An Interview with Dr. Pat Maher
Dr. Patricia A. Maher is Director of Student Learning Services at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, Florida. Dr. Maher holds a Ph.D in Adult Education with a minor in educational research. Her career in education has spanned more than 30 years and has included classroom teaching, educational consulting, school administration, research, and university instruction. The common theme that has unified her professional career has been the search for ways to enhance the teaching/learning process through a better understanding of human learning. We asked her how she has brought her unique expertise to bear on the problem of student retention on the college level, and how Let Me Learn principles and practices can apply to it.
Even in rough economic times, colleges and universities continue to attract large numbers of applicants. But many students do not remain at their institution through graduation. What are some of the reasons for this?
Dr. Pat Maher: There are many variables that impact student success in college. In my experience, it seems that students who are in jeopardy early in the process seem to lack the developmental maturity needed to take full responsibility for learning and other critical decisions related to life choices. This issue is often at the center of difficulty for those students who fail quickly in the first and second semesters. Many students who come through our program are still blaming their situation on their professors and what they see as unfair expectations, rather than accepting responsibility for their lack of success and asking what they can do to make a difference.
How have educational institutions traditionally approached the issue of retention? How well has it worked?
Maher: First Year Experience and Learning Communities are two of the most prevalent approaches. Particularly during the past 15 years these programs have evolved and improved far beyond simply teaching study skills, time management, and financial responsibility. The most recent developments in such programs have included paired classes and cohorts of students with similar interests living and learning together (living learning communities). Overall, the focus is on involvement, engagement, and direct support, helping students to form a close, connected bond to the institution.
You mentioned academic factors that affect retention. What role can a Let Me Learn approach play in helping students overcome those challenges?
Maher: Over the past five years the LML process has been integrated into our learning support courses and utilized with several cohort groups ranging from first-year students to medical students and including groups of professional staff members. Since it offers a complete advanced learning system that enables students to develop intentional learning strategies, it is a valuable tool to empower students to be more self-reliant and confident. Early in the process we conducted a study with our students over the course of several semesters seeking to assess the impact of the process on them. The results, which were presented nationally and internationally, indicated improvements in students’ ability to articulate their own learning preferences, an increase in the students’ sense of responsibly and autonomy as college-level learners, and improvement in overall academic success.
And there have been many, many individual cases that I am aware of in which a student’s awareness of his or her Learning Patterns affected his or her academic success. One nursing student, for example, used Sequence first to a strong degree. She discovered that she needed to have access to a more sequentially organized presentation of course material. Because she and the professor had LML language in common, she was able to share her concerns with the professor. The professor provided the actual Power Point outlines of her lectures to this student, making the course content more accessible to her.
You also mentioned social and institutional factors that have impact on retention. Studies show that students are more likely to remain enrolled if they feel a sense of belonging within the institutional community. Have you found this to be the case?
Maher: Yes, and to that end USF continues to enhance areas that can help students feel more connected to a wide array of activities, including many leadership and service opportunities on campus, in the surrounding communities, and globally.
The sense of belongingness begins with the process itself, as it sends a message that the institution cares about its students. The institution demonstrates this by providing students with the opportunity to learn about themselves as learners and to become empowered with a learning toolkit. It makes available to them opportunities to develop advanced levels of learning and the skills necessary for successful lifelong learning.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that being aware of how one learns and how others learn can help us to understand one another better. Can LML therefore help students communicate more effectively, outside the classroom as well as in it?
Maher: Absolutely. LML is a system that provides students with a vocabulary to understand and discuss the way in which their mind processes and responds to learning challenges. In a group setting, that same vocabulary can then be applied as a tool for more effective collaboration and reduced conflict that may arise as a result of not understanding one another’s natural tendencies.
What role can awareness of Let Me Learn play among the faculty and administration in terms of retention strategies?
Maher: First, as students become more proficient, more confident, more motivated, institutional retention improves, because students are taking charge of their learning success. This leads to faculty interacting with students who are becoming more intentionally engaged in the learning process, rather than simply trying to pass classes. Further, when faculty members engage in the process of deepening their understanding of learning, the way they design their instruction and the relationship with their student-learners change. I know there are research studies that have identified this effect. Here at USF, anecdotally I have heard from several of our faculty in the College of Medicine that they have become more aware of the different ways students might represent their knowledge that in the past they might have overlooked or misunderstood.
How have you used Let Me Learn principles and practices as director of Student Services?
Maher: In our courses and in one-to-one settings the process has been very successful with our students. Beyond that, the instructors in my department have found that the LML framework has become an invaluable tool for us as a professional team. We use the language in our daily work and communication and, most important, it permeates our own professional strategic approach individually and as a team.
For example, I use both Sequence and Precision in the low use-as-needed range, and both the Technical and Confluent Patterns well into the use-first range. Fortunately, my graduate assistant is a strong-willed learner with Sequence, Precision and Technical in the lead. In some situations this might frustrate her, but instead we are able to make the best use of one another’s Patterns, so that instead of conflict and frustration we have synergy and respect for what each of us brings to the department.
Another example is that my teaching faculty tend to be highly Precise and Sequential (typical educator profiles). Here again, without understanding each other the conflict in our patterns might become problematic. But instead we have become very comfortable utilizing the best of each of us and supporting one another in the areas that might be needed. One of my staff, who is very highly precise and an extraordinary writer, is our resident editor, a role she truly enjoys and one that I desperately need! On the other hand, she happily leaves the big picture thinking and problem solving related to administrative issues to me. But in decision-making, I often ask her to help me think through the details that I might have overlooked.
What future uses do you see for Let Me Learn at the Learning Center of the University of South Florida?
Maher: Our first year experience course is very large — about 70 sections in the fall, each with approximately 25 students. Our format for this course was originally designed as an extension of our former orientation program, so the primary focus was on community building, engagement, and belongingness. I see the potential for the LML process to be embedded in this process both as a self-awareness tool and as a toolkit for becoming increasingly self-directed as a learner.