By now you've probably all read the NYT Magazine piece on the University of Texas's efforts to increase retention among their poorer and first-generation students--but if you haven't, go read it now. Although some of UT's strategies involve additional academic support (in the form of smaller section sizes, peer mentors, and access to tutoring), the most mind-blowing part of the article is the evidence that even incredibly small interventions can have statistically significant results.
Several slightly different studies, conducted at different colleges and universities, show that just 30 minutes, at the beginning of a student's college career, can be enough to keep at-risk students enrolled. In one series of studies, students were assigned to read letters from current upperclassmen that described their own feelings of not belonging in their freshman year--and then how they settled in and eventually realized that everyone feels that way. In another series of studies, students were assigned a short article that laid out the scientific evidence against a static theory of intelligence (i.e., arguing that practice is more important than initial aptitude). In both cases, the students were asked to read the essay and then summarize it in their own words, as if conveying it to another incoming student. Even without any follow-up or any further interventions, their drop-out rates plummeted--sometimes by more than 50%.
(Interestingly, there was no effect on students from more prosperous backgrounds. The theory is that although all students can suffer from feelings of not belonging--or can have their confidence shaken by an early academic failure--wealthier students are more likely to know or to hear from family members that this is normal and will pass. Students without that kind of support are in greater danger of assuming they really don't belong in college.)
What I love about this is that we're not talking about heroic interventions and we're not imagining teachers as magical saviors. These are students who are perfectly capable of succeeding but who benefit from a little more affirmation that they can succeed; they still have to bust ass and live through some self-doubt and some rough patches. I also like the fact that it validates what I've come to do in my own classes, which is to emphasize that everything I teach involves learned (and learnable) skills. I frequently say things like, "understanding poetry isn't magic" and "no one is born knowing how to write a literary-critical essay."
But here's the thing: I didn't develop this approach as a specific response to the RU student population; I started saying similar things when I was teaching students at my Ivy alma mater. Whether it's first-generation college students or tightly-wound overachievers, most students benefit from being told, explicitly, that a grade on an assignment is not a verdict on their overall performance, their potential, or their worth as a person--but just a measure of how close they are to mastering a single discrete task.
I do a little more of this now than I used to, but frankly, I wish someone had told me these things in college. I wasn't taught poetry well. I wasn't told what component skills went into writing an essay. And after a year or so I assumed I'd just found my level in the B+/A- range: that's just who I was and how smart I was, and it probably wasn't going to change.
The thing is, as a teacher, you never know who most needs a word of encouragement or affirmation. You don't know each student's background, you don't know their mental state. And if every little helps. . . well, it's easy enough to offer.