Peer Review

Increasing Underserved Student Success through Faculty Intentionality in Problem-Centered Learning

Community College of Philadelphia, a minority-serving institution, is the largest public college or university in Philadelphia. We are an open-admission institution with an enrollment of more than 34,000 students, which includes approximately 76 percent students of color and 53 percent students who are over twenty-five years of age. We offer seventy associate’s degree and certificate programs in various fields, including business, humanities, allied health, liberal arts, science, technology, and social and behavioral sciences. Our main campus is located near downtown Philadelphia, and our three regional centers serve other areas of the city.

Our college chose to participate in the Association of American Colleges and University (AAC&U) Advancing Underserved Student Success through Faculty Intentionality in Problem-Centered Learning project because it aligned well with our strategic goals and interest in implementing high-impact practices, particularly those that have shown promise for underserved students. Like many US cities, Philadelphia wrestles with grave fiscal and social challenges. According to a 2014 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia ranks first among the ten largest American cities for its percentage of residents living in deep poverty as defined by the number of residents with incomes lower than 50 percent of the federal poverty line. Not surprisingly, the city’s public school system has been chronically underfunded, and many students graduate high school and enter college not fully prepared to succeed in college-level work. In line with national trends, approximately 70 percent of our incoming students need to complete at least one developmental course in writing, reading, or math before they are eligible to take college-level courses, and 84 percent of our full-time students and 67 percent of all students receive some type of financial aid.

We have much to gain from adopting strategies that enhance our students’ learning experiences and improve their learning outcomes and chances of success. Initially, our team was focused primarily on learning about and implementing the teaching strategies that formed the basis for the project, namely, faculty intentionality and transparency and problem-centered learning. However, the connections between those practices and the college’s efforts with regard to general education and assessment soon became evident. In addition to addressing our goals related to students’ learning outcomes, the project offered an opportunity for valuable professional development experiences for faculty, including

  1. Acquiring more specific information about research and applications with high-impact practices and their effectiveness in improving student persistence and learning, especially for diverse student populations.
  2. Interacting with colleagues across disciplines at our college and across the country to share experiences and ideas for engaging students and helping boost their success in college.
  3. Expanding our repertoire of teaching strategies and materials to motivate, empower, and assist students to develop and improve learning strategies and academic skills that carry over to future courses.

Intentional Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning

Our project team included four faculty members who taught English, humanities, and introductory environmental science courses. At the outset of this project, some team members thought that their assignments were already quite transparent. Upon further examination, however, in light of the materials provided at the first AAC&U workshop in Baltimore, it became evident that students could benefit from having even more explicit, transparent instructions and expectations.

Our first step was selecting assignments to use for our pre- and post-analysis. All of our team members chose to adapt assignments they had used in previous semesters that lent themselves to a problem-centered approach. In many cases, we had found that students’ responses in past semesters were not as reflective and substantive as we would have liked. We hoped that by providing more explicit direction through transparency in the assignments for the designated experimental sections, the students’ responses would be more robust.

While re-designing our assignments, we found it helpful to refer to the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric. The training we received in transparent assignment design during the project sessions, as well as the opportunity to work with AAC&U’s project coordinators and each other, giving and receiving feedback on our assignments, enabled us to integrate significant transparency revisions into our assignments and courses.

In reflecting on the process of revising assignments, one of our team members commented:

Although I had always stated the purpose and learning outcomes of assignments, in revising the assignments with transparency in mind, I made those sections much clearer. I added headings for the purpose, tasks, and criteria for assessment categories and provided the experimental group more detailed written and oral instructions. I spent time in class with the experimental group going over the instructions and providing examples of responses, both satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

We distributed the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric to students and provided our students annotated examples of assignment responses. In addition, for the experimental groups, we devoted time in class (we provided more written instructions for online classes) to clarify the steps in the problem-centered approach. In some cases, we even labeled the parts of our transparent assignments with language from the rubric to clarify to students how the rubric corresponded to the different steps of our assignments.

Integrating Students’ Learned Experiences in Problem-Centered Assignments

Our team used a variety of strategies to prompt students to reflect on and integrate their personal experiences with course content as they tackled problem-centered assignments. These strategies included using service-learning projects integrated with a research paper, conducting field trips to a local farm and farm stand which connected to reading and writing assignments about the food system, and having students answer survey questions online to calculate their individual ecological footprints and then work in teams to develop potential solutions to the problems of over-consumption and exploitation of natural resources.

We found that students responded well to the integration of the personal with the academic, and these assignments helped students to achieve the learning outcomes of our respective courses while at the same time gaining more insight about themselves and their roles as responsible citizens. Using problem-centered and experiential learning assignments helped our students to extend their learning beyond the goals of any one course and to begin to develop some of the other broader competencies that our college has chosen as core competencies for general education, especially effective communication, critical thinking, and responsible citizenship.

