Breakthrough Strategies: Classroom-Based Practices to Support New Majority College Students

reviewed by Jane Lincove & Ann Kellogg - May 22, 2017

coverTitle: Breakthrough Strategies: Classroom-Based Practices to Support New Majority College Students
Author(s): Kathleen A. Ross
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1612509975, Pages: 240, Year: 2016
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The number of first-generation students enrolling in college, particularly those from lower socioeconomic strata and underserved racial/ethnic groups, has been rapidly increasing. Lack of financial aid and academic preparedness are often noted as factors contributing to low rates of degree attainment amongst these specific student populations. Social integration, as first theorized by Tinto (1975), is also seen as critical to student persistence. Social integration theorizes that the more a student feels connected to the college community, the more likely the student is to persist to graduation. This has led to numerous support services and programs intended to improve connections, such as freshman orientations, peer mentoring, and tutoring (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Astin, 1993). Many of these programs, provided by dedicated support staff, bypass the central role of instructional faculty in engaging students in the classroom. If connectedness is critical to persistence, then how do faculty, whose interactions with students are central to student success, connect with first generation, minority students?

In Breakthrough Strategies, researcher and former university president, Kathleen Ross, challenges instructional faculty to examine the cultural norms of first-generation students to gain insight into their classroom performance and behavior. Ross identifies this segment of the college-going population as the “new majority,” and notes this segment is beginning to outnumber traditional students, (those with college educated parents), on college campuses. Ross argues that we must understand the differences between these two groups, and modify communication and instructional strategies in order to provide the social support systems new majority students require to succeed in college. Further, as faculty and staff are typically drawn from the ranks of the middle class, they must become fluent in the “sociocultural world” of this new majority.

Drawing on her own teaching and administrative experience, combined with innovative qualitative research at a college with a population now 90% new majority students, Ross offers an analysis of student engagement grounded in communication mismatch theory. Faculty, she argues, need to compensate for variations in cultural norms among themselves, their institutions, and new majority students. Research has explored the effects of instructional methodology on academic achievement as well as the effects of social integration on college leaving (Earl, 1988; Backhus, 1989; Borglum & Kubala, 2000; Prince, 2004; Wei & Colleagues, 2008; Kim & Sax, 2009). Collectively, this body of research has led institutions to consider strategies such as active learning in classrooms, faculty and peer mentoring, and intrusive advising. These initiatives often require significant changes in institutional operations, as well as the dedication of financial resources to increase staffing levels, redevelop curriculum, and train faculty. Ross offers simpler strategies that instructors can deploy in their regular interactions with students, often with minimal cost, training, or additional staff. Put simply, Ross believes that instructors can do a better of job of engaging new majority students.

To identify effective strategies, she points to her own qualitative research grounded in a simple two-step strategy: first, surveying first-generation students to identify instructors who effectively engage with the new majority in the classroom, and second, interviewing these instructors to identify common strategies for student engagement. The context of this work is Heritage University: a small, private university that targets first-generation college students, where Dr. Ross implemented the Breakthrough Strategies project while serving as President. The book begins with a discussion of the importance that cultural norms have in college success or failure for new majority students. The introduction also provides an overview of communication mismatch theory, and how it can be applied to disconnects in communication between new majority students and faculty.

The book is then divided into four sections, each profiling a series of instructional or communication strategies aligned to various aspects of communication mismatch theory: engagement, belonging, confidence, and self-efficacy. Every strategy is introduced through a vignette that profiles a common student-faculty interaction in which a mismatch is likely to occur. After the vignette, Ross “unpacks” the interaction, tying it to an aspect of communication mismatch theory and introducing a simple solution to avoid future communication mismatches. For example, a common source of frustration for many faculty is the silence that falls in a classroom when asking if there are any questions. Faculty may perceive this silence as lack of preparation or disinterest; however, a common cultural norm for new majority students is to remain silent if they have any doubt in their knowledge so as not to risk appearing “dumb.” This is in opposition to the middle class norm of being encouraged to ask questions for clarification. Similarly, a faculty member may believe circulating a student’s paper as an exemplar is a highly valued compliment; yet this compliment may be perceived as “showing off” by a new majority student, who might feel embarrassed by the attention.

Although her recommendations are grounded in theory and research, Ross writes as a practitioner for practitioners. The Breakthrough Strategies can be adopted at the micro level to enhance instruction in any course, and improve dialogue with students during office hours. The strategies do not require any special training or expensive classroom technology. Her examples are clear, intuitive, and relatable, and do not require advanced understanding of sociocultural theories, learning styles, or instructional methodology.

All college staff and administrators that have contact with students or design student support programs could benefit from understanding the subtle differences between new majority students and continuing generations. The communication mismatches that are profiled in this book are likely to occur daily across our campuses. Faculty, teaching assistants, and others who interact with incoming students would particularly benefit from the insights in this book, as they are the first to engage new majority students and thus pivotal to their integration into the academic community.

Beyond benefiting faculty and institutions, this book also motivates new research questions. Systematically studying these strategies offers a new line of inquiry in the area of student persistence beyond Tinto’s integration theory. The strategies delineated by Ross lend themselves to research hypotheses that can be empirically tested and quantified to determine their impact and any unintended consequences. Indeed, Ross points to concerns about how some of the Breakthrough Strategies might be detrimental to continuing generation students. While her research setting is a small university enrolling mostly new majority students, more exploration is needed to learn which strategies work best when deployed at colleges with a more integrated population of traditional and new majority students. Ross’s work is a substantial first step in moving strategies for engaging students directly into classrooms.


Astin. A.W. (1993). What matters in college: Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Backhus, D. (1989). Centralized intrusive advising and undergraduate retention. NACADA Journal, 9(1), 39–45.

Borglum, K., & Kubala, T. (2000). Academic and social integration of community college students: A case study. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 24(7), 567–576.

Earl, W. R. (1988). Intrusive advising of freshmen in academic difficulty. NACADA Journal, 8(2), 27–33.

Kim, Young K and Linda J. Sax. (2009). Student-Faculty Interaction in Research Universities: Differences by Student Gender, Race, Social Class and First-Generation Status. Research in Higher Education 50: 437-459.

Pascarella, E. T. and P. T. Terenzini. (1991). How college affects students: findings and insights from twenty years of research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Prince, Michael. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering, 93(3), 223-231.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45, 89–125.

Wei, Pan, Shuqin Guo, Caroline Aliknois, and Haiyan Bai. (2008). Do intervention programs assist students to succeed in college?: A multilevel longitudinal study. College Student Journal: 42(1): 90-98.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 22, 2017 ID Number: 21985, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 6:45:16 AM

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