Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Texas A&M University–San Antonio

High-Impact Practices Help Students Succeed During University Expansion

In fall 2016, after exclusively educating junior-level, senior-level, and graduate students for over ten years, Texas A&M University–San Antonio (A&M–SA) underwent a unique kind of two- to four-year transition and opened its doors to first- and second-year students for the first time.

A&M–SA, which began as a system center for Texas A&M University–Kingsville in 2003, received funding from the Texas state legislature to become a stand-alone university in 2009 but continued to serve only upper-division students while undergoing accreditation review.

“Once we were accredited [in 2014], that gave us the opportunity to think about our community and who we serve and how we were going to grow as an institution,” said Holly Verhasselt, associate vice provost. A&M–SA, which is “on the south side of San Antonio in a region that has historically been underserved by higher education,” had served upper-division students that were predominantly first-generation (68 percent) and Latino or Hispanic (70 percent). University leaders expected that the first cohort of first-year students would be similar.  

“And just as we thought, of the first-time students, 74 percent were the first in their family to go to college and 82 percent were Hispanic,” said Melissa Mahan, vice president for student affairs and one of the chief architects of A&M–SA’s expansion.

Drafting a Comprehensive Expansion Plan

While most institutions “retrofit existing programs and existing services and then implement high-impact practices,” A&M–SA has “the unique ability to really build something from scratch,” said Ashley Spicer-Runnels, assistant vice president, who oversees the University College, first-year experiences, and the Academic Success Center.

To develop an action plan for this expansion, a team of A&M–SA administrators attended the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)’s 2015 Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success.

“Making sure that all students engage in two high-impact practices (HIPs) greatly improves the likelihood of their success in terms of completing a degree,” Verhasselt said. “It goes up a little at three high-impact practices and then you see diminishing returns beyond that.”

Based on previous assessment work, the team knew that student writing needed improvement across campus, which “made the selection of writing [as a HIP] almost a foregone conclusion,” Verhasselt said. There were also “pockets” of undergraduate research, experiential learning, and service learning in individual courses, “and it seemed like a good opportunity to start bringing these things to scale.”

Three faculty committees were tasked with overseeing the implementation and assessment of writing-intensive (A&M–SA uses the phrase “writing-intentional”), research, and service- and experiential-learning courses. The first writing-intentional courses were piloted in fall 2016, and the research, experiential-learning, and service-learning courses will be designated in fall 2017. Students will be required to take HIP-designated courses before graduation, with the designations appearing on their comprehensive student records.

Choose, Act, Impact

A&M–SA students get acquainted with service and experiential learning even before they matriculate. Students attend JagX, a mandatory weeklong program during the summer or winter before a student’s first semester, and participate in a two-hour session with Edwin Blanton, executive director of the Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement. Students brainstorm and research social issues that are important to them, find local organizations that are working to address these issues, and identify an organization that they can serve.

One group of students concerned about the plight of stray animals “discovered that Animal Care Services was an organization that the city had declared a no-kill shelter,” Blanton said, “and they were able to volunteer at that organization in a variety of ways, from making dog toys to helping out with the kennels.”

The first-year students vote and choose five service projects to be completed during the next semester’s Choose, Act, Impact Day. Students continue discussing and researching their service project during the semester and eventually reach out to the community organization to finalize their plans. Participation in the day’s projects is optional and open to the entire campus community. Over two hundred students participated in fall 2016, and 150 participated in spring 2017.

Choose, Act, Impact was designed as a first step in connecting students with their communities, and students at each service site spoke with the organization’s coordinators about future partnership opportunities.

“It’s kind of a nice flip on a traditional model where typically you have upperclassmen leading those type of initiatives, and in this instance you have new students taking the lead on the creative route but then inviting the campus community,” Spicer-Runnels said. “I think it’s a good way to build a culture of service.”

Jaguar Tracks

The Jaguar Tracks program, a series of one-credit student success courses taken successively over four years, was conceived during AAC&U’s summer institute as administrators sought to develop “a course that really impacts the student from the day they come in all the way until they graduate,” Mahan said.

In Jaguar Tracks I, first-year students learn academic skills like research and writing while participating in activities designed to build a sense of community and belonging. Students continue to plan and implement the Choose, Act, Impact Day and, according to the Jaguar Tracks web page, the course helps “students discover their place on campus and gain the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve academic success, campus involvement, and community engagement.”

Jaguar Tracks II continues to foster community engagement and build academic skills, while Jaguar Tracks III and IV separate from the general education curriculum and are “broken into kind of meta-majors,” Mahan said. These discipline-specific courses are taught by faculty in the students’ majors and focus on skills and practices necessary for students to launch successful careers in those fields.

To implement this program across all four years, “we had to go in and change every degree program we had, so it took a lot of collaboration from faculty [and staff],” Mahan said.

A Tale of Two HIPs: Service-Learning in First-Year Composition

In her first-year writing course, Katherine Bridgman, assistant professor of English, director of the writing center, and director of writing across the curriculum, helped students forge even closer community connections through a combination of writing and service-learning.

For years, Bridgman had taught upper-division courses that “looked at how writing was taking shape outside of the classroom” in social media and other genres. But she wanted to expand on this approach by designing a course where students not only read texts about their communities but “actually produce texts” about them.

