Diversity and Democracy

The Narrative Approach: A Culturally Relevant Tool

Salish Kootenai College (SKC) is a tribal college chartered in 1976 by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) to provide postsecondary educational opportunities to Native Americans. Located on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, the college serves a diverse community of students from over sixty reservations and twenty states. SKC offers thirty-nine bachelor's degrees, associate's degrees, and certificates designed to meet the workforce and educational needs of reservation communities.

Students come to SKC with a variety of past educational experiences, and many are dipping their toes into higher education for the first time. Approximately 50 percent of incoming students enroll in developmental courses, 70 percent are first-generation college students, and approximately 70 percent are Pell eligible. Like students at many other open-enrollment institutions, SKC students often need to work and meet obligations to family and community while pursuing their degrees. For SKC students, the challenges associated with these obligations are frequently compounded by the effects of previous educational experiences in public school systems that were not responsive to the cultural values of American Indian learners. As a result, as of 2005, the national graduation rate for American Indians at Title IV institutions was 38.5 percent, compared to 60.2 percent for white students (Knapp, Kelly-Reid, and Ginder 2012, 9).

Despite these challenges, SKC maintains six-year graduation rates of about 45 percent and fall-to-fall persistence rates of approximately 60 percent, successes that earned the institution an Institutional Champion of Access and Success Award from the Institute for Higher Education Policy in 2013. We attribute our success to faculty, classes, student services, engagement activities, and an institutional climate that are all oriented toward connecting cultural values with student success. One example is our use of the narrative approach as a culturally relevant way of addressing noncognitive factors in student success.

The Narrative Approach

The oral tradition of storytelling as a means of passing tribal history from generation to generation is a rich component of Native American cultures, including those of the CSKT (see Fahey 1974). At SKC, we have adopted a narrative approach to help students frame their educational experiences in the context of a story: the SKC Story Map Worksheet. Using this adapted plot-analysis tool, faculty and staff help students reflect on elements of their own stories.

The worksheet, which was developed with input from tribal elders to ensure cultural relevance and appropriateness, positions students as the authors of their own narratives and encourages them to proactively manage the variables within their stories that are under their control. The exercise reinforces two noncognitive factors—personal responsibility and time management—that researchers working in other contexts have identified as key to minority student success (Palmer and Strayhorn 2008). It also allows faculty and staff to garner information about individual students' strengths and challenges, improving their ability to provide customized support to students.

SKC first used the Story Map Worksheet with students who were already struggling, such as participants in the Academic Improvement Waiver program, a "recovery" curriculum for students on academic and/or financial aid suspension. More recently, we have used the tool preventatively to help students avoid struggles, incorporating it into SKC's Skills for College Success course, into an activity at new student orientation, and into noncognitive support courses for developmental studies students. In the following section, we describe some key elements of the SKC Story Map Worksheet and their relevance to student success.

Elements of the Story

The Story Map Worksheet helps students take control of their own academic journeys, and it helps SKC faculty and staff identify and provide the best interventions to support students along the way. As students progress through the exercise, they maintain focus on the thoughts, behaviors, choices, and actions that will help them achieve their desired ending. The worksheet prompts students to contemplate several questions related to their own narratives.

How will your story end the way it is being written now? How do you want your story to end? The worksheet opens by asking students to frame and articulate the currently probable and the desired endings for their academic stories. This prompt addresses another noncognitive factor deemed key to minority student achievement: maintaining focus on academic success (Palmer and Strayhorn 2008). As Jones and Brinkert have written, "If individuals are to 'see' the future, they need to be able to tell the story of the future—a story or narrative that has coherence and fidelity" (2008, 148). SKC faculty and staff use their knowledge of students' goals to provide assistance with academic and career planning. They also encourage students to routinely ask themselves, "What ending am I writing today with my thoughts, choices, and actions?"

What events inspired you to write this story? Perhaps as important as envisioning a positive outcome is remembering why one embarked on the educational journey to begin with. We have found that many Native American students enter higher education for the betterment of their families. Regardless of the reason, considering the story's inspiration helps students adopt an intrinsic sense of motivation and inspires them to persevere through challenges. When students are struggling, faculty and staff remind them of the inspiration for their stories.

Who are the main characters of the story? Students reflect on their stories' key characters, beginning with a thorough look at the main character—themselves. Aided by a variety of activities, materials, and assessments on topics like personal identity, learning strategies, and noncognitive factors affecting student success, students analyze their traits and identify related strategies to help them succeed. Students reflect on how to increase the positive influences from important figures in their lives while exploring ways to minimize the influence of characters who may not be as helpful. With the assistance of faculty and staff, they also identify the institutional personnel who might offer key support.

What are the problems faced by the main character, and how are they solved? Students reflect on the primary challenges they face in reaching their desired endings. The exercise encourages students to engage in problem solving when facing and overcoming obstacles. This section includes a component that asks students to anticipate unexpected "plot twists" that may develop. Faculty and staff then help students form plans (and back-up plans) for dealing with obstacles they may encounter.

Impacts on Campus Climate

The narrative approach has helped improve outcomes for the SKC student populations that are most likely to drop out. Participants in the Academic Improvement Waiver program are currently completing the curriculum and returning to good academic standing at a rate of over 75 percent (compared to 20 percent with prior efforts). Along with other noncognitive and institutional supports, the Story Map Worksheet has contributed to increasing developmental studies program completion rates by as much as 40 percent.

The narrative approach is one of several factors—such as requiring faculty to include cultural objectives in every course, offering numerous cultural activities throughout the academic year, and embracing cultural themes in campus facilities—that contribute to a campus climate that embraces Native American culture. Students often identify this climate as a key factor in their academic success and their ability to reach the positive endings they desire for their college stories.


Fahey, John. 1974. The Flathead Indians. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Jones, Tricia S., and Ross Brinkert. 2008. Conflict Coaching: Conflict Management Skills for the Individual. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Knapp, Laura G., Janice E. Kelly-Reid, and Scott A. Ginder. 2012. Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2011; Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2011; and Graduation Rates, Selected Cohorts, 2003–2008. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Palmer, Robert T., and Terrell L. Strayhorn. 2008. "Mastering One's Own Fate: Non-cognitive Factors Associated with the Success of African American Males at an HBCU." NASAP Journal 11 (1): 126–43.

Steve McCoy is the executive director of academic success at Salish Kootenai College; Stacey Sherwin is the director of institutional effectiveness at Salish Kootenai College; Leticia Tomas Bustillos is a consultant at Salish Kootenai College.

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