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Four Questions For: Dr. David Conley 

By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President

Dr. David Conley is an expert in the field of college and career readiness, having written several books and numerous articles on the topic. Conley is a professor of Educational Policy and Leadership in the University of Oregon's College of Education. He is also the founder and director of the Center for Educational Policy Research (CEPR) at the University of Oregon and the president of EdImagine Strategy Group. These questions were excerpted from our radio interview with Conley. For the entire program, go to AVID College Ready Radio.

Conley will be a featured presenter at our 2014 AVID National Conference!

You have been a friend and advisor to AVID for many years. For those who might be less familiar with AVID, what is it about AVID that you see as being so powerful as an approach that gets more students ready for college?

There are a number of factors. One is that AVID lets students aspire to higher achievement. Student aspirations are very important and often overlooked. For a lot of students, they say they will go to college, but they are not doing what they need to be prepared for college. That is what AVID does—it influences that aspiration and actually gives them the writing and thinking skills and the concrete information they need to see the options that are open to them. AVID is a system that provides a place in school to develop skills necessary to be successful after high school, but also how to be successful in reaching their goals. Another real strength is that AVID has a very clear focus and is unapologetic about it.

Your latest book, released in October of 2013, explains in detail the “Four Keys” to college and career readiness. Can you briefly share some examples of each of these “Keys” and how students who master them are more ready for college and careers?

College readiness is more than content knowledge. Over the past 10 years, our team has been doing research and examining the content of entry-level college courses to see what it really takes to succeed in those courses. From this, some similarities started to emerge.

The first element that we found important in every instance is key cognitive strategies. These are the ability of students to gather data on a problem, determine which information is important, interpret the findings, and communicate in a variety of modes, and do this with precision and accuracy. The more ways students have to approach a complex problem, the more likely they are to succeed. More often in the world, you will be given a task to determine a problem, and then come up with a way to solve it. This cognitive model is for young people to get more experience at a more complex level to engage in processes that involve learning about the problems, reaching their own conclusions, and communicating in a variety of ways.

The second one is key content knowledge, which is identified in a lot of different ways in different places. We think that the Common Core is an example of a lot of knowledge and skills that are important to be ready for college. The specification of college-ready courses has been developed by most states, but the area that many don’t give as much attention to is students’ attitude toward the content they are learning. Students will think their achievement is based on aptitude. U.S. students and parents tend to believe aptitude-based explanations. If someone does something well, it is because they are already good at it, and if you didn’t do well, it is because you are not good at it. That type of attitude is very debilitating toward education because they believe there is nothing they can do about it, no matter the content, or they believe they can only be good in some content areas. However, if an effort-based attitude exists, this means you can explain your success or failure based on effort or lack of effort; the solution would be to exert more effort.

The third key is key learning skills and techniques, which is the way students will learn and process the material that is presented to them. Learning skills consist of the actual study skills themselves—things like time management, goal management, and so forth—and the ownership of learning. These are areas that we found to be incredibly important, under-developed, and under-measured.

The last is key transition knowledge and skills, which is what it takes to transition from high school to college. The U.S. has one of the most complex transition systems to go from high school to college in the world. There are so many things that can go wrong, and students need a lot of help to transition. Schools that address these keys will help more students get ready for college.

The Common Core State Standards and the new assessments to measure them are very much in the news. What should schools be doing to anticipate the Common Core and its assessments? How can programs like AVID help students get ready for the Common Core assessment?

Schools should not view the Common Core as a compliance exercise. It should not be broken down to pieces and assigned in isolation and measured that way. Test prep should be used cautiously, so educators should not view the assessments as the focal point of the entire curriculum. Common Core involves progression of learning that scans across the grade levels, so teachers will have to communicate and coordinate more. It also involves deeper thinking and deeper learning where students will produce more complex products and the incorporation of more coherence in the high school program, which is where AVID can play a huge role; students will have to make more connections between learning and what they aspire to do in the future. Students will not perform at higher levels unless it’s very clear to them and they understand how it affects them at a higher level, and AVID is a key part in that component of getting ready and succeeding in the Common Core.

You published a commentary piece in Education Week, titled Rethinking the Notion of ‘Noncognitive’. You noted that this term, noncognitive, is ‘awkward’ when used to distinguish student attitudes about learning from the content they are learning. I believe this is something you go into deeply in your book, but can you elaborate a bit now on why we need to move beyond this distinction?

I think the term ‘noncognitive’ holds us back when we consider students’ ability to manage their own learning, students’ motivation, and students’ engagement as noncognitive. I can’t imagine anything that is more cognitive. You have to engage in thinking to manage your learning, be proactive, and reflect on your learning. I suggest we change the terminology and measure these characteristics. Closing the achievement gap doesn’t just mean bettering students’ abilities in math and English, but also equipping students with stronger learning skills and techniques and the ability to reflect on one’s thinking, and this is important across all learning—not just in school, but across the workforce, as well.

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