Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

A Tale of Three Grants: Redesigning First-Year Experiences to Bolster Student Success

After struggling for years with low completion rates, administrators at Chattanooga State Community College (ChSCC) decided to try something new.

In 2010, when the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools asked ChSCC to create a quality enhancement plan (QEP) as a part of the reaccreditation process, administrators interviewed community stakeholders—local businesses, students, faculty, and academic advisory boards—to explore reasons why students weren’t completing.

“We kept getting data that was really linked to soft skills or work ethic, basic grit,” said Amanda Hyberger, professor of music and director of the QEP and eportfolio. “So we fashioned a list of attributes we felt we wanted to target: teamwork, integrity, professionalism, and productivity.“

From 2010 to 2011, the QEP action committee refined the plan, “W.E. Succeed—Work Ethic First,” and integrated the attributes into pilot courses. The next year, they integrated work ethic into general education courses and developed a new student eportfolio system.

A Roadmap for Success

While the work ethic courses and eportfolio system were positive steps forward, “what we were failing to do with our QEP was really impact the first-year experience,” Hyberger said. “We had said in our QEP that we would change orientation and our first-year student success course, and we weren’t [making] any headway.”

In 2012, to get professional development for her team to redesign student experiences in their first year, Hyberger applied to participate in phase two of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Developing a Community College Student Roadmap project.

“Having a whole team go and hear the same thing and talk about initiatives that could help our students [regarding] first-year experience was really awesome,” Hyberger said.

Through the Roadmap project, ChSCC modified student orientation, started an early alert system for struggling students, and began new advising strategies through academic completion coaches.

“The Roadmap project put into place a roadmap for success for our students, and our main objective was to address completion,” said Julius Dodds, director of academic retention.

Prior to orientation, students complete an online program in which they designate an intended academic focus and sign up to attend one of several on-campus orientation sessions. These sessions last about five hours and include forty to sixty students who receive information about registration, financial aid, and student experiences on campus.

Smaller sessions “give us the ability to have a little more one-on-one communication and interaction with those students when they come to campus,” Hyberger said.

Each student meets individually with a faculty advisor in the designated academic focus to help them select appropriate courses for their discipline. To help students gain momentum and return semester by semester, “we do try to reach out to the students so they’re not running around just in general courses but they’re connecting with their majors as quickly as possible,” Hyberger said.

Emma Allyn, a student who went through orientation in July 2015, said it was very different then, with less participation from current students sharing collegiate experiences. Now there are five or six current students—including Allyn—who share their first-hand experiences and tips for joining clubs, getting involved on campus, managing time, and getting into competitive academic programs.

Executives in the Classroom

After success with AAC&U’s Roadmap project, the completion task force examined their progress with the first-year experience and asked, “Well what’s the missing piece that we haven’t really been able to get after?” Hyberger said. “The thing we hadn’t been able to tackle was redeveloping our RI 100: [Personal and] College Success course.”

According to Donna Seagle, associate professor and director of the center for academic research and excellence, that course was housed in a single academic division and had become an “easy credit” to go alongside other developmental courses.

With mostly adjunct faculty, few support structures, and little student enthusiasm, the course had become a barrier to student success. “[We] ran the student success numbers and many students were not being successful in the course nor were they persisting to graduation,” Seagle said.

With help from a Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) grant, ChSCC launched an Executives in the Classroom pilot program for the 2014–15 academic year. Executives from local businesses came into four first-year courses to speak to students on professionalism and work ethic and to mentor students.

In a BTtoP newsletter article about the project, Hyberger wrote that each course included

  • work ethic education;
  • group discussions for college and career success;
  • career exploration, including through StrengthsFinder and TypeFocus assessments;
  • eportfolio development and personal reflection; and
  • service-learning projects.

“The goal of that [pilot program] was to get the students into divisional courses where they would be taught by faculty in their area of expertise,” Hyberger said. “It was our effort at building a community, and in my mind, being in a cohort like that is a high-impact practice.”

Strengthening Institutions

As the completion task force looked to expand upon their success improving the first-year experience, they applied for and received a $2.5 million grant from the US Department of Education “basically from the work that we’ve done through the Roadmap experience,” Dodds said.

ChSCC has used the Strengthening Institutions Project grant to (1) provide tutors to developmental courses, (2) continue redesigning and improving the RI 100 course, (3) hire a high-impact practices specialist to integrate high-impact practices throughout the curriculum, and (4) solidify support for the mandatory student orientation.

As a requirement of the Tennessee Board of Regents, ChSCC redesigned their developmental courses in 2015. Prior to these reforms, students needing remediation were placed in a developmental course that they had to complete before enrolling in a college-level course. According to Dodds, it was difficult for students to make the transition, and just 18.5 percent of students who completed the developmental course passed the college-level course. In the new “corequisite” model, students take developmental courses alongside their college-level course. The Strengthening Institutions Project grant also allowed ChSCC to provide tutoring support through the Andrews Reading and Writing Center, while math center tutoring had been available before.

