A Degree is Not Enough: What Maternal Pedagogies Can Offer to the Notion of Student Success

Cayla Lanier


Within Higher Education in Florida, one goal currently drives every activity: preeminence. This statewide measure of success for universities serves as a bragging right and tangible benefit in the form of millions of dollars in additional funding. Preeminence is measured through a series of metrics, most notably graduation rates, and is frequently the driving force behind many student success initiatives. This paper argues that a metric-based measure of student success falls short in considering the broader purpose of earning a college degree. Instead, I suggest incorporating practices of maternal pedagogies within higher education to teach the whole student and prepare them for post-graduation life. This deemphasizes student graduation rates as the end goal and creates space for a student-centered definition of “student success,” identified through details gleaned from interviews with graduating seniors.

Literature Review

Background on Preeminence

In 2013, the Florida State Legislature approved Senate Bill 2017, which created a “preeminent” designation for state universities, based on a series of twelve metrics related to performance in the areas of undergraduate student recruitment and graduation, research expenditures, doctoral appointments, and financial health in the form of endowments. The bill allows for universities who meet 11 of the 12 metrics to be named as “preeminent” and those who meet 6 of the 12 to be named “emerging preeminent” (Statutes, 2017). The bill does not explicitly link achieving preeminent status with additional funding, but this has been the practice over the last four years, with each qualifying university receiving $5 million to $15 million in annually recurring funds for educational investment (Gartner, 2016). Schools granted the “emerging preeminent” status in 2016 responded to the promise of additional investments by focusing on areas for improvement in order to achieve the top status (Russon, 2016; Worth, 2017). This performance-based funding model reinforced a culture of quantitative measures of achievement within the state university system in Florida and resulted in a variety of initiatives across state universities aimed at improving “student success” as defined by metrics related to retention, graduation, research, and financial decision making.

Understanding Student Success

Prior to this governmental accountability of how universities perform, scholars in the field of higher education administration theorized about student development to better understand the personal development that happens while students are enrolled in universities – the educational transition from high school to college, the maturation of becoming independent adults away from their parents, and the decision making required to succeed in college and beyond (Astin, 1994; Gale and Parker, 2014; Parker, et.al, 2004).  With an increasing focus on accountability, universities have found ways to combine these theories with student programming and academic initiatives to impact the success of their students in the form of increased retention and graduation rates, which is generally referred to as “student success” and formally defined as

academic achievement, engagement in educationally purposeful activities, satisfaction, acquisition of desired knowledge, skills and competencies, persistence, attainment of educational objectives, and post-college performance. (Kuh, et. al., 2006)

George Kuh is seen as an expert in the field of student success, developing an entire sub-field of student success research dedicated to identifying the most relevant factors related to a student’s ability to succeed in college. Kuh understands the focus on persistence and graduation as indicators of success (p. 10), and yet continues to advocate for a measure of success that considers the importance of the role of college in “preparing students to live productive, satisfying, responsible and economically self-sufficient lives” (p. 9). Kuh moves beyond the classroom to focus on the extracurricular aspects of a college education that connect to a student’s overall development and include learning outcomes such as “personal competence, cognitive complexity, knowledge and academic skills, practical competence, and altruism and estheticism” (Kuh, 1993, p. 300).

Kuh proposes a model of student success that depends on activities that take place outside of the classroom and beyond the academic curriculum. His research shows that it is not just the courses students take, or the concepts they learn, but the ways in which they engage with the university, their “college experience,” that matters, both in terms of remaining enrolled from year to year, and in their post-graduation learning outcomes. What students gain from college is not a series of lectures, a transcript full of courses, or a head full of facts, but an understanding of themselves and the world around them. Yet, as his 2006 report to the National Symposium on Postsecondary Student Success stated, most universities measure success by the number of degrees awarded. There is a disconnect between what is gained from college (a degree or credential) and what is gained through college (self-discovery).

