INTRODUCTION: I am an Extended Opportunity Program & Services (E.O.P.S.) counselor at a California community college where I’ve been working for 12 years. E.O.P.S. is a program that serves students of low income and students whose educational backgrounds have kept them from achieving their educational goals. Most of our students are enrolled full-time (12 semester units). When a student completes fewer than 6 units and/or has less than a 2.0 Grade Point Average at the end of a semester, we determine that student to be on academic probation, and we generally have about a third of our E.O.P.S. students on probation in any semester. In order to comply with our E.O.P.S. motto of “above and beyond,” we are always looking for ways to help our students on probation. Students on probation meet with a counselor and discuss the problem. We then assign them to our E.O.P.S. Academic Assistance area where they commit to three hours of mandatory study time per week for the entire semester. During this study time, they can receive tutoring, attend study skills workshops, do research on the computer, or just study on their own.
Although this requirement seems to help some students, we were looking for a way to get students to focus on what happened that got them on probation and then what they can do differently this semester so it does not happen again. One of our E.O.P.S. counselors, fresh from an On Course I Workshop, created a Contract for Academic Success. This contract helps students take responsibility for their past choices and learn better self-management skills for future success. It could easily be modified and used in any academic class, any study skills or counseling class, or any other situation in which a student needs to identify ways of improving behaviors. Most of our students need much help in identifying how they can do things differently in order to achieve success. Therefore, I recommend a minimum of 30 minutes to do this exercise in a one-on-one session.
- To have students identify the part they played in getting on probation
- To help students develop a plan of action to ensure a more successful semester
- To assist students to accept increased personal responsibility and improve their self-management skills
- Academic Success Contract (appended below)
1. Since you didn’t do well academically last semester and are now on probation, I’m going to help you complete a Contract for Academic Success. This contract will help you identify the choices you made that contributed to your now being on probation. It will also help you identify what you can do differently this semester to achieve greater academic success. (Have the student fill out Part A of the contract.) (5 minutes)
2. Part B asks why you didn’t achieve a minimum 2.0 with at least 6 units. What happened last semester that caused you to do poorly in your classes? (If the student claims he doesn’t know what went wrong the previous semester, explain how important it is to figure it out. Explain that if it isn’t clear what didn’t work before, there is no way he can figure out how to do better. Listen to the student’s story of “what went wrong.” Then discuss what role the student played in not achieving success. Explore the situation at length before the student even writes anything down. This step is where the counselor can get involved to help clarify exactly what happened and what role/responsibility the student had in creating his poor outcomes. For example, a student explains that he did poorly because he didn’t have enough time after his boss increased his hours from 20 to 40 per week. The student explains that it is the boss’s fault that he did not have time to study. At this point, the counselor can help the student see other possible choices –- talking to the boss, changing jobs, or talking to a counselor about possibly dropping classes. To do nothing but accept the boss’s decision is a choice. By accepting the new work schedule and doing nothing about his classes means the student is responsible for the consequences. What follows is a frank discussion about the student’s priorities. For example, is working 40 hours per week more important than attending school full time? Assist the student to understand how his behaviors today are affecting his goals/dreams of tomorrow.) (10-15 minutes)
3. Move on to Part C and help the student identify long-term goals related to a motivating career; then help the student set short-term goals for credits completed and G.P.A. earned this semester. (5 minutes)
4. Now it’s time for you to come up with new behaviors that will help you reach your short-term goal of credits completed and G.P.A. achieved. (In Section D, help the student record specific behaviors, moving from an abstract statement such as “I’ll study more…” to a concrete action such as “I’ll find 24 hours weekly for studying and block them off on my calendar.” Add the student’s choices to the contract.) (10 minutes)
5. Have the student sign the contract and agree to return in four weeks to follow up on the commitment. Our contract is printed on multiple-sheet N.C.R. paper and a copy of the contract is given to the student and one is retained in our counseling offices. Lacking N.C.R. paper, you could simply make a copy of the contract. (5 minutes)
6. During the follow-up meeting four weeks later, produce a copy of the contract and go over what the student committed to and how well he is keeping the commitment. If necessary, renegotiate the contract. (10-15 minutes)
Approximate time: First Meeting: 35-40 minutes. Second Meeting: 10-15 minutes
Students with whom I used this contract seem to struggle most with being specific in their commitment to actions. Common answers like “I’ll study more,” “I’ll get more babysitting,” and “I’ll work fewer hours” needed to be converted into doable, small, observable actions (“three-foot tosses,” to use On Course terminology). I told them we’d need to determine (when we met again in four weeks) if they had actually done the actions they’d committed to. That’s why their choices needed to be specific and measurable actions. Unfortunately, in that follow-up meeting, I discovered that many students had not complied with the contract they had made. But what happened then was an honest dialogue about how much studying was really going on, and why the student had chosen not to comply with the contract. Even though most students did not do exactly what they’d committed to, when I asked them what they thought of the contract, they always responded favorably. They liked examining their study habits, solving problems, and looking at campus resources. I think they saw me as someone interested in helping them do better, and they saw the two of us as a team struggling to come up with helpful interventions. I think it is naïve to think that one success contract by itself is going to make a huge difference in a student’s academic outcomes. But what I do think it accomplishes is an opportunity for students to take an honest look at their behaviors, especially those that are contributing to poor academic achievement. By doing so, we’re chiseling away at the student’s habitual belief that he is not in control of or responsible for his actions and their outcomes.
