Want to improve students’ grades? Teach them life coping skills

As academia pushes to raise grades and completions among disadvantaged students, San Francisco professor shows value of Bandura, von Bertalanffy and kaizen

January 13, 2023
Person holding a hula hoop on a  tightrope practicing his skills to illustrate Want to improve students’ grades? Teach them life coping skills
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In higher education’s existential struggle to raise student grades and graduation rates, especially among low-income and minority students, San Francisco State University appears to have found a promising pathway: teaching students basic life coping skills.

The concept took form back in 2010, with a professor steeped in the self-help concepts of Albert Bandura and Ludwig von Bertalanffy inaugurating a small project-based class in mindful learning, self-acceptance and the kaizen approach to creating continuous improvement.

The unorthodox creator, Adam Burke, a professor of holistic health studies at San Francisco State who now teaches remotely from rural Virginia and sometimes as far away as India, has completed an initial peer-reviewed assessment that appears to demonstrate broad gains in student academic success.

Students who successfully completed the course registered a nearly 3 per cent higher grade-point average over the rest of their undergraduate careers, according to a comparison between all 826 students who took the class between 2010 and 2019 and a sampling of 826 other students at San Francisco State with similar academic profiles.

The benefits were disproportionately greater for those with the most need, according to the findings published in the journal Active Learning in Higher Education. The average grade-point gains were 4 per cent among under-represented minority students who passed the course, 4 per cent among first-generation students, and 3 per cent among those eligible for the Pell Grant, the main federal subsidy for low-income students.

Graduation rates also improved, by 7 per cent among the minority students and the Pell-eligible students, and by 14 per cent among the first-generation students.

The results reflect “a lot of positive changes that institutions talk about being interested in, but aren’t always successful” in creating, Professor Burke said.

Professor Burke teaches the three-credit semester-long class, Holistic Health 200, to three sessions of about 50 students apiece. The first third of the 16-week session consists of lessons in areas of goal-setting, visual thinking, mindful learning, continual improvement and problem-solving. The students then identify some challenge anywhere in their lives that is affecting their academic success – often outside the classroom and campus – and spend the rest of the semester using and adapting those lessons to help address that challenge.

And the earlier in their undergraduate career that they took the course, the stronger the effect. Those completing the course as freshmen registered an average grade-point gain of more than 5 per cent, with the benefit getting progressively smaller by year to a 1 per cent gain for those who took it as seniors.

Many US colleges and universities already offer a variety of courses with similarities to Professor Burke’s creation, focusing on college orientation, study skills, life planning and more. Often they reach too few students, said Heather Malin, the director of research at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. “There should be more like it,” Dr Malin said.

Professor Burke, though, said he conducted an extensive search across the country and concluded that Holistic Health 200 is unique because of its focus on emphasising life skills more generally. “It’s about how to be a more effective human, basically,” he said.

His published affirmation of his own approach comes as a growing number of universities try to improve their success rates among disadvantaged students through a strategy of intensive computer-aided tracking that helps to identify small variations in daily activities or signs of personal or academic stress, so that administrators can step in early to address them.


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