Students Don’t Know What They Don’t Know: Helping Every Student Understand Their Career Options.

By Chris Motley posted 07-31-2018 08:29


Note: Chris Motley's company (The Whether--formerly Better Weekdays) was recently awarded a $775,000 “Innovations in Career Advising” grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to personalize career pathways for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).   

Several weeks ago, my wife and I took a long weekend to sunny San Diego to celebrate the nuptials of one of her dear friends. While people have mixed feelings about attending weddings, I absolutely enjoy the conversations among a diverse group of individuals. It certainly beats being the bride or groom making countless rounds to speak to folks while also trying to enjoy their special day! I also love wedding cake!   

The morning before the big day, my wife and I had brunch with three of her closest friends. They met during her days as a teacher, before she attended to the Kellogg School of Management (where she met me) and began her career in healthcare. The topic of conversation? How students’ reading scores haven’t improved over the last 20 years! This was shocking to me. 

In April, The Atlantic published an article to investigate the reasons why those scores haven’t improved. In short: background knowledge. Specifically, there are two skills tested in reading: reading ability (making connections between sounds and the letters that represent them) and comprehension. While the goal of standardized tests is to measure both reading ability and comprehension, they are inherently flawed because they don’t adequately account for the “background knowledge” required to understand a passage. 

Here’s an excerpt that was particularly jarring (and relatable) for me: 

“...whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills. That’s because writers leave out a lot of information that they assume readers will know. If they put all the information in, their writing would be tedious.

But if readers can’t supply the missing information, they have a hard time making sense of the text. If students arrive at high school without knowing who won the Civil War they’ll have a hard time understanding a textbook passage about Reconstruction.

As I listened to these passionate educators share stories about their students, it occurred to me that this phenomenon can also be seen in how college students pursue their job search. This is why we hear the oft- repeated phrase “students don’t know what they don’t know” when referring to career preparation.  

Furthermore, the lack of background knowledge impacts ALL students. Unfortunately, it disproportionately impacts first generation college students of color who oftentimes don’t have access to or awareness of networks or experiences to supplement the college experience in preparation for a life of work.  

For students transitioning from classroom to workplace, background knowledge is essential to ensure they identify a career path that reflects their values, leverages their skills, and motivates them to perform at their best. My team at The Whether believes that technology combined with content and collaboration can systematically improve “background knowledge attainment” to benefit tens of thousands of underrepresented college students pursuing an education to improve their lives and those of their families.

We were happy to learn that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shared our view when we received an unprecedented “Innovations in Career Advising” grant to put our framework to the test for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

A game-changing investment is changing the game

I happen to know a young man, Brandon, who grew up in the south side of Chicago. His mother was 13 when he was born. He grew up without his father. Predictably, times were tough, until a life-changing opportunity afforded him access to a prestigious college-prep high school, and subsequently a mentor who was a high-ranking executive at Goldman Sachs. One conversation with this man changed everything for that student. As their relationship grew into a mentorship, the boy was encouraged to attend Columbia University, major in history, and pursue a career as a commodities trader at Goldman Sachs. Life-changing, indeed. 

Stories like Brandon’s are what motivated the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to award The Whether (formerly Better Weekdays) $775,000 to better understand the impact of innovations in career advising technologies for students attending HBCUs. To be clear, the goal isn’t to replace career advisers, but to leverage technology to improve the scale of services, and therefore impact, that understaffed career services offices desperately need. 

For advisers at HBCUs, this is a game-changing investment. This is one of the very rare moments where nonprofit grant money has been unlocked for a for-profit company to execute an innovation and research project on a national scale and at zero cost to participating schools. “Creative capitalism” at its finest!  

Ultimately, career opportunities post college shouldn’t rely on serendipitous encounters. We’re encouraged to partner with Center for Minority Serving Institutions at University of Pennsylvania (CMSI), led by Marybeth Gasman. At present, participating institutions include Paul Quinn College, Dillard, Spelman, Morgan State, and North Carolina A&T to name a few.  

At the end of 2018-2019 academic year (and along the way), we’ll share all of our findings to help all educational institutions personalize career paths for their student population and employer partners.  As previously mentioned, all students suffer from lack of background knowledge as it pertains to the job search, and we want to be part of the solution. 

Our Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project is organized around a framework that we believe establishes a solid foundation for current and future innovations in career advising. In order to realize the vision of personalizing career paths for EVERY student, we must begin with empathy and then seek to provide students with personalized background knowledge in three formats that overlap and reinforce one another:

  1. Enhanced Curriculum
  2. Mentorship 2.0
  3. Experiential Learning

 Next month, I will unpack this framework and share innovations that may inform how you can bring new innovations to your campus or your university recruiting teams.