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Jon Steingass and Seth Sykes, Virginia Commonwealth University

Each year, tens of thousands of college students across the United States are placed on probation as a result of the low grades they earned during the previous term. Regardless of class standing, no students—freshmen through seniors—are immune to academic performance issues. Even the most academically talented students with impressive academic credentials often find themselves struggling for the first time when they enroll in college. Reasons for student academic difficulties are not impossible to address or remedy. However, colleges and universities struggle with developing and implementing effective programs to assist students on probation. In addition, advisors have experienced difficulty locating resources that adequately address the specific needs of this student population. So what can advisors do to overcome their own frustration at working with this challenging population while at the same time assisting students to achieve academic success?

Last year, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), a state-supported, urban research university enrolling over 29,000 graduate and undergraduate students, implemented a new approach to advising students on probation. This approach consists of a ten-week, one-credit course in which instructors (either individually or in small groups) help students to develop a successful MINDSET (defined as attitudes and habits) for attaining academic success. Each letter in the word MINDSET refers to a specific component needed for success in college. The MINDSET includes Motivation, Initiative, Navigation, Direction, Study skills, Expectations, and Time management. Effectively blending principles of cognitive, behavioral, social, and educational psychology in an easy to use format, advisors are able to speak directly to students and address their specific academic problems without being harsh or judgmental. All instructors follow the same curriculum, based on a textbook written by the authors of this article specifically for this population. The book is called, Soaring to Success: Modifying your MINDSET to Leave Academic Difficulty Behind.

This new approach to advising students on probation applies six helpful techniques.

Helpful technique #1: Self-assessment of ineffective attitudes and habits. All students in the course complete a MINDSET Inventory to help them determine to what extent they identify with seven major attitudes and habits that contribute to academic difficulties. They then identify and prioritize the attitudes and habits they need to change to become a successful student. The MINDSET Inventory provides a framework on which the remainder of the course is based.

Helpful technique #2: Concrete examples of effective attitudes and habits. Over 100 concrete strategies are introduced as students begin to develop new mental attitudes and habits to replace former ineffective ones. Students identify at least two or three of the strategies in each MINDSET component and learn how to incorporate them in their daily lives. Each strategy is based on proven techniques that other students on academic probation have adopted to successfully return to good academic standing.

Helpful technique #3: Self-reflection. Self-reflection exercises are designed to enhance students’ awareness of and skill at identifying their own strengths and weaknesses as learners and to develop remedies for their own learning difficulties. Each session includes Points to Ponder exercises, which require students to reflect on current attitudes and habits that contributed to their academic difficulty. After introducing concrete effective strategies, students reflect by focusing their attention on incorporating new ways of thinking and behaving. This results in students making short-term changes that lead to long-term improvements in their learning, as indicated by achieving greater academic success.

Helpful technique #4: Change contracts. The instructors of the course clearly state that students can and must change in order to return to good academic standing and successfully achieve their educational goals. Along with providing the tools needed to change by introducing concrete strategies, the course requires students to commit to adopting new attitudes and habits by signing “Committing to Change” contracts at the end of each session. Students then have a record of their commitments and can revisit their progress on fulfilling their commitments on a regular basis.

Helpful technique #5: Self-evaluation and monitoring. Instructors also teach students how to continually evaluate their overall academic performance for the term. Students learn how to use feedback from multiple sources to determine which strategies are effective, adjust strategies that they are not fully maximizing, and discard those that are not working. Throughout the course, instructors encourage students to evaluate their current progress and make honest assessments of whether they can salvage or withdraw from classes in which they are struggling.

Helpful technique #6: Flexible format. The textbook for the course is set up in such a way that it can be used within a classroom setting or in individual advising sessions. Readers may work on each component of the MINDSET in a linear sequence beginning with motivation and concluding with time. They also have the option of individualizing the book by prioritizing the order that they address each component of their MINDSET according to their greatest needs, as identified in the MINDSET Inventory. Either strategy will address all parts of the MINDSET, even if students consider themselves not to have problems in one or more of the components.

Students and instructors express appreciation for the structure that this course provides. Almost 50% of the students taking this course in 2005 were able to achieve a semester GPA of 2.0 or higher compared to only 32% who did not take the course. In addition, the first-year retention rate of students who took the course was 72% compared to 59% for students who did not take the course. We are confident that we will see even better results for the second year that we teach this course.

Jon Steingass
Virginia Commonwealth University
[email protected]

Seth Sykes
Virginia Commonwealth University
[email protected]


Higgins, E. M. (2003). Advising students on probation. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources at http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Clearinghouse/AdvisingIssues/probation.htm.

Steingass, J. & Sykes, S. (2006). Soaring to Success: Modifying your MINDSET to Leave Academic Difficulty Behind. New York: Thomson.

Cite this article using APA style as: Steingass, J. & Sykes, S. (2006, June). Modifying your mindset: A new approach to advising students on probation. Academic Advising Today, 29(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2006 June 29:2


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.