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I hadn’t given any thought to what student success means because like other widely used descriptors, its meaning appears obvious. And then I read Weatherton and Schussle’s (2021) essay. They point out that we think we know we’re talking about but in fact success has multiple meanings. Thought of in terms of outcomes, success equates to persistence or self-efficacy. But as the authors note, “these concepts can just as easily be seen as components that facilitate success if it is defined as achieving a particular goal.” They share the reason for their essay: “We hope to start a conversation surrounding what success means, who should define it, and how an expansion of our definitions may help to facilitate the success of all students.”
The authors collected definitions of success from one place—how it’s defined in educational research being done in biology and published sometime during the past five years in the journal CBE—Life Sciences Education. Through a culling process, they identified 52 articles that defined success. In 21 of them, the definitions were explicit and fell into one of four categories: academic success (GPA, exam scores), persistence (remaining in a major or program), career (getting a job in the major field), and social (say, providing leadership with a community). In the other 31 articles, definitions emerged from whatever the researchers used to measure success, most commonly some form of retention, persistence, or attrition; exam scores; grades; or GPA. Eighty-eight percent of the papers measured success with at least one quantitative outcome. So, in this small collection of definitions, success was noted by what it accomplished rather than by what it is.
Researchers rely on quantitative measures because they’re easier to collect—think gathering grades from several courses versus identifying the attitudes expressed in a set of focus group interviews. Even though these authors recognize the value of quantitative measures, they argue “that measuring quantitative outcomes is not a panacea for understanding how students achieve success in academia.” They continue: “By focusing on outcomes like productivity and employability, these dominant definitions of success ignore large parts of students’ well-being (e.g., social, cultural, or personal outcomes).”
Besides their narrowness, these definitions of success create further problems when the consideration turns to who gets to define success. In academe, it’s those who hold power—researchers, faculty, academic leaders, and other administrative staff. Students do not get to define success, and the authors do not propose giving them that power, but they do argue that students should have a voice. In the limited research where students have been asked to define success, they have offered broader definitions, and this is especially true for first-generation and marginalized students. In one study the article cites, first-generation undergraduates defined success as a form of validation, as defying the odds, and as positive feelings about the future. They did not talk about high grades or passing exams.
The authors believe that we “must create space in our discourse where alternative definitions of success are not only allowed but are honored as equally valuable.” Expansive definitions facilitate success for more students. For the many students who struggle in college, those don’t start or end with great grades. They could still claim success if it included life skills like confidence, self-efficacy, and willingness to think critically and question authority—all harder to measure than but at least as important as grades.
I would be tempted to say that larger notions of success would help any student who has bought into the usual definitions of success. For so many students, a grade on an exam or in a course equates not with their performance but with their self-worth. How many students work for grades and view learning as a peripheral outcome? As for the enduring value of grades, here’s my favorite question for faculty and other professionals: When was the last time someone asked for your GPA?
The essay doesn’t address classroom implications—how teachers define success—but it’s difficult to read the piece without thinking about personal definitions and beginning to question to what extent they inhibit or facilitate student success.
Weatherton, M., & Schussler, E. E. (2021). Success for all? A call to re-examine how student success is defined in higher education. CBE–Life Sciences Education, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-09-0223
One way to quantify challenging attributes such as a willingness to think critically is to combine persistence (in the degree-completion sense) with ABET-style assessment of these qualities. If we can help more of our students reach graduation, and more of those graduating reach these qualities, we can continue to pursue the more noble goals we sometime forget.
And if we remind students that we see them growing in these areas, both as a group, and individually during office hours, we may help them to reach their own goals of defying the odds (itself a perspective on persistence) and validating their innate desire to become professionals.