Productive Persistence: A "Practical" Theory of Community College Students Success

The Carnegie Foundation’s Productive Persistence initiative is a practical theory of the causes of successfully completing coursework at a community college—or, in our terms, the “drivers” of successful course completion.  The term “Productive Persistence” refers to both the tenacity to persist, and also the ability to use good strategiesto productively engage with the course materials. 

This practical theory was developed during a 90-day inquiry cycle that scanned the field for related efforts.  It was then co-created with developmental math faculty and researchers, it was tested out in discussions with members of both groups as well as college counselors and students, and it has been measured and (largely) supported in the population of developmental students. 

We call it a “practical” theory because the primary objective of the Productive Persistence line of work is topromote the improvement of student outcomes in developmental math classrooms.  It is meant to ­focus improvement efforts on a limited set of high-impact causes of student outcomes, and provide a framework for measuring them and intervening on them. 

Productive Persistence is not meant to be a disciplinary theory, in that it does not seek to document the features of human psychology or social structures that shape the ways people in general think and behave.  Instead, it draws on both the wisdom of practice as well as insights from academic theories to guide practice improvement. 

It is also not meant to be a general educational theory: the selection of the drivers, the framing of the drivers, and the measurement of the drivers were all co-created and tailored for the challenges faced by developmental math students.  Nevertheless, what is learned from this effort may be informative both for disciplinary theories and for practical theories of other educational problems, such as developmental reading and writing.

More specifically, Productive Persistence involves five broad conceptual areas or “drivers:”

  • Interest in and relevance of math
  • Self-regulatory skills
  • Academic mindsets about the potential to improve at math
  • Social mindsets about social belonging and stereotypes
  • Faculty mindsets and skills, specifically, instructors’ beliefs in students’ potential to improve at math and instructors’ skills at promoting engagement