A significant percentage of students nationwide start a college education but never complete it. Studies have shown that if professors affirm their students, both personally and academically, those students are more likely to stay at an institution and finish their degrees.
“Adding to the understanding of faculty-student relationships can assist faculty and higher education administrators in making decisions about where to focus their retention efforts,” wrote Christine F. Brown, ’17 Ed.D., in her dissertation. Brown, who is an associate professor of social sciences and education as well as a learning coordinator at Penn State Brandywine, researched faculty validation of students for her Ed.D. in higher education at Immaculata.
The American Association of University Administrators recently named Brown the winner of the Donald A. Gatzke Outstanding Dissertation Award. Sister Ann Heath, IHM, Ph.D., director of Immaculata’s Ed.D. in higher education, nominated Brown’s dissertation for this national award because of its valuable information for administrators seeking to improve student retention.
When preparing to write her dissertation, Brown discovered plenty of research about students’ perceptions of their relationships with faculty, but very little about how faculty felt about those relationships. So she developed an online survey that queried faculty from a major research university to quantify their attitudes about interacting with and validating students. The survey asked professors how important various practices are, such as offering students encouragement and help, respecting diversity and students’ points of view, and telling new students how to get involved academically and socially.
“Learning students’ names, encouraging women and students of color to contribute to discussions in class, and being approachable are all ideas that demonstrated strong agreement amongst faculty participants,” she writes.
Based on her survey’s findings, Brown developed several recommendations for higher education administrators to encourage faculty to affirm and spend time with students and, as a potential result, improve student retention. She writes that faculty need professional development training that stresses the importance of validating and mentoring students.
Brown also recommends that institutions support and reward faculty members for validating students. She cites one study showing that even when faculty believed they needed to interact with students more often, research and publishing expectations frequently limited their time to do so.
“Changing the culture of higher education would need to occur” to address these conflicting demands on faculty members’ time, Brown writes. “[O]ne way to move toward this change would be for faculty to be promoted or compensated based on specific behaviors or outcomes associated with student development and validation.”
Earning her Ed.D. from Immaculata and winning the American Association of University Administrators’ dissertation award have positioned Brown to start making the change in higher education for which she advocates.
“Taking classes and producing a doctoral-level dissertation improved my critical thinking skills, writing ability and confidence levels. I gained more respect from my colleagues and was offered more opportunities than I would have otherwise experienced,” she says, mentioning the faculty promotion she received after earning her doctorate from IU. Her research gave her a new authority to speak about retention issues, and she became the chair of Penn State Brandywine’s retention committee. Studying at Immaculata equipped her with new tools to work for change, she says, and her colleagues frequently invite her to collaborate with them on new initiatives.
On a practical level, Brown appreciated the higher education program’s hybrid format, with classes alternating each week between face-to-face and online meetings. This made it easier for her to continue working while she was completing the program.
“The experience exceeded my expectations and has translated into a job that is more rewarding, and allows me to better understand how to best support the students that I teach,” she says.