Educating the Whole Student: Personal Dispositions and Student Success

Steven Volk, April 5, 2015

In late January, nearly 90 faculty and staff gathered to begin a discussion about curricular priorities and whether we could be more articulate and intentional in guiding our students toward the learning objectives we feel are essential for their education. In one of the activities of that mid-winter workshop we asked participants to reflect on what things were critical for “success” at Oberlin. We designed the exercise to be an open one, neither defining “success” nor indicating whether the “success” we referenced was theirs (i.e., what did faculty or staff need to do to encourage student success) or their students (what are the factors that determined student success, or, in their absence, prevented it). Participants jotted down their ideas, shared them with others at their tables, and finally transferred them to sticky notes which were placed on large sheets located around the meeting room.


Monica Brown, Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People

We collected them after the meeting and quickly discovered that almost uniformly, participants commented on those factors which they felt defined student success, not their own. So we began to map the comments to common learning outcomes: knowledge and intellectual skills, broad and integrative knowledge, engaging diverse perspectives, creating civic capacity, applied and collaborative engagement, creativity, and personal growth and reflection. Not surprisingly, many participants saw as indicators of success the students’ ability to recognize competing epistemologies, ask really hard questions, revise work, navigate their way through new materials, understand from multiple perspectives, transfer and apply skills, focus on process, make connections and synthesize.

But, by far – outpacing the category for intellectual skills and knowledge by more than 2 to 1, were indicators of personal growth and reflection. These behaviors and dispositions were seen to be critical to students’ success, or in their absence, causal factors underlying their inability to succeed.

So what are they? I have clustered many of them into broader categories, although, as you will note, many of them could be placed in more than one category. Many of these appeared multiple times.


Kat N.L.M., “I Can” Flickr-CC

Resilience: confidence, ability/willingness to take risks, willing to “make a mess,” letting go of fear of not knowing, overcoming insecurity;

Enthusiasm: emotional involvement, taking pleasure/joy in learning, personal      engagement, finding one’s passion;

Ownership of learning: self-guided learning, active participation in learning, awareness of learning process, identifying what one needs in order to learn, making learning visible, total investment in learning, clarity about what is possible, self-learning, initiative, taking ownership over material, and finally: success is when teachers make themselves superfluous;

Reflection: ability to reflect critically, knowing what one knows and doesn’t know, recognizing “light-bulb” moments;

Maturity: taking/gaining responsibility, independence, finding one’s own voice, being OK with being uncomfortable, humility, integrity.

When we step back and look at these indicators generated by the faculty and staff, we find that we have listed the characteristics which in many ways define not just what we think of as an Oberlin education but what is at the basis of a liberal arts education. This is what we want our students not just to have when they graduate, but to be: resilient, enthusiastic, reflective, mature, lifelong and independent learners. Significantly, the education we want for our students (the education we would want all students, everywhere, to receive even as we know that they don’t) goes beyond content mastery and skills development to include essential dispositions which significant research has found to be the best predictors of later success in life.

None of this diminishes our critical orientation to increasing students’ knowledge and intellectual skills (critical thinking and analysis, quantitative reasoning, communication skills, etc.). Nor should we ignore our important role in helping students develop their capacities as prosocial actors in the world (making connections, working collaboratively, understanding the world from multiple perspectives, seeing oneself as an engaged participant in a broader society, reasoning ethically and morally, etc.). But the dispositions disclosed at the workshop speak more broadly to the ways that we should be helping our students flourish and find their purpose in life.

Dean Baquet, the Executive Editor of the New York Times who gave a masterful, thoughtful and compelling talk on campus last week, advised students to pursue the passions they have discovered at college into their later careers, and there is much to say for that approach. But we might better (or also) be thinking of helping students find their sense of purpose, what one group of researchers defines as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and is of consequence to the world beyond the self” [William Damon, Jenni Menon and Kendall Cotton Bronk, “The Development of Purpose during Adolescence,” Applied Developmental Science 7:3 (2003): 119-128]. Purpose speaks to the students’ sense of self-efficacy, an understanding of who they are, what skills they have (or lack), and the point at which their skills and abilities meet the world’s needs.


Seth Sawyers, “Purpose,” Flickr-CC

When we write syllabi for our courses, we are reasonably sure that we can help students get at the content we want them to come away with, and we scaffold in the thinking and reasoning skills that are an important part of the course. But how do we get at the dispositions that seem so central to our students’ future success?

Certainly, there are ways we can more intentionally plan to help our students develop a sense of resiliency (taking risks, “making a mess”), find their joy in learning, and reflect and grow. But if these dispositions provide the foundation for a holistic education, then their development becomes the responsibility of the entire campus community. And that takes us from the question of how we deliberately integrate such outcomes into our individual syllabi to the challenge of how we develop a capacity for broad and holistic mentoring.

Mentoring the Whole Student

Sharon Daloz Parks is Principal of “Leadership for the New Commons” and Senior Fellow at the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, WA. She holds a doctorate in divinity from Harvard University and has held faculty and senior research positions at Harvard’s Schools of Divinity, Business, and Government. She has written for some years on how to help young adults find meaning, purpose, and faith, which was the topic of one of her books, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith, rev. ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2011). In an interview in 2007, she described the challenges faced by young adults today, in particular the pervasiveness of technologies that, while contributing to heightened productivity and a greater connection to the global community, can also lead to an increased sense of loneliness and isolation, a feeling of “being lost” in the human experience; the economic realities of working in a “brittle economy” where young people are burdened with a huge educational debt, commodified, exploited by consumerism, and encouraged to focus more on their resumes than on their ability to “discern and claim a worthy dream;” and by what it means to live in an “increasingly religiously variegated world,” where one may find a community of practice that offers belonging and support but does not invite critical inquiry or staying power over time, thus creating vulnerabilities to various fundamentalisms. (For a powerful spoken word poem by a high school student which addresses many of these concerns, click here.)

I found her discussion of the development of mentoring communities highly useful when we think of how to provide students with the dispositions we think are essential for helping students face these challenges and develop the kinds of dispositions that we have identified as critical to their success. Here are some relevant parts of her interview.


As we think about creating the kind of intentional support for the development of the personal dispositions that are essential for our students’ future success, we should think about how we build broad mentoring communities that can engage this task.

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