Saturday, September 7, 2013

Conversations: Overcoming Dispositional Barriers

                 Phone with Arabic Numbers.

How to Overcome Dispositional Barriers in Developmental Education? Make a phone call.

When our students are absent from class, do we call them or not?  I say yes, and I do call my absent students.  I call all of my college-ready online students too, in order to put them at ease with the course. Sometimes the absent students return to class and sometimes they don't, but I've always been able to establish a connection that leaves the door open for that student to return the next semester.  When I see my absent students on campus or in my community, I ask them where they have been.  I invite them back to class. I have had a few successful outcomes where students who thought they had no chance to complete their studies return and do well. This is known as intrusive advising, a practice that faculty and advising or counseling staff can do to help students adjust to college culture.

Dispositional barriers, or psycho-social barriers, as first noted by K. Patricia Cross (1974), are "attitudes that preclude further learning"(p. 6).  Many times, an absent developmental writing student is wrestling with multiple responsibilities and feelings of inadequacy to meet those responsibilities.  A simple phone call can provide the mentoring and motivation that student needs to continue in college.

There is a story told to me by an acquaintance that first informed my thinking on intrusive advising.  At that time, he was a recent immigrant to the United States from an Arab country.  He enrolled in an American college course and soon discovered that the instructor used a joking tone with his students. Some students even talked back to the instructor in a joking way. Those students, (all American born or more assimilated than my friend) enjoyed the exchange, but the Arab student felt that his dignity was at risk. He was too intimidated to approach his instructor because was unsure how the instructor would receive his questions. "Will the teacher joke about my mistakes?" He wondered. The classroom did not follow the same cultural norms as the classrooms he experienced in Kuwait and Jordan. A shy individual to begin with, he retreated into a persona that helped him protect his dignity.  He did not interact in class discussions. He began to skip class to avoid the embarrassing conversations. Ultimately, he dropped the class due to his own sense of cultural anxiety.

There are layers to the cultural and dispositional realities of this story. We might say that it was the student's responsibility to adjust to American norms, or we might say that the professor needed to have intercultural competence in order to help foreign students feel at ease in his course.  In any case, the misunderstanding is understandable. There obviously was a lapse in communication and differing perceptions of reality between the student and instructor. I have always felt sorry that the instructor never really knew what his student was thinking. He seemed to be using humor as a way to connect with his students. A simple conversation, or a phone call, could have set the student's mind at ease so he could finish the course.

My opinion, and this is how the previous story relates to developmental students, is that the situation is no different in an American developmental writing classroom with culturally-American students. It is just that the cultural disparities are not so obvious in a classroom with American-born students.

By cultural disparities, I mean that the student may come in with a disadvantage of being unfamiliar with educational institutions and how they function.  They may not have family members or mentors to guide them during their first semester when they need to adjust to the academic expectations of the institution.  Their family culture does not include the influence of educational experiences. This results in a power imbalance between the student and instructor where the student does not feel a sense of control over her environment. The instructor and student are culturally dissimilar in unseen ways of perspective, emotional responses and daily realities so that their meeting place, the classroom, is clouded by misconceptions, especially on the part of the student. The instructor can do much for that student's future just by reaching out when an obvious pitfall occurs, such as a string of unexcused absences.

There are those that argue that students must step up and learn to manage their time. They say that students need to demonstrate responsibility and that by overreaching in efforts to do good, intrusive advising may be enabling bad habits.  There is some credibility to this point. I put it in these terms: If I were facing surgery, I would want a doctor who showed up for all of her medical courses without prompting.  I agree that the best and brightest are needed in all career fields.  However, developmental students are just starting out. Most are very responsible and need no outreach, while others are facing new organizational cultures with which they are unfamiliar. Assumptions are made.  Time is wasted. Intrusive advisors can help students find their way.

There have been several times when I have called students to discuss their absences from class. Usually, the absences are due to a compounding sense that it is too late to return, or that with multiple absences they have already lowered their grade. While the point about the grade is usually true, it does not always mean that there is no hope to pass the class.  They may not make the grade they want, but if they try by making up their work and moving forward to make a passing grade, they can save the time and money already spent on the course.  More importantly, they will develop better writing skills, which is my essential goal as a writing instructor.

Once, when I called a student who had all but disappeared from my developmental writing course, (a very promising writer who wanted to be a paramedic), I learned that his family member had been hospitalized and he was devoting most of his time to upholding her responsibilities while she was incapacitated.  I listened as he talked through some ideas about managing his time.  The next Monday he was back in class and he ultimately completed the course.  There are so many other stories I can tell: a student who stayed home for a lengthy time to grieve for a loved one who had passed, a student who misread the class schedules during the first week of the semester, students with sick children who were overwhelmed and felt like giving up, a student who thought he had too many late arrivals and so stopped coming before checking with me, a student who read the wrong course syllabus and missed my final exam. At the heart of all of these absences were their assumptions that I could not be approached for help, even when I was doing my best to break down those assumptions during class and in conferences. They all came back to finish the course with varying rates of success.

Intrusive advising helps me feel more connected to my students. While I meet with students during conference times, taking one step further to find and eliminate dispositional barriers can bring new life into a student's educational journey. Sometimes, we just have to make the call to find out what our students are thinking.

Cross, K. P. (Director) (1974, June 9). Lowering the barriers for adult learners.The Liberal Arts College and the Experienced Learner. Lecture conducted from Santa Barbara, CA.



  1. Layla your dedication and willingness to reach out to your students when they are absent with understanding and without judgment, is what sets you apart and makes you such an extraordinary teacher. Your students I know feel blessed to have you.

  2. Christine,

    I appreciate your comments. Best wishes.