• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Positive Reinforcement

Reaching students.

March 13, 2018

When I was in grad school and we had just started dating, my now-wife discovered some unopened bank statements in the back of my car. She asked me why I hadn’t opened them. I told her that I knew I was broke; seeing it on paper amounted to rubbing it in. The only thing to be gained by looking at them would be anxiety, so I threw them back there and got on with life.

I’m not sure that most students now are all that different.  

When the same source always sends bad news, or phrases messages only in the imperative case, it becomes tempting to tune it out. “Tempting” may be too weak a word; sometimes filtering out negativity is a prerequisite to sanity.

The catch, of course, is that “negativity” often includes useful information. Those bank statements surely didn’t -- I kept pretty good records on my own -- but missing early warnings of bad things can sometimes allow those bad things to happen.  How to cut through the noise?

I’m thinking that’s where deliberate positive messaging may come in. 

If every message that comes from a college is either utilitarian or threatening, I could imagine an overwhelmed or precarious student simply tuning out the source.  College emails would get ignored, or tossed into the equivalent of the back seat. And hectoring or shaming students to get them to act differently would probably make things worse.

But if some of the messages are positive, they might react differently.

Most colleges have established protocols and infrastructure to communicate with students. The infrastructure is expensive and complicated, but once it exists, it exists. Sending a positive message costs no more, and takes no more effort, than sending a negative one.  

Positive messages bring other benefits beyond useful unpredictability. For students whose history with institutions, both educational and otherwise, has mostly been hostile, some positive reinforcement may go a long way. A few years ago at Holyoke, the director of a program for at-risk high school students told me about a student in her class who got an A on an exam. She jumped out of her desk and ran down the hallway, screaming “a motherf---ing A! I got a motherf---ing A! I never got an A in my life!” Nobody had the heart to discipline her. That unexpected A changed her perspective on herself as a student.

Here’s where I hope my wise and worldly readers have experience to share. If you’ve seen positive messaging used effectively, what made it work? Was there a specific kind of message that worked best? Anything to avoid?


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