Importance of Caring A secret to college success

15 December 2019


Allison Buskirk-Cohen :
What are the secrets to academic success for college students? Research shows that fostering student success is about more than helping students learn the material. Creating an environment where students feel cared about and have a sense of "belonging" can be just as important as providing extra help with classwork.
There's a lot of research that shows an association between higher levels of academic achievement among college students and a student's sense of belonging.
At Delaware Valley University, I worked with one of my undergraduate students to look at how a sense of belonging impacts students at smaller colleges and universities. We looked at factors that were associated with students' academic performance and academic commitment. For this study, we surveyed a group of college students who were diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, major, and academic status.
Academic performance was evaluated using students' self-reported GPAs. Academic commitment scores reflected survey responses to questions about dedication to major and profession. Using these dimensions, we classified students into one of four groups: 1) students with high scores on performance and commitment; 2) students with high performance scores, but low commitment. scores; 3) students with low performance scores, but high commitment scores; or 4) students with low performance and commitment scores.
Our analyses demonstrated that among students in the first three groups, there was a strong sense that professors cared about them. Unfortunately, students in the fourth group, those with low performance and low commitment scores, were significantly lower than all other groups on their sense of faculty caring. In other words, students who were most at-risk academically didn't feel that their professors cared about them as much as students who were succeeding academically.
This research demonstrates how important social relationships are to academic success. To help students thrive, we need to look at their basic needs as human beings. One of these basic needs is a sense of belonging. Belonging can take many forms.
Back in 1948, Abraham Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs model in a paper entitled, "A Theory of Human Motivation." He identified five needs and arranged them in a hierarchical pyramid shape. The need to belong, according to Maslow, falls right in the middle. This need is a social one that recognizes the human need for interpersonal relationships. Positive relationships can fulfill this basic need, providing a sense of inclusion, friendship, trust, loyalty, and acceptance.
I was fortunate to have many professors who demonstrated caring towards me when I was a student. They showed me that they were interested in me as a learner, believed I could do good work, demonstrated respect for me, and encouraged me to talk with them about any class struggles. In research terms, they demonstrated pedagogical caring.
When professors demonstrated that they cared about me as a person, several critical things happened. I began to believe in my own potential, that my ideas had value, and that I did belong. These beliefs impacted my motivation and my achievement as a college student. Long-term, they influenced my decision to become a college professor where I hope to pass forward this sense of belonging to my students.
So, what can schools, educators, and students do to form these types of meaningful relationships? Here are a few tips.
Make the Time for People and Ask Questions About Their Backgrounds and Goals. Set a time to meet to get to know the other person. Ask people questions about their paths and their goals. Chances are, you'll be surprised and may find that you share similar backgrounds or interests.
Address Challenges Early and Often. Ask for (or offer) help early and often. It's much easier to handle challenges at their start than later when they've turned into crises. Also, there may be times when you're not sure what help would be best or the kind of help given doesn't really work. Go back again. And again. Learning takes time and effort.
Treat Others with Respect and Kindness. Just as every person is different, so is every relationship. If you don't seem to match well with a particular person, that's OK. Respond with kindness- you never know when your paths might cross again.
(Allison Buskirk-Cohen, Ph.D., chair of the department of counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University).

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