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‘Equity Is Behind All of This’

How community colleges are strengthening guided pathways and ensuring students are learning

By Ben Dedman

July 7, 2021

Health Sciences is the most popular academic pathway at Chattanooga State Community College, enrolling more than 40 percent of first-year students each fall. But over the years, many of these students never made it to graduation.

“We were seeing two things,” says Julius Dodds, director of academic retention at Chattanooga State. “First, students were failing out, changing their majors, or leaving the college. Second, which is even more of a concern, the students who stayed for multiple semesters did not include students of color.”

In 2019, Chattanooga State was one of twenty community colleges to join Strengthening Guided Pathways and Career Success by Ensuring Students Are Learning, a two-year project led by AAC&U.

The project draws on the Guided Pathways framework, which supports institutions as they (1) map academic pathways and degree programs to student goals; (2) help students choose and enter a degree pathway; (3) keep students on their paths; and (4) build institutional capacity to ensure students are learning.

“Based on preliminary project evaluation findings that will be released later this year, most participating campuses have raised awareness around inequities in student outcomes across guided pathways, including why equity matters in educational design, implementation, and assessment,” says Tia Brown McNair, the project’s director and AAC&U’s vice president for diversity, equity, and student success and executive director for the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Centers. “As they become more equity-minded practitioners, the campus teams will continue to address how and why inequities exist for racially minoritized and historically marginalized students.”

Below, faculty and staff at three participating campuses—Chattanooga State Community College, Monroe Community College, and Palo Alto College—describe their ambitious work to close equity gaps, strengthen faculty professional development and collaboration, and foster integrative learning and reflection.

Closing Equity Gaps at Chattanooga State Community College

Since 2015, Chattanooga State Community College has used the guided pathways model to close equity gaps for students of color. Every Chattanooga State student now has an online map of their academic plans, including required prerequisites, course progression, milestones such as registering for classes or applying for financial aid, and information about the careers available for the program’s graduates. The college has also implemented an array of high-impact practices (HIPs) such as service learning, undergraduate research, ePortfolios, and first-year experiences across the curriculum.

As part of the Ensuring Students Are Learning project, the college has narrowed this broad focus to examine and close equity gaps within the popular Health Sciences pathway. “We saw three courses with really low success rates that we identified as barriers for students of color: Human Anatomy and Physiology, College Success, and Nutrition,” Dodds says. The first and simplest change was to remove Nutrition as a graduation requirement altogether, making it a general education elective. But the other two courses would require more holistic changes.

Human Anatomy and Physiology has two components, a lecture and lab, taught by different instructors. “We found out that the lecturer and the lab instructor were not always in sync,” Dodds says. Often, students would experiment with concepts in the lab that had not been covered in the lecture.

Now, students attend both components as part of the same cohort, and the faculty members collaborate to plan their curricula, design assignments, and attend every lecture and lab together. “While that did require us to decrease the number of students in each section, it has enhanced the communication between faculty members and students,” Dodds says.

Projects in the course, including a large osmosis lab experiment, have been redesigned with new prompts, experiments, and rubrics focused on measuring students’ critical thinking skills. “The new level of assessment has allowed the two instructors to more quickly identify gaps in students’ knowledge so they can provide more support,” Dodds says. The redesigned course made an immediate impact, with the percentage of students who earned at least a C increasing by ten percentage points between fall 2018 and fall 2019.

Like many first-year seminars, College Success originally acted as an extended orientation for new students. Now, the course guides students through researching several health careers, recording their findings, and presenting information about a career to classmates. Students are assessed on the critical thinking processes displayed in their notes, as well as on their final presentations.

This summer, students’ critical thinking in the courses is being scored externally as part of AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) Institute. “Skills like critical thinking are critical for students in the health field,” Dodds says. “Health professionals must be able to draw on their knowledge of the body and rationalize about the next steps in supporting or helping a patient.”

To scale up this work across the college, faculty and staff are examining other highly enrolled courses to see where similar changes could help students succeed. Some courses, they found, already have stellar success rates. In Public Speaking, a course within the Communications pathway, faculty use HIPs like collaborative learning and front-load assignments early in the semester “so that students receive consistent encouragement and feedback,” Dodds says. The college hopes to replicate these successful strategies across other courses.

“We have many courses that need to consider redesigns,” Dodds says. “By just being open to change, we are hopeful to take this model, move it forward, and remove barriers that we may be causing in classrooms.”

Connecting HIPs across the Curriculum at Monroe Community College

For decades, Monroe Community College (MCC) has offered high-impact practices such as writing-intensive courses, service learning, and undergraduate research. These HIPs have been transformative for the institution, driving a variety of equity and assessment initiatives, but they also existed in silos. Separate coordinators oversaw each practice and different academic departments worked independently.

These silos have been connected through an interdisciplinary High-Impact Practices Committee composed of HIPs coordinators, the assistant director of assessment, and the dean of humanities and social sciences. The committee, which has representatives from five disciplines, developed standardized processes to tag and describe courses that contain HIPs within the course catalog. They also created an array of workshops on HIPs during a Winter Institute and the Spring Professional Development Week.

The college has also redesigned academic pathways for all seven academic schools through a series of broad “meta-majors” as part of its most popular degree program, Liberal Arts: General Studies. These meta-majors provide structure and guidance for students who are undecided on a specific major or seek a four-year degree in a program not offered by MCC.

