By LTC Joel Dykstra, Associate Dean, Humanities
“Those who successfully complete our program, leave us with more than diplomas and credentials.”
As an associate dean, I have the opportunity to meet parents and RATs as they arrive at the Institute for the first time at matriculation. I also have the privilege of handing out academic awards and attending both graduation ceremonies at the end of the year. I am always impressed by the transformation I see in our cadets between the time they are enthusiastic but anxious RATs and when they march across the stage proud and accomplished two, four, or six years later at the end of their time at the Institute. Some of the keys to success at the Institute and the many stops on cadets’ journeys after they complete their time at NMMI are the life skills and habits that they learn while they are here, such as time management, reading, effective communication, and interpersonal skills. Those who successfully complete our program, leave us with more than diplomas and credentials. The tools that made them successful as cadets can be carried with them as they embark on an adventure of lifelong learning.
In the fall of 2014, under the guidance of Dean Murray, the Institute joined a Student Persistence and Completion Academy that was being offered by the Higher Learning Commission, our college regional accrediting agency. The goal of the academy was to give member schools the opportunity to examine their data on student persistence and completion and to begin to develop programs to increase the success rates of students in this area. Fall 2018 marks the end of our participation in this academy. Over the course of four years, we have improved our ability to collect and analyze data related to student persistence and completion. One of the things that we discovered along the way was that some cadets encounter obstacles in the academic part of their NMMI experience because they have not fully developed their habits and skills that can lead to success. One of the first projects we completed was an Early Warning System that allows staff and faculty members to report red, green, and blue flags based on what they observe with students. The goal of this system is to identify concerns early, while there is still time to intervene. The system also allows us to identify students who are doing well so that we can congratulate them on their success. Thanks to the efforts of our Registrar, MAJ Chris Wright, parents are now able to receive weekly reports with a variety of data related to their cadets’ success, including data derived from the Early Warning System.
As NMMI completes its time in the Student Persistence and Completion Academy, the plan is to continue our efforts by broadening the focus to include all types of student success. Fall 2018 has seen the introduction of two exciting new programs designed to enhance student success by introducing students to the habits that lead to success and giving them an environment to practice and develop these skills as they begin their time at the Institute.
The first of these programs is the revamped Academic Academy. NMMI has a long tradition of offering a slate of mini-sessions before the start of the school year that focus on important skills and habits. This year, for the first time, we were granted the opportunity to have a full day of sessions on the Friday before classes began. The objective was to provide RATs with one full day to acclimate them to the academic portion of their experiences at the Institute after a week of training in the military aspects of the Institute. We also wanted to present some important skills and habits for success that the students could begin to practice and carry with them. The Academy ran as a regular school day. Cadets attended classes with 10-15 cadets from their class level which were led by staff and faculty members. The topics were: Academic Integrity, Technology, Time Management, Classroom Habits, Reading, and Note Taking. The day ended with a scavenger hunt that allowed students to visit a variety of locations on campus that provide academic support. In each of the sessions, the focus was on introducing and practicing skills. The Academy had a hands-on, active learning feel. Most of the cadets and teachers reported that the day was a success and that it provided a nice transition to the first day of classes. During the first week, some teachers reported an increased use in daily planners and other habits that were introduced during the academy.
The second program is Guided Night Study Hall. During our time in the Student Persistence and Completion Academy, we discovered that one of the largest obstacles to success, especially among our high school students, was low grades. We also discovered that many of the low grades were a result of poor habits, specifically, the failure to turn in homework, or complete assigned readings. Some students found it difficult to develop and practice these habits while also dealing with the demanding schedule that comes along with the military learning model at a school like NMMI. One of the offshoots of the Academic Academy planning process was a proposal to give some of our newest and most vulnerable students an opportunity to develop these habits for success in a controlled environment. The administration enthusiastically supported our proposal with the resources we needed to get started. The plan was to enroll all high school freshmen and sophomore RATs in sections of Guided Night Study Hall for the first four weeks of the semester. These sections would have no more than ten cadets, would be monitored by staff or faculty, and would have ground rules such as the need to maintain a quiet working environment for students. Because these were treated as courses on a cadet’s schedule, the monitors had access to the Attendance System and the Early Warning System. The intended outcome for this experience was less missing homework assignments and higher grades at midterm.
The Guided Night Study Hall began on the first night of the semester. After an initial period of adjustment on the first night, the cadets quickly settled into a pattern of studying and completing their homework. Because there are few distractions in the classrooms where the sessions are held, most cadets have managed to complete their work in less time than they usually take when working in their rooms. Early results suggest a lower level of red flags for missing homework than at the same time last year. Several members of the administration and the Commandant’s staff have had an opportunity to visit the night study hall sessions and observe the students. Most of them report being impressed by the work that they see happening among the cadets. Many of the cadets have had a positive view of the experience and have said that it has helped them focus on their work. Our hope is that the habits that they have begun to practice during this experience can be further developed during the rest of the semester.
The planning committee for the Academic Academy and Guided Night Study Hall consisted of LTC Kalith Smith, LTC Philip Baca, LTC Patricia Matchin, and MAJ Cydni Vandiver. The entire faculty and some staff members participated in the Academic Academy as teachers. The Toles Learning Center handled the logistics of the Guided Night Study Hall, and MAJ Desi Aguilar was the on-site director of the program. The mentors for the Guided Night Study Hall included some faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the local community.
The administration, faculty, TLAs, and staff members are optimistic that these programs will lead to immediate success for the students who were involved in them and that they can be part of the culture of success that the Institute strives to uphold. I look forward to seeing these cadets turn their experiences in the Academic Academy and the Guided Night Study Hall into the first step of a journey at the Institute that will end with them receiving academic awards and diplomas at graduation two, three, four, or maybe even six years from now.