Creating a Campus Culture of Self-Directed Student Learning

Chardin Claybourne
Innovation Showcase

Student retention continues to be a major concern for most community colleges in the U.S. According to research conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2019), of all students enrolled in two-year public institutions beginning in fall 2017, only 48.9 percent would continue at the same institution in fall 2018. Comparatively, students at four-year public institutions over the same period boasted an 82.7 percent retention rate. While students may struggle for a variety of reasons, one way to positively address this issue is within the classroom. Over the course of an academic career, a student’s most consistent and frequent contact with community college personnel is with instructional faculty in a classroom (in-person or online), lab, or clinical setting. Because of this regularity of contact, instructors have multiple opportunities to teach valuable strategies for self-directed learning over the span of each course. Applied across campus, and throughout a student’s postsecondary experience, efforts by faculty can cultivate an intrinsic desire for learning within students. Therein lies the potential for a transformational, inexpensive, efficient way to enculturate students to their new environment and their responsibilities as members of the higher education community, while positively affecting student learning and success outcomes.

Students come from a variety of educational backgrounds, with differing levels of academic preparedness. Often when we discuss student diversity, we gloss over educational diversity in favor of focusing on other, more visible, markers of difference. We use terminology like “underprepared” or “underserved” as shorthand for students we have identified as needing the most help. The reality is that even many of the best performing and highest achieving students entering today’s higher education institutions directly from high school have not been taught how to learn at the level necessary for success at this stage of the academy. And, if the “best,” or most prepared, students are enrolled without the knowledge of how to succeed academically, how can we, as educators, be comfortable leaving students to flounder on their own, with little or no direction?

Maximizing Our Time With Students

Grappling with the expectations of college instructors can cause a disconnect for students in a new, faster-paced learning environment. Students’ primary and secondary education experiences may not have prepared them for the level of independence and critical thinking necessary for success in higher education. Fink (2013) writes, “when students have not thought about their own learning and what kind of teaching best supports good learning, they . . . can object when a teacher changes the game and creates a new situation with new rules and new expectations” (p. 223). Think about how the “game” changes for students entering a college classroom. While many elements will appear similar to their prior learning experiences, even the subtle differences can cause anxiety, as a college instructor’s expectations can be radically different from anything students experienced during their K-12 years. A 2016 Center for Community College Student Engagement report detailed that 86 percent of students surveyed responded “agree/strongly agree” to the statement, “I am prepared academically to succeed at this college.” However, the same survey revealed that 68 percent of community college students enrolled in one or more developmental education courses. This incongruity supports the assertion that students are not the best judges of their own college readiness; their baseless confidence may persist despite messaging to the contrary. “Many of the students who walk through the doors of community colleges have already been told they are not college material. Or they have had experiences that led them to believe they cannot do math or are not good at taking tests,” writes Evelyn Waiwaiole (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2019, p. 2).

If students’ mindsets can pose such a significant barrier to their success, and students are the uninitiated neophytes in this new environment, it is the responsibility of the institution and its professionals to teach them the required skills to succeed in this new setting. In other words, “we must recognize that a college or university, once having admitted a student, has an obligation to do what it can to help the student stay and graduate” (Tinto, 2012, p. 6). In most professions, a new employee is given some degree of on-the-job training. We ask students to consider their higher education as a career, but, paradoxically, expect them to figure out how to be academically successful independently, or to seek out necessary support services themselves. If we truly believe in Kay McClenney’s oft-cited quote, “students don’t do optional” (Hamilton, 2012), then why not teach them the tools for academic success when we have their undivided attention?

Each student will have a different experience on a community college campus. One of the struggles with addressing the issue of student retention is determining how to disaggregate the data and provide timely interventions for certain students identified as at risk. But, what if, instead of means testing to determine which students need which interventions, we provided quality information that would help all students, across-the-board? If a rising tide lifts all boats, then it follows that providing support which could benefit one segment of a college’s student body could also benefit others. The through line of the student experience is engagement with faculty. Properly leveraging students’ time with instructors is how we ensure that students receive multiple exposures to the same information, regardless of discipline, and introduce them to behaviors that are essential to their success. “If institutions are to significantly increase the retention and graduation of their students . . . their actions must be centered on the classroom” (Tinto, 2012, p. 6). If all, or a majority, of a campus’s faculty can commit to spending a portion of their instructional time teaching and reinforcing college-level learning skills, we have an opportunity for tremendous improvements to student persistence, retention, and completion.

