Every Learner Everywhere
Achieving the Dream

An Introduction to the Faculty’s Role in Holistic Student Support

An emerging trend in higher education known as “holistic student support” focuses on designing student-centered approaches to support the current academic and personal needs of every learner.

While there has traditionally been a divide between academic affairs and student affairs that limits the role of faculty in student support, the holistic support approach calls on institutions to transform culturally to improve the continuum of academic and non-academic student journeys. Institutions that have pursued this approach might institute high-touch academic and career advising, mentoring, boot camp learning models, and early college programs, which might complement redesigns of registration, counseling, and other services.

Another characteristic of holistic student support is that it is highly data driven and alert for ways to be updated for current students, says Paula Talley, Executive Director of Program Development at Achieving the Dream, which offers many services and programming in this area.

“It’s understanding who our students are and what they need to be successful, whether that’s inside or outside the classroom,” she says. “It’s about an intentional design of their experiences.”

Comprehensive guidance for that data-driven approach is outlined in  Knowing Our Students: Understanding and Designing for Success from Achieving the Dream and the Student Success Network, originally published in 2021 and recently updated.

One particular group that benefits from a holistic student support style is adult learners who may have different motivations for their studies. “For a lot of them, they’ve been away from school for quite a while,” Talley says. “They’re used to doing things on their own, so holistic approaches can be designed to give them empowerment over their own learning so they can be more successful.”

Comprehensive support

Holistic student support acknowledges that every student is unique and requires different resources to succeed. By creating a student-centered experience, this approach aims to address the varied challenges students may face to achieve their distinct goals. In practice, this looks like offering comprehensive support to students across the board.

“What we’ve seen a lot before in the past is that we blamed the students for not being ready for college,” Talley explains. “Now it’s really shifting toward what we as the institution can do to be ready for the students that we serve in the communities that we serve.”

While offering comprehensive support can be an intimidating task for faculty, Talley says that technologies like learning management systems and adaptive courseware have eased the burden for staff members and students alike. By utilizing data or formative assessments to recognize shifts in patterns, Talley says, faculty can spot where students may be struggling outside of the classroom.

Data literacy can vary from one instructor to another, but instructional designers can be a valuable resource to successfully integrating holistic support systems into digital learning, whether that’s embedding resources into an LMS or providing behind-the-scenes support for students and staff.

“Holistic student support comes in when you notice one student may have a sudden drop off,” Talley says. “If  you’re checking regularly, you can do that right away and get the student the support they need. It could consist of the teaching and learning practices you’re using in the classroom, but it’s also connecting them to supports outside of the classroom, whether that’s talking to an advisor or a success coach.”

Related reading — The Power of Student-Centered Learning: How Listening to Students Can Improve Higher Education

Building community and connections

Every learner is dealing with unique circumstances, so creating a network of community support is vital for institutions offering a holistic support system. A library of community resources can lessen the strain on faculty and staff.

“That’s where partnerships come in,” Talley says. “A lot of advisors or counselors can’t do mental health counseling, or they don’t have the funding for bus passes. But they can partner with community organizations that could help with food pantries or bus passes.”

In addition, Talley observes that there’s even confusion within many colleges as to what resources are available, which can hinder efforts to destigmatize getting support and communicate that it is as a normal part of academic progress. “There needs to be an understanding of the resources that are actually available because many faculty say they don’t know what’s out there,” Talley says. “We often find that there’s a disconnect between faculty and student support services. There’s not that friendly handoff.”

By moving toward a holistic support model, institutions reexamine the channels of communication between leadership and staff, with faculty, and even between students. In fact, a communication audit is a part of the services that Achieving the Dream offers in this area.

Fostering success

The move toward a holistic student support system can be uncomfortable, but also contributes to a more equitable learning environment for all students.

“In a holistic support system we are providing students with what they need to be successful,” Talley says. “You’re looking at the whole student and finding ways they belong in the classroom. You’re developing this culture of belonging that breaks down barriers, not just between faculty and students, but between students and students.”

More on student perspectives in the Listening to Learners survey 2023