As an illustration of the process, one student was not studying enough for her math course because she had a 2-year-old daughter at home. We came up with four more study hours during the week by having her take her daughter to her mother’s house from 12-2 pm twice a week and then going to the nearby city library to study. When she came back 4 weeks later, she said going to the library was working out great. I have found that to get meaningful interventions, I have to ask the students many questions. In the example above, when I first asked when and how she was going to study more for her math, she said she would study every night for 3 hours after her child was asleep. I knew that by that time of night she would be exhausted and facing plenty of other distractions (laundry, cleaning, sleep). I believe my role is to ask specific questions to help her come up with something realistic. Such questions could be, “Where would the ideal studying place be for you? Who currently helps you take care of your child? Is there anyone else you feel comfortable leaving her with? How many more study hours per week do you need for your math?”
The purpose of this contract is to help students clearly identify how their past choices got them on probation, help them develop a plan to ensure a better semester, and to assist them in increasing their personal responsibility and improving self-management skills. The contract achieves these 3 purposes and is therefore a great tool for educators to zero in on what happened in a student’s life and what needs to occur to improve that student’s chance for success. The E.O.P.S. counselors did not do this contract with everybody on probation, so some research was done after the first semester we implemented this contract to compare the two groups, and here are some of the results:
213 = Students on academic probation in the Spring, 2001, semester
99 = Students with success contracts (47 attended follow-up meeting)
114 = Students without success contracts
57.5% = Percent of students WITH CONTRACTS got off probation in Fall, 2001, semester
38.0% = Percent of students WITHOUT CONTRACTS got off probation in Fall, 2001, semester
In short, students WITH CONTRACTS got off probation at a rate nearly 20% higher than students WITHOUT CONTRACTS.
I learned how much energy it takes to get students to focus on the real issues of their life and what role they, themselves, play in creating their outcomes and experiences. I have to participate actively in this process because the students will usually take the “easy way out” and write down vague ways of improving their performance. The more vague we are, the less accountable we are for our actions or lack of them. When I tell myself I need to lose weight, if I don’t say specifically how the pounds are going to come off, I disguise my unsuccessful outcomes behind the vagueness. I will definitely use contracts again with most probation students, and I recommend this strategy for anyone working with probation students or any students not living up to their potential. I like uncovering truths behind why students are failing, and I think, done right, the contract process forces us to ask the hard questions to get at that truth. The real reasons I see are myriad and buried deep. They stem from low self-esteem, poor self-discipline, immediate gratification, disabilities, family problems, and lack of goal/direction, among others. Some of our students are so low skilled that I get frustrated at how slow the whole process can be. I have to fight my urge to take the pen from the student and do the planning and writing for them. However, when I finish having the student create his own contract, I have a justifiable expectation that the student will employ these strategies and become a more successful student.
SOURCE: Contract for Success created by Katie O’Brien, E.O.P.S. counselor at Rio Hondo College.
Contract for Academic Success
A. Student Name____________________________ Student Number_____________________
Last semester, I completed ______ units with a _______ G.P.A., giving me an overall G.P.A. of ______.
B. I did not achieve a minimum 2.0 with at least 6 units for the following reasons:
C. My long-term goal is ____________________________________________________________________.
This semester my short-term goals are to finish _____ credits with a ______ G.P.A. this semester,
D. To achieve my goals, II commit to taking the following actions this semester:
I further commit to returning to see my EOPS Counselor with a copy of this contract in no more than 4 weeks time to discuss my progress this semester. I understand that, if I choose not to fulfill this contract, I will greatly reduce my chances for success.
Student Signature___________________________ Date_________________
Counselor Signature_________________________ Date_________________
Student Phone Number_______________________
Follow-Up Appointment______________________ Date_________________
–Yvette Garcia, Counselor, Rio Hondo College, CA