In addition to Kuh’s research on student success, the National Survey of Student Engagement demonstrates the importance of various factors on a student’s likelihood of engaging with their university in a meaningful way, and thus matriculating through to graduation (Engagement Indicators). The study findings highlight faculty and student interactions as a key component to a student’s ability to graduate on time. Numerous studies indicate the importance of student and faculty connections, both in the classroom and in social settings, on the student’s perceptions of themselves and their educational experience (Astin, 1993; Kuh, 2003; Kuh and Hu, 2001; Terenzini and Pascarella, 1980; Tinto, 1996). Clearly, instructors can have a big impact on the success of their students, both in the classroom and beyond. Yet, preeminence metrics do not include faculty performance measures, only student performance. In the student success game, only student graduation rates matter. The next section will review several approaches to teaching that seek to impact students beyond course learning outcomes and grades, and instead focus on the whole student.

Teaching Beyond the Curriculum

The metric-centered view of education promoted by performance-based funding models is the type of hegemonic approach to education feminist scholars have railed against for years. With scholarship that critiques standardized educational practices in favor of a personalized approach, an argument emerges that education can and should be transformative, designed to challenge students morally and ethically, in addition to academically, in order to prepare them for their futures. Henry Giroux (2003) describes the political implications of education, arguing for a radical approach to pedagogy in which “theoretical rigor is connected to social relevance, knowledge is subjected to critical scrutiny and engagement, and pedagogy is seen as a moral and political practice crucial to the production of capacities and skills necessary for students to both shape and participate in public life” (p. 11). Nel Noddings (2015) makes a similar argument for the importance of moral education, in which she focuses on teaching with an ethic of care. This ethical stance incorporates a focus on the attitudes and skills that develop caring relationships and moral decision making. Both of these approaches work to break down an understanding of the teacher/student relationship based on power roles. Carmen Luke (1996) defines feminist pedagogy explicitly as maternal in nature, in the way that it pulls away from patriarchal notions of education based on “pedagogical authority and institutional power” (p. 284). Feminist pedagogy not only seeks to neutralize power roles within the classroom but also teach students how to recognize and address inequalities beyond the classroom as well, giving students the skills and tools to continue working towards justice. Adding a maternal perspective to feminist pedagogy suggests educational practices that incorporate caregiving and long lasting connections. The next section will expand further on this topic.

Maternal Pedagogies

The concept of maternal pedagogy connects the fields of feminist pedagogy and mother studies, built on a foundation of understanding the role women and mothers play in society and how that translates into educational practices, both in and out of the school system. In considering the link between mothering and teaching, Sarah Ruddick (1980) offers an understanding of maternal thinking and practice – those intelligences mothers gain as they learn how to care for a child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual growth. These intelligences are built over time, based on practice, and are personal to each mother and child. Deborah Leah Byrd (2011) makes the connection from child to student in discussing how she raises student activists, both her children and her students, by intentionally placing them in experiences in which they come into contact with people different from themselves. Byrd offers an understanding of teaching that incorporates the instructor’s personal agenda and an obligation to prepare students (and children) for their future lives.

More than teaching beyond the curriculum, maternal pedagogy specifically addresses the practices educators use when engaging students. One of those practices is to focus on the individual nature and needs of each student (Gallop, 1994). Whereas traditional course learning outcomes are set by the instructor, within a maternal pedagogical approach instructors are free to shape the outcomes around each students’ needs in an effort to determine and then meet whatever lesson is needed by that student. A selfish, “bad teacher” knows what they can teach and only teach that; the selfless teacher-as-mother extends beyond her comfort zone to create a learning environment that allows for individual, personal transformation. Abbey (2010) further emphasizes this point in her formal definition of maternal pedagogy:

In contrast to educational or professional pedagogy that is prescribed or practiced in most traditional school settings, maternal pedagogy emphasizes the needs and autonomy of the individual child beyond institutional boundaries rather than foregrounding the authority, control, and expertise of the teacher and the delivery of standardized curriculum. (p. 718)

From these perspectives, maternal pedagogies focus on reducing hierarchies in the classroom, in order to draw every student into a community of learning where each has something to offer.

