September 23, 2016

McGrath, D., & Tobia, S. (2008). Organizational culture as a hidden resource. New Directions For Community Colleges, 2008 (144), 41-53.

In this chapter McGrath and Tobia (2008) review literature related to organizational culture, examine how culture can be used as a resource to help teachers and administrators better serve at-risk students, and offer specific recommendations to help colleges become more culturally sensitive through professional development. The research conducted by McGrath and Tobia (2008) is tied with the new equity agenda, and they have chosen to focus on community colleges because they see them as, “a border zone in which students must negotiate the transition between the values, beliefs, and practices of their home culture with that of the institution they are entering” (p.41). In general community colleges tend to have a higher percentage of at-risk students, including non-traditional, low income, first generation, and minority students, all of whom are more likely to feel excluded from the culture of a large, traditional four-year university.

Much of the research dealing with student success has been conducted quantitatively, and under that design students are seen as autonomous actors who must display certain characteristics, such as self-regulation and goal orientation, in order to succeed. According to this view, the student is the primary factor in determining their own success. McGrath and Tobia (2008) do not feel that this is an equitable model, and instead suggest that research must be gathered by qualitative methods, which they believe will result in richer descriptions and understanding. Their primary reason for advocating for qualitative methods is that such practices take the culture, background, and personal experiences of the individual student into consideration when determining success.

McGrath and Tobia (2008) note that, “students most at risk are least likely to become involved in the social and academic infrastructures of institutions” (p.42-43). When we consider this in light of the fact that the primary way in which many institutions attempt to “help” at-risk students is by creating resources and then hoping those students will take advantage of them, it not then surprising that so many at-risk students fail or drop out entirely. Based on this evidence and the other research they conducted, McGrath and Tobia (2008) assert that, “…what we do with students and how they experience those efforts have much more profound consequences than the resources we offer or the structures we create” (p.43). This statement reflects the heart of the organizational culture model and what appeals to me about it. Under this model students are encouraged through an emotional support network which helps them to feel validated and supported, which promotes enthusiasm for their studies and confidence in their abilities, and which ultimately leads to their success at the institution.

According to McGrath and Tobia (2008), the term “organizational culture” is defined as, “the invisible glue that holds an institution together by providing shared interpretations and understandings of events through socializing members into common patterns of perception, thought, and feeling” (p.43). Although frequently overlooked, organizational cultures are of the utmost importance because they are vital to the well-being, and ultimately the success of students. A well-developed organizational culture can help a student understand what is expected of them, what skills and resources they have available, and what they need to do to succeed. Most importantly, it can offer students the validation of knowing that they are welcome and have a right to be part of the campus community. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, McGrath and Tobia (2008), have found research that shows that, “college-related factors, such as the encouragement and support received in interactions with faculty and fellow students, are as important as precollegiate factors in determining their [student] retention and progress toward a degree (p.46-47). If an organizational culture can act as a great equalizer in this way, it is amazing that more colleges do not try to cultivate theirs.

Although the research and ideas presented in this chapter focus specifically on community colleges, I believe they could also be applied to larger four-year institutions, and even to individual classes. While I have an interest in and appreciation of organizational culture on a campus scale, I am more specifically interested in the ways organizational culture can be cultivated within individual classes. McGrath and Tobia (2008) highlight several concepts that are easily applied in an individual class setting. Some of them include: encouraging and paying attention to student questions, providing frequent feedback, asking students to voice their options, and creating opportunities for group interactions. These four things seem simple enough, but they are sadly not always practiced. That is a shame, because when done well, they can drastically improve student performance. Encouraging questions and answering them promptly can help students to feel supported. Providing regular and timely feedback allows students to gauge their progress and identify if they need help. Asking for student opinions validates their personal experience and expertise.  Group interactions give students the opportunity to exchange information, make connections with peers, and broaden their perspectives.

The research conducted by McGrath and Tobia (2008) focuses specifically on face-to-face learning scenarios, and it is arguably easiest to cultivate organizational culture in those environments. That does not mean these concepts cannot be translated to an online platform, although it may be more challenging. In an online class, where students are not forced into physical proximity with each other, the instructor becomes almost solely responsible for creating and nurturing the organizational culture. This is particularly true at the beginning. This can be difficult at times because a lot of work must go into maintaining it. For example, if you have twenty-three students and are trying to give some feedback on everything they turn in, it can quickly become time consuming. There is also the perhaps greater challenge of figuring out how to engage your students, especially those who are very busy with other things, who are not very comfortable with technology, or who are naturally reticent. I’m sure it can be done, but I don’t think there are any quick solutions. That said, I still feel that it is very important to cultivate and nurture organizational culture within the classroom, and this chapter by McGrath and Tobia (2008) has only helped to strengthen my resolve.

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