You Belong Here: What It Takes for Success in College

September 23, 2019 • by Marc Airhart

Why do so many first-year students struggle in college? Who is most likely to fail? And what can professors and staff do to help them get over the hump?

Two students talking on steps in front of the main administration building at the University of Texas at Austin

"I didn't know what was going on. And I just felt out of place as a whole," said Ivonne Martinez, a first-year student at UT Austin who was in danger of failing Freshman Calculus. "I was like, What am I doing? And that kind of made me panic."

In today's show, math professor Uri Treisman and chemistry professor David Laude describe ways they support students through this difficult time, and psychologist David Yeager explains why these tactics work. We'll also talk about the University of Texas at Austin's ambitious goal to boost the number of students graduating within four years from 52 percent several years ago to 70 percent, and how they did it. 

Show Notes
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By the way, all of the people in today's show are featured in a great new book by author Paul Tough. It's called The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us (originally published as The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.) For a deeper dive, be sure and check it out.​

A student talks to an author at a book signing event

UT mathematics student Ivonne Martinez at a book-signing event with author Paul Tough.


IM: I didn't know what was going on. And I just felt out of place as a whole. I was like, What am I doing? And that kind of made me panic.

MA: This is Point of Discovery. For many college students, their first year on a university campus can be a real shock to the system. Take Ivonne Martinez. A star math student at her high school in San Antonio, she graduated second in her class. But when she got to the University of Texas at Austin two years ago, many things, including her Freshman Calculus class, proved a lot harder than she expected.

IM: And just failing the first quiz is what made me realize like, 'No, I'm actually doing worse than I thought I was. … And I don't know how to make it get better.'

MA: In the United States, many students who begin college do not make it to the graduation stage. In fact, nearly 4 in 10 who start a degree won't graduate within six years.

Some universities have started to take a closer look—and research ways to turn around this trend. They are finding out what it takes to keep more of these initially promising college-goers on track, so that they leave with that degree that they came for in the first place.

DL: I'd offer this simple observation that if you admit a student into your university, you have a responsibility to graduate them, they're paying the ... money they should get something in return.

MA: That's chemistry professor David Laude, from The University of Texas at Austin. He was one of the campus leaders in an effort to drastically improve how many students graduate from the university. Recently, UT Austin garnered national attention when it turned around a four-year graduation rate that sat at 52 percent a few years ago by increasing it to roughly 70 percent the last two years.

MA: Laude and others at UT Austin have learned a number of core lessons on how to help students like Ivonne—especially during the all-important first year in college.

Lesson 1 is summed up by David Yeager, a faculty member in psychology.

DY: Professors or programs can point out to students early on in the term that their difficulties are normal and tend to improve under the right conditions and with the right support.

MA: Many students starting college suddenly feel they don't belong. For students like Ivonne, who excelled in high school, it can be a disorienting feeling.

IM: I think I always doubted the system … Because I wasn't used to not understanding math. And it was so new to me. And just, I wasn't also used to failing.

MA: Students from the first generation in their family to attend college and those from lower income families may be especially vulnerable to feeling out of place. But it affects everyone, according to David Yeager.

DY: So the perspective from developmental psychology is that anytime you make a transition in life to a new circumstance, whether it's a new college or a new job or a new relationship, you're asking yourself, if you made the right choice, and if you should stick with it.

MA: Yeager studies why some students struggle more than others and what can be done to support them.

DY: And when you're in that state of questioning, whether you belong, whether you should be there, whether you're doing the right thing, then you tend to be looking for answers to that question.

MA: So maybe they ask a question in class and the professor makes them feel like it was a dumb question, or they have a hard time getting a lab partner, or they bomb their first test ...

DY: Students are more likely to interpret those daily negative experiences as signs of something global, something big, something like, I don't belong here in general.