Narrowing maternal teaching to a womanist perspective, Beaubouf-Lafontant (2002) adds to the understanding of maternal pedagogy a community responsibility to care for students’ well-being and survival, and becomes an act of resistance and social justice. This maternal, caring approach sets the instructor up to be an “othermother,” dedicated to rearing children who are not her own in order to benefit the entire community (Collins, 1991). Blending the womanist and maternal perspectives creates an educational system in which students are cared for, watched over, nurtured, held accountable, and poised for success, resembling bell hooks’ concept of an academic homeplace (hooks, 1990), a safe place for students and teachers to learn, heal, play, and practice the work of resistance against hegemonic academic structures.

Feminist scholars’ notions of maternal pedagogies question patriarchal views of student success. Both maternal pedagogies and student success programs focus on what educators hope to accomplish, and fail to consider the outcomes or impacts of these practices on students. Engaging the student perspective is vital to understanding the impacts of various educational practices, whether designed to meet university goals and state requirements, or these maternal pedagogical practices. What do students say about what matters to their college experience? How do they experience success? The next section of this paper seeks to answer that question.


In October 2017, I conducted a small focus group with five students enrolled in an honors college within a large, research university in the State of Florida. For this pilot, I relied on volunteers from a group of students with whom I have built a rapport and have a history of conducting reflective conversations. The students are all leaders within a college peer mentor program that I lead, are graduating this year, and are all women. Two students are international students, one from Vietnam and one from England; the other three students are from Florida. The group met for one hour and held an open discussion regarding their experiences of success in their college education. Interview questions started with reflections on a favorite class and instructor, then lead to broader questions of the purpose of college and their definitions of success as it relates to their college experience. The students knew each other prior to the interview, and frequently agreed with and spoke over each other, as they responded to each other’s opinions while expressing their own.

After the interview, the transcripts were reviewed several times to discover themes. The responses were analyzed according to the themes and are presented below.


Data analysis revealed three main themes: (1) the importance of personal connections to and relevance of academic material, (2) personal growth as an outcome of the college experience, and (3) navigating societal expectations versus personal desires. A fourth theme arose only from the two international students, blending the personal growth and societal expectations themes with a distinct comparison between the students’ perspectives on the American university system and that of their home country. The results of this study indicate these students value a individualized educational experience that provides for their personal growth, as well as supports their particular academic goals and plans for the future.

Theme 1: The Importance of Personal Connections to and Relevance of Academic Material

In discussing their experiences with favorite classes and professors, the students described learning environments in which the professors made connections between course content and their personal lives or present-day scenarios as those they found most impactful. The following excerpts demonstrate examples of these themes.

When talking about a favorite class on Southeast Asian History, Jennifer, an international student from Vietnam, shared:

“We talk about how, like, why it is important that we know what happened that day and apply to today’s world…so if you were, like, in that time, and under those circumstances, what could you do to, like, prevent a genocide?”

Juliet shared a similar opinion in discussing a favorite class on Britishness, which took place in London during the 2016 Brexit vote:

“We would read the headlines of the newspaper and then go out into the streets and actually see it happen…it’s actually learning about what’s happening, not in the past, what’s happening right now because of the past…even though the class is about Britishness and the UK, [the professor] always brought it back to how it relates to our own country and how we, like, learn from the mistakes of others.”

Both of these students emphasized how the deep connection of the course material to their personal circumstances made the content come alive, impacting them in ways the course learning outcomes could not measure.

The students also talked about the ways in which professors taught lessons beyond the course content, which made the course feel more relevant to their lives. Zoe and Marie talked about a professor of a class they shared, mentioning an exam question that was to name everyone in the class:

He really encouraged us to be very… mindful. You know, just not going through the day, [but] knowing what’s going on around you. That’s a life skill right there, not just a class, just learning something for a test” (Zoe).

Zoe expanded on this concept of “life skills” later when discussing a different instructor that shared personal experiences from starting his own company in a course on entrepreneurship:

[the lesson] was always an experience, a personal example. That was what made it more real; it’s not just sitting in class and memorizing things.”

The participants felt that professors who included a focus on application of lessons to real world scenarios “went the extra mile” and demonstrated caring attitudes, compared to those who taught one dry lesson them moved on to the next.

An additional example of personal connections was provided by Alice and Marie, when they shared how much they appreciated when a professor let them take the lead in the classroom, bringing their own interests into class:

“he let us do presentations for class…everyone went broad and then I went really specific…and, like, he was okay with that…He was responsive to what we liked and were interested in” (Alice).

