Research can enhance student retention
BY ROBERT J. STERNBERG
Thursday, January 17, 2013
1/17/13 at 4:11 AM
Taxpayers sometimes wonder whether research being done in universities has any use. The answer is yes. Taxpayer-supported research in my own field of psychology, for example, points the way to keep students in school - a societally pressing problem. Increased retention results in higher lifelong income for our citizens and keeps people employed, off welfare and, generally, out of prison. It also provides a more skilled workforce.
University research shows that keeping students in school is not exclusively or even mostly about the students' abilities. Rather, successful retention depends largely on student effort and on five learnable attitudes toward work and life.
1. If you believe you can succeed in school, you probably will succeed. Students sometimes drop out because of "learned helplessness." They come to believe they can't make things work, then don't. But students who show a strong work ethic and belief in their ability to succeed are more likely to stick with it.
Lesson: Reinforce with students that success is within their grasp if they believe in themselves and in the importance of working hard to achieve their goals.
2. Realize that success in school depends as much on creativity and common sense as on IQ smarts. We sometimes tend, as parents, to fixate on how smart our children are, for example, on their standardized test scores. But success depends at least as much on creative attitudes and old-fashioned learned common sense as on traditional smarts.
Lesson: Teach students the importance of adapting creatively and flexibly to new situations and of taking a common-sense approach toward problems: Common sense trumps IQ.
3. Watch your time. Students (and their parents) often fail to realize how much time the students spend on everything but their academic work.
Lesson: Teach students they can succeed better if they simply spend more time focusing on their academic work.
4. View abilities as flexible, not fixed. Students who believe abilities are fixed for life often get stuck in hard courses. They think if they are finding a course hard, it means they are stupid. Students who see abilities as flexible and modifiable, in contrast, welcome challenges and realize hard courses and assignments can make them smarter.
Lesson: Teach students to take on difficult (but not impossible) challenges as a route to becoming smarter.
5. Know it pays to wait. Preschoolers who are better at delaying gratification - who are willing to wait for a larger reward instead of immediately needing a smaller reward - perform better academically in high school and college.
Lesson: Teach students the most important rewards in life often don't come quickly or easily; they require waiting and perseverance.
Bottom line: Research supported by taxpayer dollars matters: It shows that students' effort and attitudes, more than any supposedly "fixed" abilities, determine whether students will succeed and stay in school or drop out.
Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, Regents Professor of Psychology and Education, and George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Leadership Ethics at Oklahoma State University.
Robert J. Sternberg: Teach students the most important rewards in life often don't come quickly or easily; they require waiting and perseverance