Using Everything’s an Argument (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters 2016) as a textbook and drawing on a curriculum and resources focused on the food system from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future, she structured her course around three argumentative writing assignments and several service-learning experiences with local community organizations. A&M–SA’s writing program administrator, Scott Gage, is currently working with the community organizations to ensure the collaboration continues and grows in future semesters.

For their first assignment, an “Argument of Definition,” students read texts, discussed terms like “hunger” or “food insecurity,” and visited San Antonio Food Bank to help package food. They chose a food-related term and “saw how definitions of words are themselves arguments for the meaning of that word, and what’s at stake for food-insecure populations in particular when we think about how hunger might be defined.”

The second assignment, an “Argument of Evaluation,” had students examine an intervention in the food system such as a food bank, soup kitchen, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Alongside this assignment, students completed the SNAP Challenge and tried to subsist on the amount of money provided by food stamps, served food in a soup kitchen, and visited Local Sprout, “a very interesting example of urban agriculture in San Antonio,” Bridgman said. There, her students met with local hydroponic farmers, coffee roasters, and food fermenters who saved waste by making kimchi or Bloody Mary mix.

For the third assignment, “Argument for a Proposal,” students visited the food bank again and wrote proposals to specific audiences like a school board or the board of directors for Haven for Hope (a local homeless shelter) that identified a problem, proposed a solution, and assessed the difficulty of their plan.

The combination of service-learning experiences and writing assignments shows students that “arguments are around you all the time and they play a big part in shaping our world, and you need to learn how to write arguments so that your voice can be heard either in or out of the classroom,” Bridgman said. “They’ve been able to see the tangible work of language in our communities.”

Coaching Academic Success

Outside the classroom, A&M–SA looks to student success coaches to support students and bring them into the community. Before students arrive on campus, a success coach walks them through pre-enrollment requirements and procedures. The same coach remains with a student until graduation, and according to Spicer-Runnels, “not only are [students] establishing a solid relationship with one of our staff members on campus, which strengthens their sense of community, but it also allows them to learn how to navigate the institution so that they are better able to advocate for themselves.”

The first two years are “high touch,” with approximately two meetings per semester between coaches and students to work on academic success strategies and integrate students into the community. During the final two years, the coaches pull back and meet with students only once a year while helping them build relationships with faculty within their disciplines.

Coaches “are not on an island” and operate in close contact with faculty and other staff, Spicer-Runnels said. She cited the case of a student who was consistently late to a course. The faculty member reached out to the student’s coach, who discovered that the student was living on the other side of San Antonio, took the bus to class, and had grown up as a fostered youth.

“We were able to connect her with a state agency who was able to assist her with locating an apartment, which also reduced the travel time and allowed her to be on campus on time for class and be more successful,” Spicer-Runnels said.

Faculty Expansion and Development

Students weren’t the only ones who needed support as the expansion plan was implemented. The forty new faculty members and several new staff members who arrived in the summer of 2016 received several weeks of training and development, and returning faculty participated in a shorter development program.

Sessions focused on experiential/service learning, course design, and student services, and a speaker series gave faculty and staff a “common language” so that everyone would understand buzzwords like “high-impact practices,” Mahan said.

Blanton held separate three-hour experiential- and service-learning workshops for new and returning faculty. Between the workshops, he hosted a faculty lunch and invited approximately thirty organizations from San Antonio to facilitate “networking and set up some initial conversations around service learning and projects.”

Bridgman also held sessions for new faculty that included workshops on writing assignment design, delivering student feedback, and developing rubrics. Her workshops for returning faculty focused on reflective writing.

Spicer-Runnels, who was hired at that time, appreciated the communication and support that these development opportunities provided. “That was very useful being a new employee having context to what was happening. Things were moving very quickly and . . . being able to communicate openly so that we had context . . . was really valuable.”

“It’s a very collaborative process,” Mahan said. “It takes the entire campus community for our students to be successful.”

Assessing a Successful First Year

Assessing student learning will be an ongoing process during the first years of the expansion.

A&M–SA administered the National Survey of Student Engagement last spring, and though they have not received the results, they hope that it will provide a baseline for future assessment as they implement new HIP courses in fall 2017.

To assess student writing, A&M–SA uses an eportfolio system. Students begin their eportfolios in Jaguar Tracks and first-year composition courses, expanding them in upper-division writing-intentional courses. While Bridgman assigns grades to students’ eportfolios at the end of her service-learning course, the eportfolio is also a place for students “to reflect on their development across years, and our first-year writing program will use a selection of eportfolios for programmatic assessment.”  

To develop assessment tools for experiential/service learning, Blanton used AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics as well as standards from the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education and Texas A&M’s learning outcomes. The Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement also helps students track the hours they spend volunteering, helping five A&M–SA students receive President Obama’s Volunteer Service Award in February 2017.

Though their assessment is still nascent, A&M–SA has one clear indicator of success: between fall 2016 and spring 2017, they retained 89 percent of their first cohort of first-year students.

“From our perspective, not having any sort of historical data in which to say that’s a great number or that’s a bad number for our own [first-year] student population, almost 90 percent came back and continued for a second semester, and I think that’s a win,” Verhasselt said.

“Absolutely,” Mahan agreed.