“My big semester presentation was yesterday and it’s only supposed to be 20 minutes but the discussion went on for 2 hours…but just seeing that [the instructor] had that flexibility to address the needs of questions that students had about the subject and allowing…she like recognized that it was important for the moment” (Marie).

These last points about flexibility points to the student’s experiences of feeling valued by their professors when they were given the creative freedom to alter assignments to fit their own interest or contribute to the course in a way that worked for them. This sense of being valued as a contributor to the class was an important part of the student’s fondest memories of college.

These excerpts show how students like to engage with their education through course content and interactions with faculty they consider to be personally invested in their goals. They find course material and teaching styles that emphasize real world relevance to be more meaningful than those in which the lessons stick only to dry facts and course material, and point to the importance of adding a focus on the student in developing curriculum and course learning objectives. The next theme digs deeper into the ways in which these types of lessons impact their personal growth.

Theme 2: Personal Growth

Throughout the interview, the students highlighted situations in which they felt they grew as a person, or teaching moments that seemed geared more towards personal development than academic content. They seemed to understand learning facts as a given, an expected aspect of attending college, but not the most meaningful. Instead, they focused on experiences that involved risk, exploration, and self-reflection, which they described as being most impactful in preparing them for their futures.

Much of the talk about personal growth occurred in a portion of the interview where conversation revolved around big picture topics, such as the purpose of college and the meaning of success, though some of the comments were in response to specific subjects. When asked about the purpose of college, the students paused to consider the question and then talked all at once and mostly with each other. The sentence fragments below indicate their responses, and show how they define “personal growth” in a variety of ways:

“You learn a lot about who you are as a person” (Alice).

“So I try to step out of my comfort zone a little bit” (Jennifer).

“I actually found my passion…now I do have a purpose” (Jennifer).

“College [is] a life experience…to really explore who you are… [an] opportunity to grow” (Zoe).

“The university is a great place to, like, explore yourself” (Marie)

For Jennifer, personal growth means self-knowledge, which led to a better understanding of her career goals. She entered college with a goal of becoming a doctor, but is leaving with a goal of medical education, built on her “passion” for teaching. Zoe and Marie describe personal growth as an outcome of trying new things, which abound in the university setting. For these students college is both the next necessary step in achieving their goals, and the last chance to try new things before “getting serious” and starting their careers.

Marie further explained the importance of personal development as an ongoing process that she will take with her after graduation. She defined “success” by describing the kind of person she is striving to become:

being able to pursue things that make me a better person…making sure I’m giving time for myself…making sure that I’m improving, that I’m, like, exploring things that maybe I haven’t done before, and that are out of my comfort zone, which I feel like I’ve done a lot here. Life as a whole is just becoming a better person. There’s no pinnacle, there’s no end game. You’re always improving.”

Much of the conversation involved the concept of personal growth as a result of student programming and leadership positions. Yet, some of their self-described growth came from academic activities, such as tutoring and mentoring, or taking courses outside of their major to see other ways of framing the world. These students see personal growth as an outcome of activities in which they chose to participate; they got what they expected from their chosen majors, but it was the “extra” courses, student organizations, and academic programming that surprised them and resulted in what they perceived as a change in the way they saw themselves and their future possibilities.

The next section furthers this focus on personal growth through self-discovery and self-definition, but specifically as it compares to the expectations they perceived as being set by others.

Theme 3: Societal Expectations Versus Personal Desires

The third theme summarizes talk that occurred throughout the interview. The students frequently contrasted what was expected or presented as normal, to what they experienced or valued related to attending college and the college experience as a whole.

Jennifer talked about how she was prepared by her family and societal expectations for the idea of attending college:

“It is never an option of do you want to go to college. It’s like, ‘you going to college and that’s final’. That’s just how everyone do it, and how I will be doing it. I was told that.”

Alice agreed, describing the track that was already laid out for her, which she felt expected to follow:

“[When] I grew up, college was never an option for me. You go to high school, you go to college, and you get a job…so growing up, you were always focused on ‘you have to go to college’…have to get good grades, you have to be involved, you have to get into a good college…but now that I’m actually here, you know, you have different personal experiences.”

