the heart of student grade concerns are worries about future success. Student grades matter to graduate schools and can also matter to employers. If students are concerned with the role their higher education plays in their career development, institutions may need to place a greater emphasis on career counseling.

Like academic advising, career counseling is a way to give students motivational direction. Career counselors can help students understand what they’ll need to achieve in school to thrive in a desired career. If a student knows their end game, they know where to exert their time and energy, and they may be more likely to seek out a professor’s office hours or other academic resources that can support their trajectory.

Career counseling alone isn’t going to solve the myriad problems students are arriving at college with, but when combined with advising and counseling, it could be a tool that helps them find direction in their educational journeys.

Struggling Is Easier With the Right Tools

The truth of the matter is that some students show up to school with fishing rods, and some don’t. Giving students the tools to fish isn’t the same as simply giving them fish.

Institutions that want to foster student success should realize that, to succeed, today’s students need more resources at their disposal. While academic, mental health, and career counseling services already exist on most college campuses, they can often be underfunded and underutilized. Yet these services might be the tools students need to find direction, build resilience, and learn how to work productively toward their goals.

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