Project Success at Virginia Tech: Librarians Can Help Students in Jeopardy Succeed in Academia
by Michelle L. Young
As librarians, we strive to help students become successful in their research endeavors. I have taken my responsibility a bit further and now help students in academic jeopardy find strength and ultimate success in the academy while overcoming what seems to be overwhelming difficulty. Since the spring semester of 2002, I have been actively involved in Project Success at Virginia Tech. This article provides a brief glimpse of the program and my current role in it as a mentor and teacher.
Started in 1993, Project Success (PS) is not considered a class and is not part of the Virginia Tech general curriculum. It is a non-credit, goal-setting, self-assessment seminar. It was created for students on academic probation with an overall Q.C.A. of 2.0 or less. This seminar has a flexible, student-driven agenda and covers many areas of interest throughout the semester. Typical topics discussed are motivation, test-taking skills, study tips, time management, reading assessment, learning styles, and career services on campus. This fourteen-week seminar has several requirements for completion. Successful attendees receive a letter from the Center for Academic Enrichment and Excellence (CAEE) that is often used during academic probationary reviews.
This setting is a unique
between faculty, staff,
Each PS group has a facilitator and is team-taught with a cofacilitator or peer-facilitator. Facilitators include all different types of faculty, staff, and students from across campus. Peer-facilitators are students who have successfully completed PS and now want to give something back by taking on a new role helping students who are in a position that they know all too well. This setting is a unique learning community, clearly demonstrating the importance of collaboration between faculty, staff, and students.
Students interested in the program send in an online application to CAEE. Students eligible for the program sign contracts agreeing to a set of requirements for the letter of completion at the end of the semester.
Students are required to attend each session, with no more than two absences. Students are encouraged to use a planner received at the beginning of the semester to plot out study time, classes, general personal activities, homework, and tests. They are expected to use their time wisely; the PS meeting is just another obligation in their week, not a time to do other activities as they see fit.
Setting goals is a crucial piece of PS. Each week, students and facilitators discuss academic and non-academic goals. These goals need to be specific, including what, when, and how the goals will be accomplished. Accountability is held in high regard for everyone. Usually, when someone has not accomplished his or her goals, other members of the group pursue answers from that person as to why the goals were not accomplished, and often offer suggestions on how to be more successful next time. These goal-setting exercises often lead to positive goal-oriented behaviors in the future for these students.
Reflective journaling at the end of each meeting is required and provides a vital outlet for students and facilitators. Additionally, it generates insight into the true nature and dynamic of the group for the facilitator. Prompted journal entries ask the students to think about a question related to the topic of the day. We do read these entries after the meeting in order to determine if the students' needs are being met and how they are doing overall. Students are made aware of our process at the beginning of the semester and understand that journals are not confidential. Themes among students can be easily identified through this process; thus, journaling becomes a valuable tool to be used while planning for future meetings. We are able to troubleshoot future needs, current concerns, and overall issues for each student.
PS participants are additionally required to visit each of their professors at least one time during the semester. Students are encouraged to create relationships with their professors from the beginning. The belief is that if they seek guidance from day one, they have the potential to be more successful in class, and their professors will be more likely to go above and beyond their perceived obligation to help the students succeed if there are problems. Information about visits with professors is recorded on a handout that includes a statement of what value the student found in each visit. This record is submitted to CAEE at the end of the semester with the journals.
At the beginning of the semester, students are prompted to create a list of topics of interest to be covered, which they rank in order of importance. My co/peer-facilitator and I then create activities and handouts pertinent to each area of interest for the weekly meetings. Some topics are handled using guest speakers or on-campus field trips. Due to the nature of PS (it is not a class), a lecture-style setting is neither useful nor desired. PS participants truly need to be contributing and active partners with the other students and facilitators. Active learning helps get them talking and contributes to the group's cohesiveness.
Although CAEE offers training and materials for facilitators, there are no guarantees of success. Success is really a relative measure. To my mind, if I can help one student succeed at the university, I am successful. Each group takes on a different personality, and thus a new challenge presents itself each semester.
We found out quickly
that the big challenge
would be to get them
Spring 2002 was the first semester I took on this challenge. I was assigned a peer-facilitator and had a group of fifteen students. By the end of the semester, six students would successfully complete Project Success.