MA: The key to overcoming the negative thoughts is understanding that others experience the same things—and that universities can help. Now, before they even set foot in a classroom, all students who enter UT Austin are given an interactive presentation developed by David Yeager that explains that the difficulties they face when they start college are temporary and that their frustration isn't a sign that they aren't smart enough, but that they are growing. In other words—hang in there, it gets better.

DY: But the exciting part is that because student psychology is in the middle of this process, that means that it's possible to change the process by changing student psychology.

A professor lectures students in an auditorium

Uri Treisman. Photo credit: Marsha Miller.

MA: That brings us to Lesson 2, which comes from Uri Treisman. He's the mathematics professor who teaches that Freshman Calculus course that was rocking Ivonne Martinez's world.

UT: Students have to encounter the fact that when things are hard, it's not because they are inadequate. It's because I made them hard.

MA: Research and more than 40 years' experience teaching have led Treisman to believe students shouldn't be put into remedial classes, where they may infer that the faculty or university do not believe in them. Even students whose high schools didn't fully prepare them for college level material should be pushed to do challenging work. As David Yeager puts it:

DY: … one of the most consistent findings in the psychology of motivation is that students respond well when they see that there's a high standard being applied to them and when they see there's lots of support for them.

MA: Treisman does give his students lots of extra support, which we'll get to in a minute. But the point is, his Calculus class is tough by design. The way he frames it makes all the difference in how the students perceive it.

DY: In a normal class, all of that scaffolding and support that you get, or the hours and hours of frustration and feeling lost might be interpreted by students as a sign that they are in the wrong class, or they're too dumb. … the way Uri reframes it is instead that they're confused because they're being respected by him and viewed as students who have real future and real potential.

MA: But you can't just set a high bar for students and hope they don't fail. You have to pair this tactic with Lesson 3, which is all about support. Again, David Yeager:


DY: … if you're going to push students to the frontiers of their abilities, … then the supports we give them should match or exceed the amount of demand we're giving them.

MA: Treisman has developed a suite of tactics to help students succeed, such as connecting them with intensive study groups and keeping close tabs on them, like a mother goose minding her goslings. Ivonne recalls Treisman and teaching assistant Erica Winterer reaching out to her repeatedly.

IM: They were like always checking up on me if I didn't feel secure. They emailed me like, ... Is there any way we can help?' Or like, 'Would you like to do this study session with this group?' … they were just very caring.

MA: The 8,000 other first-year students in their first tough months at UT Austin were also receiving extra support. David Laude had been busy digging into historical data about who did or didn't graduate. He and his colleagues estimated that about a quarter of incoming students—mostly low income, first generation students—only had a 30 percent chance of graduating. Laude had been charged with boosting the university's four-year graduation rate, and those were the students he decided to focus on.

MA: All first-year students were put into small, learning communities, where they could be in smaller classes and form study groups. Extra support was added for students who, history suggested, had the greatest risk of dropping out. They got access to a community: faculty advisors, peer mentors and extra tutoring.

DL: So the idea was to look at the students who were most likely to pack their bags and leave and do everything we could to make the community so that when they did feel like things weren't going well, they didn't necessarily have to call home to feel better, they could go talk to someone else.

MA: Community is key. Here's David Laude again, with Lesson 4.

DL: ... the more comfortable you feel, the more doors you feel you can walk through, the more likely that you'll stay.

MA: When Ivonne Martinez walked through the door of professor Tresiman's office a few weeks into the semester, feeling beaten down, it was a sign that she trusted him. They talked at length—not about calculus—but about her background—why she was struggling in the class—and about her dreams of becoming a mathematician.

UT: … she was close to tears. And she looked at me and really … she was questioning whether she could do this. And I have to make a decision then. Can I truthfully tell her that I know she can? This is very difficult decision. Because one must never lie to students. And I did believe in her. And I looked at her and it was a critical moment. And I just looked her in the eye and I said, I have been doing this 50 years. You have to trust me. I believe that hard work will pay off, that you have everything it takes.