Challenges and Solutions

The biggest challenges for us, collectively, were in distinguishing between the elements of transparency and problem-centered learning and in maintaining the integrity of the experimental and control groups. Once we realized the benefits of having more explicit (transparent) instructions and assignments, it was difficult to “withhold” those elements from the control group, and we were concerned that we would “taint” the control group with too much transparency. Since we were modifying assignments in both control and experimental classes to include problem-centered learning, it was hard to separate problem-centered learning and transparency and avoid adding transparency for the control class.

Further, as the semester progressed, because of the usual time constraints and pressures to cover content, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between our approaches in the control and experimental classes. During in-person class sessions, we found that we did not always consciously differentiate between the two groups. For example, if we met the experimental group before the control group on the same day and used a teaching technique, question, or discussion prompt that worked well in the earlier experimental group, it was natural to use it with the non-intervention control group as well. In addition, because some of the techniques used with the experimental group were quite obviously effective, it felt unjust to withhold them from the control group. We noted that to some extent, it was easier to maintain distinctions in online instruction than in in-person classes because written instructions and comments could more easily be kept separate.

Comparing experiences and sharing feedback among team members and with AAC&U project staff helped us overcome the challenges we faced. Generally, we noticed that the modifications to the transparency of our written assignments in the experimental group did correlate with an increased perception of transparency by students in the experimental classes. So, even though maintaining control and experimental groups in the dynamic environment of a classroom over the course of a semester was difficult, we did notice that the changes we made for our experimental courses had a positive impact. This was evident, not only in much of the preliminary data from the transparency survey, but also in the depth of questions students asked while working on the assignments and in the level at which they attempted to respond.

Initially, it was also challenging to incorporate the use of the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric while simultaneously working to increase transparency in our assignments. We used the rubric to help guide the construction of the assignments, but we wanted to avoid making the assignments too formulaic, and we were reluctant to provide too much guidance to students, as we wanted to see how they approached the problems themselves. We had some trouble differentiating among elements in the rubric, especially the elements involving strategies and implementation and evaluation of proposed strategies. In scoring the students’ work at the end of the semester, it was obvious that students also had difficulty with those distinctions. We might consider slight modifications to the rubric before employing it more widely.

Future Directions

As a result of our exposure to the research as presented in the project meetings and our own experiences with our classes, our team members are convinced of the benefits of transparent and problem-centered learning assignments and motivated to expand our use of them. Also, the Institute on General Education and Assessment provided us opportunities to interact with scores of colleagues from colleges and universities around the country and collect ideas and information on a wide range of materials, innovations, and best practices.

We are eager to continue improving our own course materials and to share what we have learned with our colleagues. Specifically, we have begun to revise all of our assignments to include transparency and will design future assignments integrating even more transparency practices and problem-centered learning.

We also identified several promising possibilities for connecting high-impact practices to general education and assessment. We hope to engage in further discussion as a college community about these promising possibilities, such as increased focus on service and experiential learning, increased transparency throughout the curriculum, and the potential incorporation of capstone courses and e-portfolios.

Shortly after returning from the institute, we met with our newly inaugurated college president to share our experiences and offer ideas about future directions for incorporating high-impact practices as the college examines its general education and assessment efforts.

We are now poised to share findings and conclusions from the project with others on our campus through professional development sessions and workshops in our faculty center for teaching and learning, the body that provides a forum for the identification, study, and discussion of important educational issues on our campus.

Based on our experiences, we have identified three key elements to help faculty learn about transparency and begin to create more transparent courses and assignments. Those three elements are

  1. Offering professional development sessions about the benefits of transparency and how to engage in transparent teaching and learning practices;
  2. Providing annotated examples and templates of transparent and problem-centered learning assignments for different subjects and course levels (developmental, introductory/first year, advanced);
  3. Establishing mechanisms for faculty to share and collaborate with colleagues and, when possible, the AAC&U staff while creating and revising transparent assignments.

We are hopeful that the lessons learned about transparency and problem-centered learning will prove valuable as Community College of Philadelphia moves forward with major curricular initiatives, including the review and revamping of our institution’s general education and assessment and the introduction of guided pathways. 




Community College of Philadelphia. “Key Facts.”

Lubrano, Alfred. September 26, 2014. “Phila. Rates Highest among Top 10 Cities for Deep Poverty.” Philadelphia Media Network, LLC.

Osvil Acosta-Morales, assistant professor, history, philosophy, and religious studies; Elisa McCool, assistant professor, English; Kathleen Murphey, associate professor, English; Margaret Stephens, associate professor, social science—all of Community College of Philadelphia


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