How Do You Know if You’re Doing Well at College?

 In Alumni, Blog

Passing classes and getting good grades are important, but grades by themselves are only one indicator of how well you’re doing college. How do you know if you’re having a meaningful and successful undergraduate college experience? And if you’re not, what can you do to make things better?

In their book, “Thriving in Transitions: A Research-Based Approach to College Student Success,” editors Laurie Schreiner, Michelle Louis, and Denise Nelson put forth a comprehensive definition of student success which they sum up with the word “thriving.” Thriving students are fully engaged in their undergraduate experiences. Yes, they go to class and do their assignments, but their academic involvement goes deeper than that. They are excited by, interested, and engaged in what they are learning. They discuss what they are learning outside of the classroom and they assimilate and apply it to their lives. Their studies and research often go beyond the minimum required for a class or a grade. They find themselves motivated by the love of the subject rather than the external reward. Of course, thriving students don’t feel a rapturous love of learning every minute. Studying is hard work, and thriving students are hard workers. They are intentional about how they use their time and they put in a great deal of effort – they are the ones who live up to the definition of “full-time” student, investing 25-30 hours or more of study per week outside of class time.

Academics are definitely a critical and necessary aspect of thriving, but there’s much more to it than that. Thriving students are involved socially. They belong to groups of people like shared-interest clubs and study groups. Successful students feel like the people in their groups matter to them, and they matter to the people in the groups. Their presence and contributions are valued and important. Their friendships are often based on shared or similar values, interests, and goals rather than proximity – (being friends because we happened to grow up in the same town.)

 Thriving students are emotionally connected to their campus. They feel pride in their school and feel a deep sense of belonging. They feel like the students, faculty, and staff care about them and their success. They get involved in the campus community in ways that are meaningful to them. They take advantages of research opportunities, on-campus jobs and internships. They allow themselves to participate fully in what their campus has to offer, both in class and out.

Those who are not as involved, but who are still attending class and fulfilling all of their academic requirements and working their way towards graduation, are said to be “surviving.” They may see their education as a means to an end: “I’m going to college to get my degree and get a good job. I’m not here to make friends.” Certain groups like re-entry students, transfer students, those who are struggling financially, and commuter students often have a more difficult time connecting to their campus community. Outside demands and limited time and resources are often to blame.

Languishing students are on a path that leads to dropping out. Interestingly, languishing is mainly a process of emotionally disconnecting from the campus. Languishing students almost always have the academic ability to stay at their colleges. University admissions departments have gotten very good at determining who can make the grade. The process that ends with dropping out almost always begins with feelings – emotions – of not belonging. “Nobody gets me here. They don’t care about me.” These feelings might not be articulated, even to themselves, but they are damaging just the same. Feeling like they don’t belong saps languishing students of their motivation and will to go to class and complete assignments. The more class they miss, the worse they do until they leave voluntarily or are forced to by unsatisfactory academic process. Although the process ends with poor grades, it almost always begins with social isolation and emotional disconnection.

Fortunately, much of our college success is under our control. Success is largely the result of attitudes and behaviors, and our attitudes and behaviors are open to influence. That implies hope, because we can take steps to change our attitudes and behaviors if we are not currently experiencing the kind of college success we would like. Check back with us soon for specific examples and strategies you can use to have the undergraduate experience you want.


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