Assessment for Learning: Building a New Curriculum at Charles and Stella Guttman Community College
Building a college from scratch presents a lot of challenges, but it's also "fantastically freeing to be able to start fresh," says Scott Evenbeck, president of Charles and Stella Guttman Community College. Guttman is the newest community college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. The college accepted its first cohort of students in the fall of 2012, just four years after a team from across the CUNY system began work on an entirely new curriculum.
Guttman was designed to be student centered in every way. "Everything we do is intentional," says Stuart Cochran, dean of strategic planning and institutional effectiveness. Using all the available research on best practices for student success, the planning committee set out to create a community college that would consistently graduate 35 percent of its students within three years. The resulting college features a highly-structured curriculum and cocurriculum grounded in a set of college-wide learning outcomes; an instructional model based on collaborative teams of faculty and student support staff; and an assessment process to ensure continuous learning and improvement—for students, and for faculty and staff too.
"Many ask why I left my former college, where I had tenure and a successful e-portfolio project," says Laura Gambino, a faculty member and assessment expert at Guttman. "I say, how can I not take this opportunity? [We have] the chance to create a culture of learning and assessment for learning from the start of a new college."
The First-Year Experience
The signature program of Guttman is the first-year experience. All students are required to attend full-time during their first year, during which they complete a structured set of courses and cocurricular experiences, beginning with the three-week Summer Bridge program in August. Although many community college students attend part time because of financial and familial obligations, research shows that students who do attend full time are more likely to transfer or complete a degree, and Guttman encourages students to attend full time even after the first year, although it is not mandatory.
During the bridge program, students are introduced to the learning communities, known as "houses," of which they will be members throughout their first year. Each house comprises several cohorts of students who attend all their courses together. Working with other students in their house, students complete a mini-project through which they practice key skills such as writing and mathematics. That project becomes the first item in the students' e-portfolios, through which they will document and reflect on all of their work at Guttman.The e-portfolios "are central to everything we're doing," Evenbeck says."It's a practical means of ensuring the focus stays on students and their learning."
The summer bridge program is also when students are first introduced to Guttman's college-wide learning outcomes: broad, integrative knowledge; specialized knowledge; intellectual skills for life-long learning; civic learning, engagement, and social responsibility; and applied learning. These outcomes draw from AAC&U's Essential Learning Outcomes and the Lumina Foundation Degree Qualifications Profile. A group of faculty and students are currently collaborating on a project to rebrand the Guttman learning outcomes and develop new ways of introducing them to students.
After completing the bridge program, students begin the first semester of the core curriculum that includes three elements: City Seminar, Ethnography of Work, and Statistics. The City Seminar is actually a cluster of three courses—Critical Issues, Reading and Writing, and Quantitative Reasoning—organized around a theme related to New York City. A recent seminar, "Transaction to Trash: the Life Cycle of Stuff," focused on issues related to consumption, waste management, and sustainability. Ethnography of Work takes the workplace and work culture as its subject, and students use the academic tools of the social sciences to investigate different careers.
The second semester is similar structured. City Seminar II builds on the skills of City Seminar I, but students focus on a single case study related to the thematic issue from the first semester, with a focus on research and using the library system. Similarly, Ethnographies of Work II allows students to narrow their focus to a set of potential career pathways and conduct a more in-depth investigation. The second semester also introduces a composition course that is thematically linked to the City Seminars.
These courses are taken during the Fall I and Spring I semesters, each of which lasts twelve weeks and is followed by the six-week Fall II and Spring II. The two-part semester system, which is also used at other community colleges in the CUNY system, offers several benefits. For one, it accommodates a wider range of students, Cochran says. Guttman does not have noncredit remediation courses. Instead, students who struggle can get extra time and support to complete course objectives during the Fall II and Spring II semesters. Students who have already completed their course work can move forward and take additional classes.
During the 2013 Spring II semester, students who had completed their coursework during Spring I took a course on the arts in New York City, which was particularly successful for its experiential learning component, Evenbeck says. "They'd go to class twice a week and then go to a museum, or participate in an artistic event. It made us think of the arts themselves as a high-impact practice."
This system also means that students can take classes almost year round without paying extra for summer course work. "There's a lot of research showing students do better if they attend courses through the summer," Evenbeck says. "Here we don't have summer classes, but we have Spring II," which runs from June to mid-July.
A Culture of Institutional Learning
Faculty work is organized differently, as well. While faculty members teach courses according to their disciplinary expertise, there are no separate departments—faculty are hired as members of the college as a whole. There are also very few academic offices separate from the faculty. "If we want to work on assessment, we have a faculty member with expertise in assessment," Evenbeck says. "If we want mentoring, or experiential education, we have a faculty member lead that effort. We're trying to ground as much as we can in the expertise and leadership of our faculty."
dditionally, teaching is highly collaborative, as faculty are members of instructional teams, along with librarians and student success advocates who work with the same house of students. Student success advocates provide educational support, academic advisement, and counseling. "They can give us the full context for each individual student .. and tell us what challenges they are facing outside the classroom," says Nate Mickelson, an English faculty member. "Our discussion can move from 'how do we get the student engaged in class' to 'how do we support the whole student?'"
Instructional teams meet weekly to discuss their students' progress and any adjustments they might need to make to lesson plans. They also pause to conduct a comprehensive assessment halfway through the semester. "I don't know of any other college that takes two days in the middle of the semester to assess and reflect on where we are," Gambino says. The assessment days allowed the instructional teams "to look at where we were in the curriculum, what the learning outcomes were, and what we needed to do to achieve those outcomes by the end of the semester," she says. While students leave campus to perform service in surrounding communities, instructional teams look closely at each student's e-portfolio. "We get a snapshot of where each students is."
Those assessments also provide the opportunity for longer-term planning and adaptation when the whole college comes together, Cochran says. "We can take the projected success rates and compare them to actual rates at end of the session, and we'll build a good sense of the right 'next opportunities' to help students succeed. It's almost a case-by-case assessment, advising, and scheduling problem we're solving—how do you pull those three together in a short time frame so we know how many students pass a particular course, or the likelihood that they can take a six-week intervention. These are complicated problems we solve on the run."
One adjustment the college has made as result of this evaluation is the redesign of the Studio program. Originally titled Group Workspace, the program was first conceived of as a weekly ninety-minute work session connected to the City Seminar. Group Workspace was intended to provide additional work time, but students and instructors alike found it too unfocused to be helpful. A faculty member with expertise in mentoring redesigned the program as Studio, with a focus on guided practice of skills for learning. It was a small shift, Gambino says, but moving the emphasis to specific skills provided clarity for the students.
Time to Grow
Continuous assessment and improvement is central to the mission and culture of Guttman, but the faculty and staff are careful about acting too quickly on what they see. "We're very thoughtful about analyzing data and not jumping to make improvements right away—one year does not a trend make," says Elisa Hertz, director of the college's Center for College Effectiveness. "We're trying to do things differently and to give our unique approach a chance to develop before we tinker too much."
"When we talk about assessment, we often focus on things we're changing, but there are things in the model working very well," Gambino says. "The instructional teams are a great example of that, and our student success advocates … they've met the advising challenge so successfully. We don't want to tinker with that, but keep them going."
One of the challenges going forward will be to look at why certain aspects of the Guttman model are successful, and how they can be built on. Students have responded well to the experiential learning portions of the curriculum, Gambino says, and faculty are trying to build on that success. "We're seeing that through the research projects—their portfolios show that [the students] are really connecting their knowledge from the classroom to their experiences. Now we're analyzing why that is."