Practical Competence

As I read this week’s The Chronicle of Higher Education front-page article by Sara Lipka and Eric Hoover about a developmental or remedial English class at Montgomery College, a two-year college in Maryland, it was as if I were there in that classroom. I felt the near helplessness of the dedicated faculty member, and I felt as if I were there as a student because I know what it’s like to have to separate your head and academic learning from the rest of your life. The article is titled “The Second-Chance Club,” and I think it would have unfolded as a second chance if Kenneth Okorafor, a Nigerian immigrant student, had miraculously passed the course.

As the narrative progressed toward the final decision about each student’s fate in meeting the requirements to go on to college-level English, it seemed as if Kenneth would certainly pass because he wanted to pass so passionately and he is a good person. As I read the narrative, I felt as if the music was about to swell for a happy dramatic ending since Kenneth was the last student to see the instructor about his course standing. I was really surprised at the final result because even his friend gets the green light to go on to the next level of English, and when he exits the meeting with the faculty member, he says, “Kenneth, don’t worry man, I’ll see you there OK?” Kenneth is so visibly nervous about his time with the instructor that one of the other students tells him, “Just know that, whatever happens, you’re smart.”

I think Kenneth is smart, but he did not pass the developmental course in English and he knows why. He allowed one of his essays to be published in The Chronicle along with the article, and he titled it, “My Two Greatest Obstacles.” In his essay, he admits that he allows himself to become distracted in class and he does not pay attention. He also realizes that he does not manage his time well. He stays up late watching television and he comes to class late. His realization of what may be hindering him from passing the course has come too late.

Having to retake a non-credit course puts Kenneth in the risky position of dropping out of college completely. Students such as Kenneth and some of the other students described in the class lack a critical skill for success in college and beyond, and that skill is practical competence. Practical competence is one of the seven student learning outcomes in Learning Reconsidered, a 2004 publication by ACPA and NASPA, two professional associations for student affairs.

Too many students like Kenneth can break the hearts of many faculty who feel helpless in moving them forward. I propose that student services work with faculty to offer what I call a cocurriculum laboratory that is connected to the class (read more on cocurriculum laboratories…).  In this laboratory, the objectives of the course are reinforced and there is a strong emphasis on helping students communicate effectively and manage their own affairs. Students who do not have role models who demonstrate these skills are at a disadvantage in meeting the requirements of a college education. Student services staff are trained to help students through the developmental phases of self-efficacy.

Faculty cannot do it all and could welcome the assistance of their student services colleagues who can work with students in a laboratory, of sorts, where the emphasis is on adjusting to college life and making connections with students and the student services staff on a deeper and more personal level. These students will share their stories, encourage and support one another, all the while being guided by a highly skilled student services staff member who will move students towardaccomplishing the goals of the course and the skills that all college graduates should attain. One of these skills is practical competence.

One response to “Practical Competence

  1. Pingback: What Happens When the Academically Talented Aren’t College Ready? | Gwen Dungy

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