Kathy Cavins-Tull Talks About Failure-Based Lessons

In a Q&A, the vice chancellor for student affairs talks about how TCU’s safety net stands to help students succeed.

Kathy Cavins-Tull Talks About Failure-Based Lessons

In a Q&A, the vice chancellor for student affairs talks about how TCU’s safety net stands to help students succeed.

TCU’s core curriculum requires students to acquire broad-based knowledge outside of their chosen majors. How does the range of courses encourage them to go out on a limb in terms of seeking knowledge?

When students are young, they think very broadly about careers — teachers, firefighters, lawyers, doctors, whatever their parents do. They tend to come to college and select a major associated with one of those broad areas. And then they explore the curriculum through the core, and they start to find things that they love.

Some students may only want to be a doctor because that’s what they know. But if they don’t perform well in biology and chemistry, it’s very hard to think about taking on a curriculum that goes for the rest of their academic career along that same line. So they adjust. They find an interest in courses that they love and that come naturally to them.

They find their natural talents through failure. Failure in this context is really just a shift or adjustment in learning who they are and what their talents are. They get into a disequilibrium, and they have to find out what that means, and then they find a new place for equilibrium. We hope their parents will give them space to see their way through and select things that they find a real connection with. I think it’s way more fruit than failure.

How does TCU’s network of academic advisers, under the purview of Student Development Services, help students overcome stumbling blocks in the classroom?

A faculty member who is not seeing the performance that they need in the classroom from a student can go into our learning management system and enter a “U” grade for unsatisfactory work.

We then try to make a contact with the student to try to help them adjust to this new environment. We can advise a student from there — tell them OK, the courses you’re struggling with are these particular courses. Do you like these courses? Do you not like these courses? Are there other courses that come naturally and easily to you? We help them adjust maybe their major or their career goals to try to get them some more exposure to things that really highlight their natural talent.

But a student who drops below a 2.0 [GPA] goes into the Compass 101 program for the next semester. They work one-on-one with an academic coach who asks big questions, like, “What are you hoping to do?” “How does what’s happening right now in front of you … contribute to that goal?”

It works. Between first semester and second semester, we retain students at 97.5 percent, and between freshman-year fall to sophomore-year fall, we retain at about 91 percent. That’s very high. The national average is something like 55 percent between freshman and sophomore year.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

What about helping students navigate adult life decisions?

We know that a student’s time with us is developmental in nature. They go through this period of learning about who they are, what their identity is, what their values are — associated and not associated with their parents — and how they’re going to live those things out in a vocation.

The first semester is really the hardest semester. They’re making a lot of emotional judgments, trying to make their own decisions. There are daily successes and failures at the emotional parts of moving away from parents. So freshmen and sophomores live in residence halls. They have a residence hall director, a professional who can catch them. It’s kind of like a tight net that comes around the student when they’re new at making some of these decisions.

On the behavioral side, they’re trying to develop in their moral maturity. When a student first comes here, we have a lot of rules in our first-year buildings because it aligns with their moral development.

As a student matures in their moral development, then they start to see themselves as part of a community in that their behavior affects other people. By the time they’re juniors and seniors, that developmental process has matured them enough that they can move off campus and make some of those decisions on their own without a staff member right there.

How does the university handle students who get in serious trouble because they make bad decisions?

We have an educational discipline process, which is restorative in nature. It is focused on the student being successful and healthy in our environment. We give consequences but counsel and offer second chances. We ask what they learned from the incident and how they would do things differently.

Then we give the student a chance to be in a situation where they then choose a different path.

We always say that everybody wants a straight line, but really, life is about the curves in the road, and taking those curves and allowing yourself the space to do that and the grace to do that. That’s what our whole business is, is about students changing and growing.

Growth doesn’t always occur with success. More growth occurs when we fail at something or we don’t meet our expectations. We learn a lot more in those settings.

Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.