“For students who received tutoring in those courses, that tutor made a significant difference in those students’ success in the college-level course,” Dodds said. In this new corequisite and tutoring model, 48 percent of students were successful in the college-level course.

For the 2015–16 academic year, the first-year student success course was redesigned a second time. According to Seagle, they made this shift to provide students access to high-impact practices and help students complete the eight hours of community service required by Tennessee Promise, which began in 2015 and provides free tuition to Tennessee community college students.

There are now nine courses taught mostly by full-time faculty from across the academic divisions. Each division has designated a course “designer” that collaborates with designers from across campus to create two standardized modules for the beginning of the course, which include “what every student here at Chattanooga State needs to know to get started,” Seagle said. Designers develop the final modules individually to teach students skills that are important for future studies or careers in that discipline. 

“The ‘Executives in the Classroom’ really did just morph, and that title was lost, but the spirit of what we did was not,” Hyberger said.

While many professors—including Hyberger, who teaches music—still bring speakers from local businesses into the classroom, the focus of the new course is to provide students with service-learning and community engagement opportunities.

When Kelsey Callahan, a graphic design major, took the course in 2015, her professor pushed students to complete the service-learning in a field that interested them as a career. Since she has considered teaching art, she volunteered at a day care center and did a series of artwork projects that reinforced the children’s prior learning about letters of the alphabet.

“It really helped me in my art classes later to just let loose and have a little more fun with it, and . . .  it showed me the potential that I could have because I’ve never really considered myself to be very patient, but working with little kids you’ll discover very quickly just how patient you must be.”

Speaking about Kelsey’s experience in the course, Dodds said that having students complete work in their major, or in a possible future career, was one of the main goals for the redesigned course. “We really wanted to help students to decide early what their majors might be. . . . I think this helped to solidify [Kelsey’s] major and has helped her matriculate from one semester to the other.”

Peer Mentors and Eportfolios

With support from the Strengthening Institutions grant, Hyberger hired a staff of peer student mentors—including Callahan and Allyn—who each visit six college success courses three times a semester. Mentors are vetted by GPA, faculty recommendations, and the quality of their eportfolios.

In working with the BTtoP and AAC&U Roadmap grants, “we realized the importance of peer mentoring and utilizing our best students to encourage other students," Hyberger said. “When I’m able to hire a team of excellent students that are achieving or maintaining their goals and we’re able to showcase them and put them forward to speak to the other students, I think that’s really powerful.”

During the first visit, mentors showcase their eportfolio and explain its benefits for career preparation, reflection, and learning. Several weeks later, mentors help students complete reflections on the course’s work ethic outcomes. In the final visit, mentors help students complete assignments and personalize their eportfolios.

Mentors also help Hyberger badge eportfolios with three tiers—bronze, silver, and gold. According to Hyberger, these badges have “pretty rigorous” parameters including web page hit requirements, course work quality, and the inclusion of a high-impact practice (most students do service-learning) alongside a reflection.

 “I have seen a much more positive response when it’s the students teaching,” Callahan said. “Of course a professor’s going to tell you that it’s a valuable tool, but hearing it from a student you take it much more personally.”

Student Eportfolios

Emma Allyn
Emma Allyn Eportfolio
Kelsey Callahan
Kelsey Callahan

A lot of an eportfolio’s value comes from being able to showcase talents to future schools and employers, Callahan said. For her eportfolio, she takes pictures during learning experiences so that “readers can get a visual,” and she wrote her service-learning reflection about questions the children asked and comments they made about what they learned.

But Callahan also took the time to reflect on what she learned.

“Looking back on it I see I learned quite a bit. Typically you tend to forget things as a student, but every now and then if you look back on your own reflections you see how much you’ve grown and . . . say, ‘Oh yeah! I did learn that!’”

Moving Forward

While they are still refining their assessment methods, ChSCC has been using AAC&U VALUE rubrics to assess student performance on several learning outcomes and has seen increases in performance on the information literacy outcome that is a large focus of the new college success course.

These rubrics also provide data on outcomes that help faculty measure and improve their teaching of institutional student learning outcomes (ISLOs). Student samples with passing grades are “gathered campus-wide and then scored by a team of faculty using the various VALUE rubrics,” Seagle said. “The faculty teams (one for each ISLO) meet to discuss and learn from the results, which are shared campus-wide and in our various external reporting.”

Another avenue of assessment is the eportfolio system, which is “one of the substantial benefits of our QEP that we feel will last on our campus,” Hyberger said. 

Digication, the eportfolio provider, built customized tools into the eportfolio system that prompt students to select learning outcomes before writing reflections on them. This has created a large amount of qualitative data to assess the first-year course. Hyberger’s goal is to eventually link the qualitative data from eportfolio reflections with quantitative data from rubric assessment.

ChSCC is also looking forward to measuring three-year completion rates for the cohort of students who entered in 2015—the first to experience the redesigned RI 100 course.

So far, two-year completion rates for these students are more than two percentage points higher than in the previous four years. Because most students take three years to graduate, “we’re turning flips about that,” Dodds said. “We expect that after three years it will exceed what we’ve had in the past.”