IM: … it just seemed like the right thing that I needed to hear at the moment.

MA: But how do you scale up the kind of trust and connection that one professor can build with his or her students to an entire university? David Laude's solution was to create a new program for hundreds of students from across campus who were flagged as least likely to graduate. He offered them scholarships and more.

DL: ... we didn't just give them the money, we gave them the money with an expectation that they were going to participate fully in the university.

MA: Students in the program got internships that gave them a reason to spend time on campus and expanded their network of people they could turn to when things got hard. They met regularly to improve their professional and academic skills and—just as importantly—to give them a strong sense of community with each other. And the program worked. UT's four-year graduation rate climbed most dramatically for students from the handful of populations that previously struggled most.

DL: Those students in general watch their predicted four-year graduation rate rise from 35% to 60% … And I'm still amazed that we were able to pull it off.

MA: The name of the program that helped students so much? The University Leadership Network.

MA: Which brings us to Lesson 5, again from Yeager:

DY: … give students a positive reason for why they're getting help from the institution. … whenever students have the chance to see that they're being offered help, because they're viewed as leaders, and specifically they're viewed as leaders who have chosen to do something ambitious and challenging, then actually, the offer of support is a compliment.

MA: Yeager has sat in on Treisman's freshman calculus class many times ...

DY: And one of the things you hear again, and again, in his class, is he'll say, whenever you're leaders in your field, dot dot dot, and then he'll give something to students, that's almost impossible. Like a, like a proof that took people 200 years to solve in the 1600s, or something crazy like that. And the implication to … students, is not that they're dumb from not being able to solve, like a classical proof from the history of calculus. Instead, the implication is that one day, they're going to be leading the National Academy of Sciences to the frontiers of cryptography, or whatever it is. And that, of course, he's taking them seriously as professionals.

MA: So did it all work for Ivonne Martinez? The challenging course work, the nosy emails, the 'You can do it—I believe in you' messages, the vision that someday she could be a leader in mathematics? After struggling for months, she went into high gear, studying with an intense focus for the cumulative and all-important final exam. She became more confident. Things started to click.

IM: … if there was a problem I couldn't do, I like started ... writing things down, that could have helped me. And then eventually I got an idea how to solve it. Unlike before, where I was, like, I don't know how to do this, and just shut down and not tried anything. Because, you know, I was afraid of being wrong.

MA: Then came the final exam. And it didn't seem so bad. That evening, she was heading home to San Antonio with her parents …

IM: I got an email from Professor T, like right away, it was like, I guess two hours after we'd taken the exam. And he's like, I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. Like, you've done so much good in this course, ... you don't understand how talented you are. And you got one of the highest grades. ... You don't know how amazing this is. This is why I do what I do. And I just started crying even more because I was like, Oh my god, I actually got an A in the class ...

MA: Ivonne Martinez is now a junior at UT Austin – she's still a math major -- and has joined Uri Treisman's team as a teaching assistant in Freshman Calculus.

IM: … there's a lot of students that are definitely in the same shoes that I was. And I keep telling them ..., Don't worry, … It is hard. I was there. I cried. I stressed all the time.

MA: But after acing the class and making steady progress towards a math degree, she tells them one more lesson she learned, maybe the most important one for struggling students to hear.

IM: … it's possible, y'all can do it too.

MA: That's our show. All of the people in today's show – Ivonne Martinez, David Laude, Uri Treisman and David Yeager – are featured in a great new book by author Paul Tough. It's called "The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us." A huge thanks to Mr. Tough for his reporting here on the UT campus and at universities around the country. If you're in Austin, come hear him, Dr. Laude and Dr. Treisman at a special event on campus on October 29. Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. To read a transcript of this show and find out about the music you heard, visit us on our website at If you like what you heard, be sure and tell your friends. We're available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. Our senior producer is Christine Sinatra. I'm your host and producer Marc Airhart. Thanks for listening.