Student Success Change Efforts

What is Student Success?

Any change effort associated with improving student success necessarily starts with understanding what is meant by "student success" in the context of a particular institution. This involves not only identifying the means by which success is measured but also making explicit the unwritten assumptions and cultural perspectives that affect how success is talked about at the institution.

Student Success as a Wicked Problem

The work of improving student success is complex, not just complicated, and the solutions to the relevant questions must be designed from scratch by understanding and then drawing on the characteristics of your own environment. In many ways, the challenge of promoting success for all students is a "wicked problem." As Marshall (2015) puts it,

"A problem becomes wicked when it is a symptom of a large chain of adjacent issues, with multiple partners, whose understanding of the problem is also dependent upon their own different ideas for solving it...Each approach will generate different responses, different ways to share the costs, and especially different language with which to justify action." (p. 97)

A wicked problem does not respond to familiar and well-practiced solutions. There is never a single cause; there is never a single tried and true strategy to employ. To complicate things further, the problem keeps changing as we examine it and seems to adapt to any strategy employed to solve it, taking on new dimensions that need to be studied and managed. All of these characteristics make wicked problems resistant to many straight-forward efforts to resolve them.

A campus community is usually made up of a number of discrete units, each with a distinctive way of defining problems and each with a different toolkit for addressing problems it identifies. Students come in with a wide assortment of strengths and challenges and every campus has a whole array of support efforts underway at any given time. In addition, most campuses are only slowly beginning to move away from a focus on individual work to collaborative work and from "my questions" to "our questions." A more systemic way of thinking that draws upon the people, ideas, and intellectual tools and insights that are offered by a diverse campus community is emerging as a new generation of scholars come into the Academy. However, collaboration and a culture of experimentation and inquiry are not yet a dominant feature of most campus cultures. All of these characteristics make it difficult if not impossible to offer general guidance about the introduction and development of new ways to approach the curriculum and to foster student success in equitable ways.

Rittel and Webber (1973) are credited with first articulating the concept of a wicked problem. Heifetz et al (2009) offer wise advice on how to solve problems which they termed "adaptive." According to these observers, "technical" or "tame problems" can be solved with a distinctive set of steps, regardless of context -- understand the nature of the problem, gather information about the issue, pull the information together to characterize the problem and how it manifests itself, then work out and apply well-researched and effective solutions. Unfortunately, a problem like student success is clearly not a "tame" problem. These kinds of complex problems require a very different approach, to frame the problem itself, to gather the capacity to address it in a multidisciplinary way, and then reflect upon and learn from the solutions that are used.

Making your way in a relatively unfamiliar environment beyond your own department or program and often beyond what you know from your own experiences requires learning how to read your environment and negotiate it effectively. Your success is connected in some essential ways to the challenges that your students face when they try to navigate the unfamiliar environment of your institution. Your experience is probably giving you greater appreciation for what they encounter every day.

See Also: Measuring Progress

Exercise: What does student success mean at your institution and how does your campus measure success?

Reflect on the following questions to explore how your campus measures student success:

  • How do you think about student success and how has that shaped your own approach?
  • How do other faculty talk about student success?
  • What assumptions do they make about why some students thrive and others do not?
  • Who has been involved in other efforts to improve the student experience and educate your students for a changing world?
  • Did they find those efforts engaging and meaningful?
  • If people talk about those other projects and efforts, how do they describe them? What kinds of language do they use?
  • How might your experience fit into the pattern of change efforts focused on student success? What have you to offer? What have you to gain from a closer connection to other projects and efforts?
  • What guidance can you gain from how other efforts turned out and how people talk about them now? Where are the cultural landmines on your campus?
Related Resource:
Defining Strong Departments »


Heifetz, R., A. Grashow, and M. Linsky. (2009) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Boston: Harvard Business Press. 326 pages.

Marshall, G. (2015) Don't Even Think About It. Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Bloomsbury Press. 260 pages.

Rittel, H.W.J. and M.M. Webber (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4:155-169.