We would quickly see what we would be faced with while facilitating this group. We used a biography handout as a tool for students to introduce themselves. The semester went rather smoothly until a snag with the peer-facilitator caused a great deal of tension (unknown to our group). We experienced a communication problem that at the time seemed unsolvable. Finding common ground, we finished the semester together and were very happy we did. This experience helped each of us grow. My peer-facilitator later came to me for research assistance, and we keep in touch today.
That first semester was a learning experience for all concerned. This is the case each time I participate in Project Success. Not only do the students learn form me, I learn from them. This is part of the beauty of participating in such a program.
Fall 2002 came along, and I decided to facilitate another section of PS. My peer-facilitator was getting ready to graduate and could no longer participate. This time, I was assigned a co-facilitator, Christina McIntyre, a Virginia Tech faculty member. Although I collaborated with faculty in the role of College Librarian, this setting was quite foreign and I was nervous. However, Christina proved to be a great partner in the classroom; and in time, she would become my friend.
This section of PS was quite small. Out of ten students, three would successfully complete the program. We found out quickly that the big challenge would be to get them to talk. These students were very quiet and would only speak when spoken to, adding nothing more than necessary. We attempted to use active learning exercises, to no avail. These students were interested in their success and the program, but not in active participation. They seemed to want to rely on a lecture-type forum. It was difficult to avoid taking this personally; it distressed us both. My co-facilitator and I were concerned that perhaps our partnership was not working for the group. Using the reflective journals as a tool for solving our problem, we realized that this was a personality issue and not a teaching issue. The students were happy and doing better in their classes. They liked PS, and we were making a difference after all.
In the spring of 2003, Christina and I took on another section together; we're still beaming with satisfaction and joy over this semes- ter's group. Incorporating similar strategies and implementing others, we found great success with our students.
This group started with fourteen students; ten of them successfully completed the program. They were very motivated and devoted to the PS program. Several students in this group have been asked to become peer-facilitators in the future (as long as their grades are up to par). This upbeat group has much to offer others on campus.
The routine in spring 2003 incorporated all the components of other semesters. A few changes included more guidance on journal topics, more activities that involved group participation and sharing, and more accountability through goal-setting and attendance demands. Several students met with each of us outside our weekly group to discuss issues (including some unrelated to PS). They were eager and kept us on task.
The fall 2003 semester has been the most rewarding and successful thus far. The group contained all males, a female peer-facilitator, and my co-facilitator and I. Initially, we were concerned about the interaction between males and females, but in the end, the overall dynamic and experience were fantastic.
This group had the same issues as in semesters past, but they were ready and willing to take responsibility for their actions. This lively pool of undergraduates took charge of the meeting and actively pursued solutions for each other. They were a cohesive unit.
The only true problem this semester was with the peer-facilitator. She seemed to still need support as a participator in the program rather than a leader. Throughout the semester, her interactions were impulsive and immature. The intent was there, but the overall situation was not ideal. Fortunately, the students in the group dealt with it well, and their progress did not suffer.
The more we interact
with the university
community, the more
respect as professionals
we will earn….
I plan to continue working with Christina McIntyre. We feel we have a great relationship and are getting better at helping students each semester. The dynamic has become a superior and leading force for our students.
Thoughts, Reflections, and the Future
To date, I have participated in four semesters of PS. Each was a very different experience. The dynamics of each group varied greatly, and although my motivation and goals have remained the same, my technique has improved with each semester. I have learned not to lecture, but to discuss issues. I can offer the tools, but the PS group as a whole is the key to learning and success.
Team teaching always presents challenges. Peer- and co-facilitator relationships have crucial differences that necessitate special skills and techniques to develop a cooperative and positive union. Communication and compromise are the keys to these important relationships.
Librarians have much to offer beyond the confines of our traditional responsibilities. We are essential members of the academy and thus need to branch out into other areas affecting the educational needs of students. The more we interact with the university community, the more respect as professionals we will earn, the more impact on student's lives we will make, and the better librarians and teachers we will be.
To date, two Virginia Tech College Librarians facilitate a section of Project Success each semester. With luck, more librarians will find the time and join us, and librarians at other institutions will seek out similar opportunities. The realization of our potential impact as educators in this unique venue has made it a vital activity in my career. I have no plans to discontinue facilitating in Project Success. I foresee this as an activity that I will enjoy and participate in well into the future.
Michelle L. Young is a College Librarian at Virginia Tech. She also serves as a board member for the Virginia Chapter of the Special Libraries Association, where she oversees the website and listserv. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.