Involve Me and I Learn

In Teach Students How to Learn (2015), McGuire discusses the transformation possible when metacognitive learning strategies are introduced to students. In her book, she writes about the power of introducing metacognition—in effect, thinking about one’s own thinking—to students, and how it can be transformative: “When students learn about metacognition, gain learning strategies, and become active learners, it empowers them tremendously because they begin to understand that thinking and learning are processes that they can control” (McGuire, 2015, p. 27).

If students have multiple exposures to the concepts of metacognition, self-regulation, and mindset over time, in different courses, it could have a remarkable impact, not only on individual students, but on an institution’s culture of student learning. One aspect of critical thinking is how to problem solve. Can we, confronted with an unfamiliar situation, use our existing knowledge, skills, and abilities, to resolve the situation? Some students are remarkably adept at problem solving. I have heard many of my faculty colleagues’ complaints about students’ attempts at cheating to pass various assignments. This has led to more and more discussion on how to prevent cheating. This is like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than the root cause. These students are problem solvers. They are using the knowledge, skills, and abilities they possess at that time and applying them to resolve the situation—even if it is morally and ethically incorrect behavior. If we want students to take a better approach, we must provide them with the necessary tools. Instructors are content experts. However, if we want our students to be successful, it is not enough to teach them the course content. We must also teach them how to learn the content.

Training the Trainers

Some faculty may be hesitant to embrace introducing self-directed learning strategies at the expense of valuable class time. They may see it as an infringement on their academic freedom. But, “we owe our students lessons and practice in how to learn at a fairly high level; letting them slip through college without solid learning skills and, subsequently, with only fleetingly superficial knowledge is professionally irresponsible, if not unethical” (Nilson, 2013, p. 1). This is the type of material taught at many institutions through their college success courses and introduced to students via their academic support and learning assistance centers. Unfortunately, not all students are required to take these valuable introductory courses. And while campus learning centers are a fantastic resource, we also know they remain stigmatized. Often, the students most in need of help will not use these services when they can be most beneficial. Once again, faculty have the benefit of a captive audience the moment students set foot into our classrooms. Why not capitalize on this?

Some instructors may be willing to try this, but unsure of where to start. In addition to the professionals teaching the college success courses and stewarding the learning centers, many institutions have professionals dedicated to teaching and learning who are likely to be familiar with the concepts of metacognition and self-regulation. This could be a great way to introduce an ongoing professional development topic for all faculty (novice and veteran, adjunct and full-time), become a cyclical cornerstone of campus pedagogy, and spur increased innovation within departments. Colleagues would develop increasingly more effective ways of communicating information to students, as influenced by the nuances of applying it to the specifics of their discipline and curriculum. Holistically and organically, students would see the interdisciplinary aspects of how these concepts are relevant to their academics and beyond.

An Opportunity for Transformation

Taking a systematic approach and ensuring all students have exposure to the critical skills for academic (and further) success is not an impossible task. Too many campuses operate in silos—well meaning, but ineffective due to a lack of connectivity in the delivery of interventions. By prioritizing teaching and learning to make students aware of their role in the process of their education, students then become partners in the endeavor, and not simply subjected to or recipients of education-as-product. We must empower our students by teaching them about the concepts of metacognition and self-regulation. To have better outcomes, we must start with a better process and product. To improve student retention, persistence, and completion, we must provide students with the necessary skills to help them help themselves.


Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2016). Expectations meet reality: The underprepared student and community colleges. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Education, Department of Educational Administration, Program in Higher Education Leadership.

Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2019). A mind at work: Maximizing the relationship between mindset and student success. The University of Texas at Austin, College of Education, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, Program in Higher Education Leadership.

Fink, L. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. Jossey-Bass.

Hamilton, R. (2012, February 21). Kay McClenney: The TT interview. The Texas Tribune

McGuire, S. (2015). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2019, July 10). Persistence & retention – 2019.

Nilson, L. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ self-awareness and learning skills. Stylus Publishing.

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. University of Chicago Press.

Chardin S. Claybourne is faculty, Learning Lab and Tutoring Services, at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan, and a student in Ferris State University’s Doctorate in Community College Leadership program.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.