First semester freshman year of college was a real wake-up call. It wasn’t obvious how to handle the sudden and new found freedoms. The open blocks of time were an invitation to feel at ease -- there would be plenty of time later. Presently we could play games -- frisbee in daylight and ping pong at night. I certainly attended class -- though not everyone did. No one was making us do anything. It turned out that attendance wasn’t enough. I did not do well on the calculus and chemistry exams. About two-thirds of the way through the semester it hit me: I needed an intervention. I sought help. I dropped the calculus class. I enrolled in small group chemistry tutoring that would allow me to take an incomplete in chemistry. I ended that first semester having only completed two courses. When my coach, having been alerted to my academic struggles, expressed concern, I reassured him that I had a plan to get back on track. He didn’t mention it again. He didn’t have to. He had been around, after all, and had seen this plenty of times before.
Successful college students who struggled at first must have changed something. Otherwise they would not have gone on to be successful college students. Many do like I did -- they seek help to make a plan and get back on track. Colleges offer help in many forms including tutors, learning centers, support groups, mentors, etc. We don’t doubt that these interventions help. Students who seek them out do improve. But why are these programs effective?
I just returned from a Lilly conference with the theme “evidenced-based learning and teaching.” The onus was on presenters (including me) to show, with data, the effect of our efforts. I attended many rich and engaging sessions, including one by Saundra McQuire from LSU. Her career has consisted primarily of teaching chemistry though in recent years she has worked with students at LSU’s Center for Academic Success (CAS). I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation which was about teaching metacognitive strategies to students. Dr. McGuire radiates positivity. So of course I didn’t raise my hand to object to the major flaw in her presentation. Folks around me were enjoying her as much as I was. I have no doubt that she is well loved by the students, staff and faculty around her. I am sure that the CAS is an important component of student success at LSU. Still. It isn’t fair to use data showing student improvement after an intervention as evidence that the intervention caused the improvement. The evidence for why we should teach students particular metacognitive strategies, Dr. McGuire suggested, was because students who were taught these did better afterward.
To which I wanted to say: of course they did. Your sample of students was self-selected to be those who, faced with an eye-opening problem, sought help to address the problem and do better. Nearly any intervention, so long as it is reasonably well intentioned, is likely to show a similar kind of success -- because people chose it who were poised to improve. This doesn’t defeat the purpose of having learning centers (or tutors, or study groups, etc), but it does suggest we ought to be careful about what we claim when we measure the effectiveness of such interventions -- and to whom we attribute responsibility for student success.