Alice and Jennifer describe the familial and social expectations of attending college. They knew they would attend college from an early age, though they had no firm ideas of what attending college would entail or why it would be important for them. Alice’s comment about “different personal experiences” speaks to the surprise she felt once she arrived on campus, suggesting an expectation that college would be as impersonal as high school.

Marie shared a different set of expectations she experienced during her first semester, related to how to be an “ideal” college student:

“I just felt like, kinda the rat race of getting in, doing what you need to do, and getting out and getting a job. I definitely felt that pressure…huge pressure to be involved, to be somebody I wasn’t…meet all these requirements…getting involved…knowing exactly what you’re gonna do when you get out.”

When asked to talk more about the “rat race” and where the pressure might be coming from, Marie said:

“I mean, I loved my experience here. I wouldn’t trade it. And I feel like a lot of that has to do with my professors, because I didn’t feel the rat race from there, I felt it from the environment, from the other students. So I definitely didn’t feel like my professors would force that…At the end of the day it’s about what you want…and not about what the world is expecting of you.”

This idea of the “rat race” speaks to the pressure Marie felt to conform to an ideal that she didn’t identify with. She entered college with a goal of exploring new ideas and taking classes that she would enjoy. Instead she felt pressured by other students to follow a prescribed set of activities in order to be successful, which carried over to her choice of major as well:

“It’s that stigma they put on the humanities majors…[it’s] reflected in, like, the culture…like they as, like, society…and I feel like deep down this is not what we believe, but there is a kinda thing that you should be making a lot of money when you come out [of college].”

The mention of salary led to a brief exchange amongst the students where they discussed society’s equation of money to success:

If you’re not making money, then…” (Marie).

“You’re not successful” (Alice).

“Are you making six figures? What are you doing with your life?” (Marie).

While the students recognized the family and social expectations to attend college, they internalized them and held those expectations themselves as well. The pressures to conform to an ideal student took them by surprise and caused some feelings of self-doubt about their chosen academic majors and activities.

However, when summarizing their college experiences, they were able to recognize the dissonance between what others expected and their own desires. Jennifer shared her experience of reconciling societal expectations and her own desires:

“You get a degree because that’s just how society view you, like you have to have a bachelor degree. But then, after that is like, it’s your own [idea] of, like, what you want to do and how you want to do it…my mom always remind me that, like, it not matters of how much money you make, later on, but if you don’t have someone by your side, then it’s not worth it. So if you make a lot of money but you don’t have time to spend it, like you don’t have anyone to share it with, it does not matter…I don’t have a lot of pressure on me anymore, and I don’t care too much about, like, other people’s expectations…you have to be happy.”

The students also expressed differences between their personal definitions of success and the way they saw “student success” defined within the university:

“I think right now, they more focused on just getting student to graduate. That’s how I viewed college back then, when you go in and you have to finish in three or four years or less, that’s how you define your success, and once you’re done you get a job. But now I don’t see that applicable anymore. And I don’t think that your university should push it on you too much” (Jennifer).

Jennifer then identified what she thinks a university should focus on:

“…if this student has learned anything, if the student have gained anything during their college year, if they’re happy with what they get to do [after graduation].”

Zoe also talked about her perceptions of the university’s ideas of successful students, pointing to the concept of the “ideal student” Marie mentioned:

“When you come in as a student and you see student success, they want you to be an OTL (Orientation Team Leader), they want you to be all these things, to graduate in four years, 15 credits every semester, they throw all this stuff at you. And that’s where you get overwhelmed or caught in the rat race…[but] when you hear professors talk about students they’ve now caught up [with] from a few years ago, professors identify that as student success. But I think for freshmen, it’s too cookie cutter” (Zoe).

This concept of an ideal student resonated with all of the participants. They nodded and rolled their eyes while Zoe was speaking, indicating they had all interacted with one of these “ideal students” and felt pressure to engage in their college life according to a certain model.

Alice focused on the notion of success in terms of post-graduation plans, comparing herself to a friend who just got a job offer for a position in her field:

“She just got a job…as a video editor, which is what she wants to do with her life. And I’m so excited for her, and, um, it’s a little tough for me, ‘cause, like, I’m still really struggling with that.”

