Ensure that students experience extraordinary learning success in their earliest encounters with the college and establish a solid foundation for success in future learning.

An Essay by Ann Puyana and Sandy Shugart

 Like most colleges, Valencia’s highest student attrition occurs in the first fifteen credit hours of their experience with us. Whether students begin at college or college prep level, this entry and adjustment time is critical. If they survive this threshold, they are likely to stay to completion. We believe, therefore, that “starting right” by focusing key resources, thoughtfully designed learning experiences, and plenty of good energy and support at the “front door” will produce significant increases in long-term student achievement. This should, in turn, translate to similar increases in student satisfaction, in effective contributions to the workforce, and in successful transition to and completion of further academic pursuits. By ensuring that students can start right, we also ensure “extraordinary learning success…and a solid foundation for future learning.” How might we best achieve this goal?


Connection and direction: key elements to student persistence and success.


Research1 and our own internal data suggest that students will persist longer (even through academic and personal set-backs and stop-outs) and meet with greater success (more course completions and higher passing rates) if they can establish both connection and direction at the college as early as possible.


The need for connection is both intellectual and emotional. The college setting feels like an alien culture to many newcomers, with its particular architecture, uniquely shared behaviors and expectations, special vocabulary, and layers of procedural bureaucracy. Beginnings can be daunting, and a natural reaction to fear and discomfort is flight. To be willing to stay and explore uncertain circumstances, one must feel first that the venture is safe. (“No physical or psychological harm will come to me here.”)   Beyond that basic level, however, staying in a new culture is further assured by initial and increasing feelings of welcome, acceptance, and engagement…which in turn lead to acculturation and a sense of belonging, of having a vital role in the new environment. The Peace Corps uses the term “early returns” for volunteers who, mostly for “culture shock” reasons, do not complete their two-year period of service abroad. In our case, we have “early leavers” (no-shows, withdrawals, drop-outs), often caused by similar feelings of cultural exclusion and discomfort. Start Right commits Valencia at all stages, from first contact to graduation and beyond, to ensuring positive, helpful, and effective interactions with students.


Another aspect of students’ connection is with self: feeling ready for and sensing real possibilities in the challenge they have set before themselves. Of them, this requires initially a leap of faith and much courage, and then a growing sense of independence and responsibility for their decisions and commitments. Of us, it requires a genuine belief in the potential of each individual to learn under the right circumstances, and a willingness to help discover and develop those “right circumstances.” (The self-fulfilling expectations prophecy is widely held as true: children, students, employees…rise or sink to the level of belief in capacity and expectation of performance held of them, and in turn by them.) Empowering the student self also requires us to recognize them as adult partners in their education. From them, we can learn much about what interests and motivates them, as well as what life experiences and understandings they bring to this new learning. We can also enable deeper learning by explicitly linking new information to prior knowledge and by evolving our offerings from a collection of courses to a holistic, interconnected curriculum. Finally, we can shepherd students to their “learning edges,” balance points between the known and the unknown where intellectual challenge and support can foster and accelerate growth.


At Valencia, we are helping students to make essential and meaningful connections in many ways, including: orientation and course placement, the Student Success program, advisement and counseling, small classes, frequent and helpful interactions with staff and instructors, career guidance, tutoring and student support labs, technology access, linked courses, and special courses for non-native speakers of English and for those who need further preparation before enrolling in college-level courses.   Furthermore, we are responding to differences in learning styles and applying other effective practices for adult learning, most notably through an institutional and increasingly individual shift from teaching-centeredness to learning-centeredness. Our Core Competencies (Think, Value, Communicate, Act) link course work to the over-arching abilities of an “educated person,” making it easier for us to build an integrated experience for our students, and in turn for them to better understand the interrelationship and transferability of knowledge and skills derived from their “higher education.” A coherent curriculum and genuine engagement in the learning process, in addition to forming context and connection, also contribute to the other key influence on student persistence and success: direction.  


Research findings1 tell us that students who have a plan are much more likely to complete their education than those who do not. Many students arrive at Valencia adrift and searching rather than with a destination in sight. Some are fearful of naming a destination and thus blocking off other potential paths; few understand the interrelatedness of many careers and the likelihood of multiple, evolving job experiences over a working lifetime. The retention literature1 indicates, however, that early development and recurring refinement of long-range goals bring purpose, meaning and persistence to students’ educational pursuits.


At Valencia, LifeMap (“Life’s a trip; you’ll need directions”) has become the formal vehicle for our institutional goal of helping students get started on and then further develop their life, career and educational plans. The various stages of LifeMap reach back to before college (middle school programming) and extend through graduation to transitions to work and/or continued learning.   With this dynamic metaphor now established, we want to extend the success relationship between college academics and life planning throughout the curricular and extra-curricular college experience, thus empowering students to develop meaningful personal and professional directions for themselves, and then to build the educational plans that will take them there.


In summary, good educational practices, based in the learning and retention research of our profession, obligate us to commit our resources and energies to


  • Build welcoming, dynamic, inclusive learning communities
  • Create the expectation and resources for students to develop and implement career and educational plans
  • Apply understandings of learning styles and brain research to learning activities
  • Foster student development through challenging standards and effective support
  • Engage adult students as active partners in their learning
  • Use early and frequent feedback loops to exchange and apply information for improved teaching and learning
  • Assess outcomes and research what’s working and what’s not throughout the college.


Bridging the gap between what we know about how adults learn best and what we do about it in our practices is one of our greatest individual professional and institutional challenges. It seems that institutions have always asked, “Is this student really college material?” Now society’s evolving needs and our commitment to genuine learning results press us to ask a more provocative question: “Is this college really student material?” At Valencia, we want the answer to be a resounding “Yes!”

1 A list of relevant research references is attached.

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Astin, A.W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 26, 11-16.


Barr, R.B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27(6), 13-25.


Bers, T.H., & Smith, K.E. (1991). Persistence of community college students: The influence of student intent and academic and social integrations. Research in Higher Education, 32(5), 539-556.


Chickering, A. W. & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and Identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Friedlander, J., & MacDougall, P.R. (1992). Achieving student success through student involvement. Community College Review, 20(1), 20-28.


Kaufman, M.A. & Creamer, D.G. (1991). Influences of student goals for college on freshman-year quality of effort and growth. Journal of College Student Development, 32, 197-206.


Macy, B. (2000). Encouraging the dream: Lessons learned from first-generation college students. College Board Review, 191, 36-40.


O’Banion, T. (1997b). A learning college for the 21st century. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.


Pascarella, E.T. (1985). College environmental influences on learning and cognitive development: A critical review and synthesis. In J.C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research, (Vol. 1, pp. 1-61). New York: Agathon.


Pascarella, E.T. (1991). The impact of college on students: The nature of the evidence. Review of Higher Education, 14, 453-466.


Pascarella, E.T. , & Terenzini, P.T. (1991). How college effects students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Rendon, L.I., & Nora, A. (1989). A synthesis and application of research on Hispanic students in community colleges. Community College Review, 17(1), 17-24.


Roueche, J.E. & Roueche, S.D. (1999). High stakes, high performance: Making remedial education work. Washington, D.C: Community College Press.


Smith, B.M. (1993). The quality of effort on persistence among traditional-aged community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 17, 103-122.


Tinto, V. (1987). Learning college. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.