Guest Post

Guest Post, Tina Tao: Microaffirmations and Kudos

I am excited to introduce a guest post by Tina Tao, Coordinator of Retention and Academic Support. If you are interested in writing a guest post for the blog, please find more information about CITA’s scholarship of teaching grant here.

Microaffirmations and Kudos: Small things that can have huge impacts on student success and retention

Tina Tao

When thinking about how to make St. Lawrence a better place to study and work, I frequently come back to student retention. That’s probably related to the fact that “retention” is part of my job title. Our university provides incredible opportunities – students can engage in their own research projects, study in one of our 30+ off-campus programs, or tap into our nationally-ranked alumni network and earn a coveted internship with an internationally-known company. Despite these amazing possibilities, I’ve seen some brilliant students leave St. Lawrence. In particular, I worry about retaining our academically high-achieving students, especially first-years. These are students who had 3.8-4.0 GPAs and valued their academics but struggled with a few things including our location and a lack of social connections or non-party (e.g. drinking) events. 

While I recognize that we can’t move our campus 100 miles south nor require students to offer parties with no alcohol, there have been two things that we in the Advising office have done to help our retention of students:

  • Upward-trajectory notes. My colleagues and I have sent letters to students who have shown improvement over the last two semesters by raising their semester GPAs by at least a quarter-point each time. While this is just one measure of intellectual engagement, it’s a significant one that they should be proud of. 
  • “You Crushed It” events with FY students. For the past four spring semesters, we invited first-year students who earned a 3.75 GPA or higher in their first fall semester to learn about different on-campus opportunities but also, more importantly, to socialize and get to meet other students who have succeeded academically. This event has been co-hosted with the FYP, Sophomore Success Initiative, and Center for Career Excellence. We had nearly 90 students (out of 115 invitees) come to our event this February and also plan a similar event for current sophomores in March.

Aside from writing notes or hosting a big bash, what are things that faculty can do to help retain students that require very little additional time or effort? I offer two recommendations that we can do to help our students feel valued and recognize them, in hopes of them seeing the future they can have as St. Lawrence students.

First are microaffirmations, which are small subtle social cues or acts that let the recipient know they are valued and welcomed into a community. In late 2020, I attended a virtual talk by Dr. Mica Estrada from UCSF. Estrada focuses on the use of microaffirmations as a strategy to improve the diversity within STEM fields, but microaffirmations have a place everywhere. An example of a microaffirmation is engaging in a conversation as an active listener, paying attention to what is being shared and following up with questions to further your understanding of the situation. People can get caught up with their own thoughts or their response to a discussion and distract themselves from listening to the current speaker. Other examples of microaffirmations include recognizing and validating the experiences of other people, calling on students by their preferred name/pronouns, and amplifying or reinforcing students’ contributions in class.

Secondly, one can use kudos in Starfish to praise a student, whether it is for something they did in the classroom or outside of academics. Recently, an advisee who had been struggling with her confidence before an exam came to see me for advice. She stopped by after her exam to say that her proactiveness to seek advice and reassurance kept her from freezing up during the test. I sent her kudos to share my excitement over her new-found self-esteem, as well as to further the encouragement I had given to her earlier. Starfish kudos are set up to share the student’s commendation with others who are connected with the student in the system (e.g. advisor, coach). These folks can also commend the student for their excellence. 

We often spend a lot of time reaching out and supporting students who are struggling in our classes and who need additional assistance to help them succeed. This may lead us to forget to recognize those who are excelling or showing progress in our courses. Including microaffirmations in your classroom and using Starfish kudos not only help improve our students’ sense of belonging and purpose here on campus, but it also helps us remember the joys of teaching while deepening our sense of belonging and purpose at SLU.