Key Strategies for Retaining Men

This week, the Washington Post highlighted the efforts many smaller colleges are making to add football programs as a strategy to recruit more men -- one of several strategies colleges are currently employing to enroll more men (other efforts include adding academic majors that commonly appeal to men). However, recruitment is only the first part of the solution -- colleges also need to address the growing gender gap in student retention.

We interviewed W. Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College, who recently facilitated an Academic Impressions workshop on the issue, to learn more about where colleges have opportunities to engage male underclassmen. Barnds directs attention to the research collected in Why Boys Fail by Richard Whitmire and Teaching the Male Brain by Abigail Norfleet James, and then offers the following tips for applying the findings to practical strategies an institution can undertake to improve retention of men.

Engage Men with Career-Oriented Experiences

"Take a step back. Adding sports to attract young men is a good step, but beyond that, are you asking the critical questions to learn if your academic environment and your academic support environment will help you keep them?"
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

Barnds recommends taking steps that connect the academic work of the first two years with more of a career-oriented focus:

  • Connect general education courses to career aspirations
  • Offer career-oriented experiences earlier
  • Offer or require work on campus
  • Ensure the presence of male role models in advising and mentoring

"Don't leave the career focus until senior year. Have advisers ready to discuss career planning with young men as early as possible. Then place more emphasis on how general education courses directly relate to their career aspirations. Young men want to know that the general education requirements are practical, applicable, and will move them forward toward their goals."
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

By being ready to discuss how specific general education courses will move students toward a degree and a desired career, you will be better able to motivate male students and engage them in the academic work of the freshman and sophomore year.

Secondly, Barnds recommends offering externship or internship opportunities earlier, even in the first year. "The first year need not be all developmental; give male students exposure to a career early in the process." You can also keep men engaged in the campus by increasing your opportunities for work on campus.

"Also, the research suggests male students are more likely to seek out academic assistance from their own gender. Do you have gender distribution and parity in your advising staff?"
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

"This is a hiring concern," Barnds notes, "and an important one." If providing academic advising and mentoring for male students is a priority, it will be crucial to offer those students the type of role models they are inclined to seek out.

Engage Men in the Classroom

"We know that men have different learning styles than women and that they come to college with a different level of preparation. So we can't just tackle the issue of retaining men by "improving the classroom environment." We have to ask the question: Do we want to improve the classroom environment in a way that encourages male learning? This is a delicate question, and difficult to ask or address, but it is a critical question."
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

Your center for teaching and learning can spearhead an effort to help faculty adapt their pedagogical methods to male learning styles or to achieve a gender balance of learning styles within the classroom. If improving the academic performance and persistence of your male students is a high priority for your institution, this may be a critical investment.

Barnds suggests these approaches:

  • Ensure lecture content is available visually, as more men are visual rather than auditory learners (provide lecture notes online; encourage students to record lectures and then transcribe later; encourage verbatim note-taking; teach outlining methods and graphic representation of important material or timelines)
  • Encourage more hands-on learning (through roleplay; through having students outline assigned reading and then review; through incentivizing interactive notebooks and note-keeping)
  • Include competitive activities in the classroom

Statistically, young men are engaged by competition, so finding opportunities to make learning activities competitive can be a significant move toward engaging men in groupwork and motivating their research and study outside of the classroom. "Also, don't be afraid to separate men and women into groups," Barnds notes. Experiment with dividing students into mixed-gender groups during some competitive learning activities, and into same-gender groups during other activities. Men may find themselves more engaged if they have both opportunities.

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