Alice went on to share her own description of success and offered suggestions for the university:

“So, like I have all these really great fulfilling relationships in my life. I have a clear path for what I want to do in the future. And I feel like I’m happy, which, to me, is a success, because it’s something I didn’t think I would be able to do. So it’s such growth for me…She got this job…and we’re all super excited for her… For me, success was like ‘I’m happy’. And that’s not something you can measure as a university. So, I feel like you’re trying to put a metric to something that is very difficult to measure…you know, it’s when you try to put people in a box. It doesn’t work because you’re always going to be generalizing…we should allow [students] to self-categorize.”

Here, Alice is speaking to the importance of creating her own definition of success. While she and her friend both may have entered college to prepare for a career, they each got something different out of it. Alice chose to focus on her own self-development and emotional health, which were major accomplishments for her. Through the college experience, she gained social and emotional tools that will help her move ahead into her future, something she didn’t have when she started college. Her final comment, suggesting that self-categorization is the answer, speaks to the importance she places on recognizing individual strengths and talents….not something she thinks the large university is prepared or able to do.

Theme 4: International Perspectives

Two of the five participants, Zoe and Jennifer, are international students who had attended most of their primary schooling in their respective countries and chose to attend college in America. Throughout the interview, they supported their opinions with comparisons between the education systems in America and their home countries. When talking about her own personal growth which occurred during her college education, Zoe identified the American school system as what offered her the opportunity to explore:

“Back home… you don’t have that kind of timeline…so you must know what you want to do. Here…you can pick any classes you want… there’s so much room, so much room to really explore.”

This comparison became clearer when Zoe talked about her cousin who was also attending school in America but did not have the same desire to explore himself and engage with student life opportunities within the university:

“Back home, he would have been fine…you don’t need all this stuff. You just do your major and get your degree…but that’s not the structure here…I really do think college is about time to really grow as an individual.”

Jennifer provided similar comparisons when discussing the way societal pressures shape educational decisions:

“Like, back in Vietnam, is like collectivist culture…you should think about other people before you decide what to do. So, by the time we’re 16, we should know what to do…You have to know before you even apply…The structure of the university over there is that one university only focus on one thing. Here, because of the structure of the university, you can explore so many different things. You can take classes on different fields…I choose a minor.”

Jennifer continued to describe the rigidity of the university system in Vietnam before switching to her perceptions of the American system:

“[There] you have to do it even though, like, you are miserable. Here, you want to do whatever you want to be happy. Sometimes it’s kind of selfish…but I think it’s a better way to do it.”

For Jennifer and Zoe, it was the perceived freedom and flexibility of the American college structure, which includes liberal arts or general education components, as well minor areas of study and student programming, that led to the personal development they described. The comparisons suggest these two international students believe they would not have felt the same type of self-exploration-based growth had they attended university in their home countries.

For all of the students in this study, the three themes of importance of a personal connection to and relevance of academic material to students’ lives, personal growth, and societal expectations versus personal desires came up multiple times. The next section will discuss what these themes mean in relation to concepts of student success.


Listening to students talk about their college experiences reveals the importance of a focus on the individual and the personal growth that is often overlooked in favor of more easily measurable facets of a college education. Throughout the interview, all of the students highlighted connections between academic content and their own lives, the life lessons they gained from professors, and the development of their own sense of selves, despite external pressures to conform to a set standard. The continued focus on individual growth and the importance of learning meaningful and lasting lessons indicates students see their college years as a chance to prepare for their futures. Many student success initiatives, including those voiced by the participants, focus on graduation as the end goal. Yet, these students devalued the importance of “just a piece of paper,” as Zoe described her diploma, and placed greater value on being happy, finding fulfillment in their careers, and giving back to others. This was particularly obvious in the way Jennifer and Zoe compared the rigidity and lack of options within the university systems in their home countries, compared to the freedom and flexibility of the American system. Both international students highlighted the importance of that flexibility and equated it to their own personal happiness, which they valued over only learning the academic content needed to move to the next step in working towards their career goals.

