Academic Performance: Q&A with Dean Brian Reed
Academic performance can be a touchy subject, especially for students that might not be doing as well as they’d like in their classes. This week, the Mirror interviewed Brian Reed, the associate dean for student academic support services and dean of undergraduate students, to learn more about what he believes are the greatest academic struggles students face — and what the Dartmouth community can do to help.
What have you observed to be some of the greatest challenges that students face when it comes to academic performance?
BR: I think some of the greatest things run a wide spectrum. Ten week terms are very challenging in terms of managing one’s time and managing priorities, and the skills one had in high school to manage courses don’t always translate well here. Sleep patterns. Note taking. You name it. Some of the academic skill pieces need to get brushed up, and then there’s also the 10 week term. That’s one aspect of it that I think can be challenging: having to learn not only how to be a college student, but also how to be a Dartmouth College student given our D-Plan and 10 week terms.
There’s research that suggests that this is also a time when, for students who might not have otherwise been aware of mental health related challenges or emotional health related challenges, those things surface. I think that might be in some part fueled by the stresses of college. I’m not a clinical psychologist by any stretch, but we do see that a lot of academic challenges are byproducts of someone managing burgeoning, or even chronic, ongoing mental or emotional health challenges. And then there are the physical health challenges.
There are also the challenges that I’ve seen particularly with first-generation, low-income college students. I was a first-generation college student as well. It’s the simple things, like how I didn’t know what a registrar was or did. Understanding the lingo, the language and the flow of how postsecondary education works can be challenging for some students as well.
How important do you think high school preparation is in a freshman’s academic performance?
BR: I think it’s really pivotal, especially in the first term. If we look at the course outcomes at the end of the first term, it particularly shows up in mathematics: your Math 3, your Math 8, your chemistry and biology courses. Significant preparation in computational work can be really pivotal to the transition to STEM courses at Dartmouth.
I think a lot of our students write well. One challenge where I see varying quality can have an impact is the mechanics of citations, paraphrasing and how to master a style of citation, whether that’s APA or MLA. That’s why we have our first-year writing sequence, to really help students learn how to be a college level writer in their first year.
But, I don’t think that high school preparation always has to determine how someone does here. There are other pieces too. I think there are some intangibles, like someone’s fight, someone’s determination and someone’s grit — that they’re going to go to tutoring all the time, that they’re going to go to office hours. There are some unwritten laws about how to succeed here. Regardless of high school preparation, there are a lot of students who defy what, on paper, would suggest about them.
Under which conditions have you seen students most thrive academically?
BR: We really try to send this messaging in everything we do: when you experience academic challenge, that doesn’t mean you’re not a scholar. That doesn’t mean you’re not smart or that you don’t deserve a place here. The entire learning process is challenging. It begins with something we don’t know, and that’s okay. I find that the students who really persevere through initial hurdles or roadblocks are the students who, first, acknowledge that just because they have a challenge doesn’t mean that they don’t belong here. And then, two, they’re willing to say that they need some help, whether that’s with their peers, with their dean or with faculty members and house professors.
The students who see their way through challenge acknowledge that there’s no shame in asking for help. Those are the students who go to tutoring, who go to office hours, who go to the Academic Skills Center, who go and see their dean, who come and see, if necessary, Counseling and Human Development in Dick’s House. A lot of it is attitudinal: “I’m going to see my way through this and then take advantage of resources well.”
Generally speaking, have you observed any trend with regards to whether Dartmouth students tend to either overexaggerate or underexaggerate the importance of grades?
BR: It depends on who you’re talking to. To back up just a little bit, I do think that, independent of grades, this can sometimes be a very difficult place for students to acknowledge challenge to peers. What happens is that I get a lot of students here who go, “Hey Dean Reed, I’m really struggling.” And they almost whisper it. There’s this belief that no one else is really struggling in the way that they are. Well actually, this whole office exists because people experience challenge. I think there’s some convincing that has to be done that they’re not alone, but this is a really hard and difficult place to even acknowledge that there’s challenge, for stigma or other reasons.
I find that students tend to focus on their GPA because they think it’s linked to access to a particular career field, whether that be to get into med school or to get into the top financial firms. I think the thing that we try to do here is focus on a student’s whole experience, this idea that you’re more than a GPA. It’s about internship opportunities, how to talk about the value of working on campus that you could bring to a job, maybe the difference between your major grades and your non-major grades and volunteer experiences. What we try to do is go beyond the GPA with students and talk about their total experience and how they package and market that post-graduation.
So, to answer your question specifically, I don’t find a general trend, per se, but I do find that there are particular post-grad plans that elicit that more than others.
Right now, is there anything that you believe Dartmouth, as an institution, could be doing better when it comes to helping students succeed?
BR: I think one of the discussions that we’re having right now is having a proper “summer bridge” program. It would be a comprehensive academic and acculturation program where we really help students focus on boning up those certain academic pieces, particularly computation and math. One of the discussions I’ve been involved in is, how do we create that? Because as a first-generation college student, I had to work prior to coming to college to earn money. How do we offer that in a way that we can incentivize it for students, that’s effective for students and is in keeping with some of the best national practices for getting students ready for college? I am under no illusions that a five or six week program is going to get students ready to do Math 3 or Math 8 if they haven’t had that preparation. However, I think we owe it to our students to try.
Also, I work closely with [First Year Student Enrichment Program director] Jay Davis [’90] and a handful of faculty and staff, and one thing we’re doing right now is really looking at financial barrier removal. We’re looking at all the places in the institution where finances might prevent some students from having the same experiences as other students. Are there places where we can work with the Center for Professional Development and the Advancement Division to find folks who could help us — help students get suits and portfolios for job interviews? Where we can help students pay for application fees? You name it, we’re scouring the landscape to find where money comes in and prevents someone from accessing all that Dartmouth has to offer. I think we do a good job as an institution, but I think we can do more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.