“Now, students have an academic home even if they haven’t declared a major in a specific field,” says Kimberley Collins, associate vice president of academic services. “Guided pathways really focus on helping students, wherever they are in their education, get to a documented plan as quickly as possible, and on providing structure when they’re not sure what their next step is.”

As part of this restructuring, each school redesigned its first-year experience course, College Orientation and Success Strategies. Now, students create clear maps that outline how their educational pathway prepares them for a career or to transfer to a four-year institution.

“They develop a sense of community” in the course, says Michael Jacobs, dean of humanities and social sciences. “We know that community college students, especially first-generation college students, are much more successful when they feel a part of the college community.”

As part of the college’s participation in AAC&U’s VALUE Institute, biology faculty worked with members of the interdisciplinary HIPs committee to develop new writing-intensive assignments. Using the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) framework, biology faculty clearly explained the goals, tasks, and assessments for each assignment.

“Breaking down disciplinary boundaries is of great benefit,” Jacobs says. “We were able to talk about scaffolding writing assignments. We were able to talk about writing as a means of discovery. It was one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had in twenty years of higher education.”

In addition to establishing the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and hiring the college’s first chief diversity officer, the college is working to ensure departments and committees continue to identify both barriers and opportunities for students. “We’re changing our culture to look at diversity, equity, and inclusion as not just another thing to cover but as a lens through which you can filter everything else,” Jacobs says.

“Equity is behind all of this,” Collins adds.

Empowering Students through ePortfolios at Palo Alto College

The majority of Palo Alto College students are first-generation students. Many speak English as a second language. Nearly 90 percent receive financial aid. And most work part-time or full-time jobs.

“A lot of our students are here for financial independence,” says Edlyn De Oliveira, instructor of music. “How do we add something to support these students that doesn’t add burdens but sets them up for educational and financial success?”

Since 2009, Palo Alto students have been using ePorfolios in disciplines like art, music, or teacher education for which professional portfolios are essential for landing jobs. The Ensuring Students Are Learning project provided an opportunity to build on this foundation and create a campus-wide culture of reflective and integrative learning.

The Portfolium ePortfolio platform is integrated with the college’s learning management system, helping students to (1) recognize and articulate the development of knowledge and skills, (2) create an evolving repository of academic work and experiences, (3) develop a resource for future curricula vitae, and (4) understand and describe their educational pathways and career goals.

“The level of student engagement is something we’ve never seen before,” says Elizabeth Tanner, vice president of academic success. “Instead of faculty having to drive students to the ePortfolio to get their assignments done, they can’t get students off the ePortfolio to do anything else.”

Students first encounter ePortfolios in Learning Frameworks, a three-credit first-year experience course. Students build their portfolios, meet with peer and staff advisors, choose an educational pathway, and write a reflective personal mission statement.

One signature assignment, “four squares,” is based on relationships the college built with companies like Amazon, General Electric, and AT&T to learn more about the skills that employers want. “If someone can articulate four things—what is important to them; who is important to them; what their short-term goals are; and what their long-term goals are—I’ll hire them on the spot,” one executive told the college’s staff. “I want to get to know this person.”

The college held faculty development workshops on ePortfolios—including twenty workshops this summer—and the use of portfolios has spread across courses in the arts, sciences, and professional and technical programs. As students complete portfolios across different courses and cocurricular experiences, they can visualize their ongoing interdisciplinary learning and skill development.

“In a cosmetology degree, students begin to see how core competencies such as leadership and teamwork will help them successfully manage a salon,” De Oliveira says. “They make the connection on how their math course will help them better execute their salon budget.”

This summer, over fifty faculty and staff members are taking an Introduction to Portfolium course that offers definitions, reading materials, and guided discussions on topics such as reflection and metacognition, experiential learning, and high-impact practices. The campus’s Academic Learning Studio has also expanded its peer consultants program in which paid student consultants help peers and faculty build ePortfolios.

“From the first morning class to the end of evening classes, we teach students and faculty how to use portfolios,” says Suzel Molina, professor of kinesiology.

Engagement with the ePortfolios has exceeded anything the project team hoped for. So far, 3,655 Palo Alto College students have uploaded more than 180,000 data points; documented almost 21,000 skills; made nearly 3,600 connections with other students, faculty, and employers; and accrued over 113,000 project and profile views. Students are following and are followed by more than 2,000 companies, and over 2,300 Palo Alto College students have reported jobs and internships through the ePortfolio platform.

“This is an educational platform, it’s a social network, and then it’s also an employment network,” De Oliveira says.

But the numbers don’t show the most encouraging outcome of the project: the sheer level of engagement from students.

Molina remembers one student who became frustrated by a remedial math course. The ePortfolio helped the student reflect on the course and analyze the barriers that kept her from learning. Many of the barriers, the student found, came from herself.

“Students feel empowered. They come up with their own assignments and projects,” Molina says. “It’s really about having students who felt like underdogs, who felt defeated, to take control of their learning and say, ‘You know what? This is the place for me. I’m going to do well.’”

Something clicked, and now that student plans to pursue a career as a math teacher. “How crazy incredible is that?” Molina says.


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.