In Their Own Words: Defining Success in Undergraduate Human Service Students

Concurrent Session 1

Brief Abstract

The concept of what it means to be successful is complex and has largely omitted the personal narrative.  Results from a mixed methods study exploring how human service students define student success and what may help them to achieve it.

Sponsored By


Thalia MacMillan is an associate professor and department chair of human services at SUNY Empire State College. She received her Ph.D. in social work from Fordham University, specializing in policy and research. For the past 18 years she has worked in the fields of evaluation, research, and practice. Thalia has taught social research methods, program evaluation, social policy, addictions, mental health, disabilities, assessment and diagnosis, and statistical methods. She regularly develops and teaches in multiple modalities, including blended, online, face to face, and immersive cloud learning courses. In addition as volunteering research services to multiple local organizations, Thalia is a volunteer EMT in her community.

Extended Abstract

Student success is a multi-faceted and complex topic. Defining student success is a bit of an enigma as personal, cultural, and programmatic factors may impact its definition (Highpoint, 2017; Kuh et al., 2006; Perez & Taylor, 2015).  Truly, we he have more questions about what student success is, than what it truly means to a student.  Depending on the methodology utilized, student success has been quantified as course based, degree based, personal, or a combination of all three (Goncalves, 2014; Smith & White, 2015).  While research has tended to focus solely on the undergraduate population (Goncalves, 2014; Kuh et al., 2006), there is a dearth of research examining success in adult or non-traditional students and those interested in human services.  Further, it has been noted that if students feel that the college (or department) understands how they view success, they may feel validated, wish to learn and achieve, and have higher self-efficacy in the degree completion process (Adney, 2012; Cuseo, 2016; Lemmens & du Plessis, 2012).  As a result, there is a need to understand a student’s own definition of success, how being a non-traditional student impacts this, and how professional sector students, such as those in human services, may define it.  Further, academic or student resources ultimately may need to be customized depending on realized definitions (Hatch & Bohlig, 2015; Kuh et al., 2006).  

The non-traditional student population is unique in their interests, needs, and assumptions; given current trends, the non-traditional student could be considered to be the new traditional on college campuses (Sisselman-Borgia & MacMillan, 2018).  Unlike other areas, human service students are connected with the professional sector as coursework intersects theory with practical application. Human service students may represent one of many groups: 1) already working in the field; 2) those who work in the field and wish to increase their responsibilities; 3) individuals changing careers; or 4) those who are new to the job market.  Coupling with being a non-traditional student, each of these four groups may have very different definitions of what it means to be successful; as a result, they may utilize resources in a very different manner. 

The research study utilized mixed methods to fully explore student success within human service students in order to understand 1) how they define this concept and 2) what may help them to achieve it. 

Multiple online and face-to-face focus groups were conducted to explore the concept of student success within human services students.  The focus groups also helped to determine what types of questions were asked on the quantitative survey.  Focus groups were conducted typically for an hour with 6 groups of students.  Each group was asked the same set of questions that were developed by the researcher and a group of human service students based on the literature and piloting of the questions.  The questions asked about their experience thus far at the college, how the experience compares to others, how they define success, what impacts success, types of strategies utilized to feel successful or help one’s self, and the connection between school work and success in employment.

The online survey was shaped empirically and analytically from the qualitative focus groups.  An online survey was utilized so that students across the state could respond at their leisure.  Students were invited to participate through several sources, including the student newsletter, their mentor, or postings at each center.  The survey took about 10 to 20 minutes to complete.  Questions included demographics, experience at the college thus far, academic readiness, level of agreement with definitions of success in various settings, and how they define what it means to accomplish something.

Results of both the qualitative and quantitative will be shared, as well as examples of the types of resources that are created as result of the study results.  The results demonstrate a wide variety of responses that illustrate the personal narrative and the uniqueness of adult learners.   The audience will be invited to brainstorm how the results may influence practice and what types of resources could be developed at their own institution.

Educators, administrators, and academic support specialists would be interested in the results of the research study.  This was conducted at a 4 year state college that offers a wide variety of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees; hence the results will be differentiated wherever possible into these separate areas.  If student success can be fully understood, then strategies for how to achieve this can be created.  Student success could be linked to achievement, engagement, retention, and attainment (Cuseo, 2016).  It could be predicted that if strategies could be put in place to enable student success, then students may be more likely to complete their degree at a higher rate, be more actively engaged in coursework, and feel that they can achieve.