In different ways, each of the student participants voiced experiences that supports Kuh’s (1995; 2003) research on student success. Several also provided examples of feminist pedagogy, such as Zoe and Marie’s description of the professor that required them to know everyone’s name, Alice’s professor that allowed her to determine the scope of her project, and the ways in which course content was related to current issues. While the students expressed the importance of personal growth and stressed the value of college being more about the way it prepares them to be happy, contributing members of society in their future, clear examples of maternal teaching practices were not provided. Rather than elaborating on specific examples of maternal pedagogy, participants focused on the outcomes of their experiences. These outcomes could be attributed to maternal teaching practices from their instructors, or could have come about through other interactions while they were students at the university.

Yet, these findings are important. Students voiced values and outcomes of their college education that are not easily measured. What do these findings mean for state-mandated metrics? The dissonance between what students value from their college education (individualized plans for personal and academic growth) and what administrators mandate in the form of policies and processes (a clear path to graduation in 4 years) suggests that students and university administrators do not share the same definition of “success.” University administrators must find a way to incorporate student values into their plans in order to provide an educational experience that meets the students’ needs while also meeting state metric requirements.

Maternal teaching practices offer a promising way forward. We already know that these practices can provide for the individualized experiences and personal development opportunities our students value. NSSE results show that students who are more closely linked with faculty are more likely to graduate on time, suggesting that teaching practices that are focused on the individual needs of each student can help keep students on track. Future research should dig into the outcomes specific to maternal pedagogies, in order to better understand the link between faculty connection, student development, and graduating on time.


Due to time constraints, this study included student volunteers from a group to whom I had access through my role as a program leader in the college in which they are enrolled. This program features weekly reflection sessions to discuss their growth as leaders; as a result, these students may be more attuned to the importance of self-awareness, personal development, and multiple measures of success than other undergraduate students enrolled at the university. Further, Honors College students are a sub-group of the greater undergraduate population who are high achievers, and their opinions and experiences are likely not representative of the entire undergraduate student body. For example, during the interview I pointed out that no one explicitly mentioned graduating from college as a goal or measure of success; earning a degree was an assumed outcome they had coming into college. A college diploma was only the first step on their paths to success, not the end goal.

However, the experiences of these students matter, both to the individual students, and to the university as a whole. The fact that they are not representative of the entire student body reinforces the need for an approach to student success that incorporates practices of maternal pedagogies. As a mother recognizes the individual strengths and challenges of each child and flexes her approach to match their needs, so a university could, and should, recognize the differing definitions and experiences of success within the undergraduate population, and seek to support them in ways that match their needs.

Another limitation is that interview questions asked students to reflect on their “favorite” and “most meaningful” classes and professors, and not all academic experiences. This study does not provide insight into how common these meaningful experiences might be amongst their entire four years at the university. In addition, the study did not dig into the sources of the personal growth opportunities. While the students specified that some of their experiences were related to particular courses or instructor interactions, the interview did not explicitly ask about the people and experiences that led to the students’ growth.


The current state of higher education within the State of Florida poses quite a challenge to educators who seek to teach beyond the curriculum and to focus on the development of the whole student. Yet this approach is necessary to create a workforce of college graduates who understand that success in work and life is not merely about checking off requirements on the way to achievement as defined by an external source. College graduates who are self-aware, self-reflexive, and able to articulate and meet their own goals will be those who have the moral, ethical, and educational strengths to contribute to our future society.

While this study did not explicitly highlight examples of maternal pedagogies experienced while in college, the student participants clearly articulated what they found to be most important, and most useful, in their college experience. For these students, a degree is not enough to set them up for future success, nor is it the way in which they define their own success. Instead, it is the same outcomes that maternal teaching practices seek: personal growth and transformation, a college education that teaches them to challenge the status quo, and experiences which encourage them to resist societal pressures and forge their own path.

Future research should consider continuing this pilot study on a broader scale, to incorporate the views of more students from a variety of populations within the university, to understand the frequency in which students’ experiences of growth can be attributed to maternal teaching practices, and to add inquiry into some of the challenges students face which might be resolved through a focus on maternal pedagogies. This research could offer educational approaches that serve to meet the student success metrics of timely graduation while also offering students more than “just a piece of paper;” it can offer them a transformative education.


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