Date of Degree

9-2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor

Colette Daiute

Committee Members

Jacob Shane

Herbert Saltzstein

Joseph Glick

Stefan Bosworth

Subject Categories

Developmental Psychology | School Psychology

Keywords

community college, narratives, mixed methods, cultural tools, gpa, cultural historical activity theory

Abstract

Community colleges are an increasingly important entry point into higher education for adults in the United States (21st-Century Commission, 2012). Students often hold diverse opinions on and engage in complex meaning-making around the community college institution (Daiute & Kreniske, 2016; Deil-Amen, 2016). Furthermore, students’ varied interpretations of community college might influence and predict their academic performance. To investigate that assumption, this study asked 104 students to write about community college within three genres (i.e. types) of narratives that afford different author-purpose-audience opportunities for meaning-making. In the Letters genre, students wrote a letter to a close partner about their lives in community college. In the Best Experience and Worst Experience genres, they reflected on their best and worst experiences in community college. Narratives were analyzed using plot and script analyses. After Spring 2015, students’ cumulative year-end GPAs were collected. Eventually, this study used data from plot and script analyses within quantitative techniques to connect students’ interpretations of community college to their academic performance within community college. This work bypasses the qualitative/quantitative research binary to demonstrate that students’ ability to make sense of the complex realities of community college relates to and predicts their institutional performance over time.

The design and analyses of this study indicate three major findings. First, students used diverse genres that afforded diverse author-purpose-audience opportunities to interpret the college institution and their college lives in varied ways. Students often used the Letters genre to relate to their family and friends, connecting their goals and activities within college to the goals and activities of partners outside of college. Meanwhile, they often used the Best Experience and Worst Experience genres to either align with or criticize the college community institution. These findings accord with past research on community college students’ flexible use of narrative genres and their lack of a single “characteristic” way of interpreting their college experiences (Daiute & Kreniske, 2016). Furthermore, the flexibility with which students used diverse narrative genres to address varying aspects of community college indicated the complexity of their relationship with the college institution – a complexity that has often been portrayed in overly simplistic terms in public media and previous research.

Second, academically successful students with higher year-end GPA interpreted the community college institution differently compared to less successful students with lower year-end GPA. Across the diverse narrative genres, successful students wrote in ways that suggested that they affiliated more with the goals of the college institution, found more opportunities and affordances in college, and showed a greater interest in how college partners could both help and hinder their progress. Moreover, successful students created complex narratives that reflected the problem-solving lessons of the college institution insofar as their narratives were more likely to resolve difficulties than the narratives of less successful students. (This complexity was related less to the length of narratives – since more and less successful students wrote narratives of comparable length within most genres – and more to how students structured plot and organized scripts within narratives). Thus, students’ ability to write and reflect on the community college institution in college-appropriate ways was related to their academic performance over time.

Finally, students’ use of plot elements and scripts within the diverse narrative genres were connected to year-end academic performance. For example, when students centered their Worst Experience narratives on irresolvable college difficulties, their GPA generally lowered over the school year. However, when students used their Worst Experience narratives to focus on conflicts with college partners or resolve difficulties in ways reinforced by the community college institution, their GPA generally increased. Thus, students’ use of plot and script elements to interpret the college institution predicted their year-end academic performance. The connection between students’ interpretations of community college and year-end performance depended on the narrative genre they used, demonstrating that the range and importance of the experiences students expressed differed across genres.

In summary, students used diverse narrative genres to make meaning of their experiences within community college, and these meaning-making processes were related to and predictive of year-end academic performance. How students interpreted their college lives connected to, predicted, and perhaps explained their academic performance. Future research could build on the results of the present study by exploring how different populations of students interpret and reflect on their college experiences with a greater variety of narrative genres, as well as how these meaning-making processes relate to different measures of academic performance. Educators and administrators can utilize the findings of the present study to prepare students to navigate the difficulties of community college. Finally, this study demonstrates that writing can serve as more than a basic skill to be taught or an indication of achieved knowledge in higher education. Writing can also serve as an integral tool to help students develop a better understanding of their lives within community college – especially if their writing occurs within diverse genres and in relation to varied audiences and purposes.

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