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Engaging the Roadmap to Student Success
Georgia Perimeter College (GPC) is a participant in the Developing a Community College Student Roadmap project, sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). The Roadmap project comprises twelve community colleges poised to become national models in supporting student success. Collectively, these leadership institutions work to take what are often isolated and independent student success efforts and create an integrated roadmap to support both student persistence and higher levels of academic achievement. At GPC, the Roadmap project provided the opportunity to explore a key question from our strategic plan: “What teaching strategies will provide relevant and responsive learning opportunities that will lead to student success?”
GPC’s roadmap to student success focused on the following high-impact practices (HIPS) and how these practices affected student success at GPC:
- first-year experiences
- learning communities
- a pilot study program that institutes a number of HIPs, including those listed above, for a specific cohort population.
Currently, we are focused on establishing the first area of impact, namely, First Year Experiences. Accordingly, GPC established a first-year seminar (FYS) in fall 2011 as part of a broader effort to connect with students in the early period of their transition to a college environment. GPCS 1010, first-year seminar, is a three-credit course that meets twice a week every semester. The course introduces students to college life, provides information on expectations of college students and strategies for college success, and builds information literacy through the investigation of a specific theme. Themes are selected and designed by seminar instructors. To evaluate the impact of this course, we created a pilot study in which we embedded the FYS into a learning community that employed project-based learning methods, tutoring, and mandatory study periods.
Data on Initial Change
To access the initial impact of the college-wide strategic plan, we compared the results of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement between 2008 and 2011. The data showed significant increases in self-reported participation in student activities and service learning, indicating that students were becoming more involved in college activities and student learning projects such as campus clubs and service-learning opportunities. The percentage of students engaged in college sponsored activities increased from 20 percent in 2008 to 27.4 percent in 2011. The percentage of students reporting spending more than six hours per week in these activities nearly doubled in the three-year period examined, from 4.3 percent to 7.9 percent. The percentage of students who said they participated in a community-based project increased from 22 percent in 2008 to 31.2 percent in 2011. Furthermore, results from a pilot administration of the Critical Thinking Assessment Test in 2011 showed that the GPC students sampled performed at or above national averages for two-year colleges on ten out of the fifteen behaviors measured, but below national averages on five measures. Thus, while these measures highlight some positive trends, there remains ample room for improvement and a need for more valid assessment data.
Developing the Roadmap: The First-Year Seminar
In the fall 2011, we initiated our first-year seminar (FYS) course as part of a broader effort to connect with students in the early period of their transition to a college environment. Because research shows that students who complete these classes feel a stronger connection to their institutions, are more likely to remain in school, and are more likely to show gains in academic achievement, we instituted a three-tiered plan to institutionalize the seminar courses and make them available for all incoming first-year students (Porter and Swing 2006). In phase one, students who required two or more learning support courses were required to enroll in an FYS course, followed by phase two in which students enrolled in one learning support will be required to enroll in a FYS. A third phase will look to promote FYS courses for all students. We currently are in the process of developing a permanent position for the administration of the program as these enrollment numbers are expected to climb (fig. 1).
Figure 1. Student Enrollment in First-Year Seminars
FYS can vary greatly in form and function across institutions (Pascarella and Terenzini 2011), and we chose to use a three-credit course that introduces students to college life, provides information on strategies for college success, and builds information literacy through investigation of a specific theme. Themes are selected and designed by seminar instructors and can range greatly, but all courses are designed to engage students with the college and the community, develop self-understanding, learn about strategies, behaviors, and college resources that will optimize their personal and academic success, and help them plan for their future. Early indicators support the success of the program with a retention rate of 76.4 percent for students who were enrolled in a FYS in fall 2011 and persisted in enrollment in spring 2012, compared with 69.6 percent of all freshman who did not take a FYS.
Developing the Roadmap: Learning Communities
At GPC we design learning communities (LC) as interdisciplinary clusters of courses that explore a particular theme or shared academic interest. Teachers work together to create a dynamic learning environment for their students. Readings, discussions, and assignments typically overlap from the different courses to foster bonds between the students in the community. LC courses at GPC work to emphasize the “big picture” by creating connections between the different courses that relate to important topics in students’ lives. By providing an opportunity to become a member of a supportive learning environment, LC students typically have an easier time developing study groups and other peer support systems (Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews, and Smith 1990).
While GPC has implemented learning communities on a limited basis, we have seen considerable success. Students who participate in learning communities typically have a higher retention rate than the general student population. Data from the Project DEgree program, a learning community at GPC designed to improve student progress and increase persistence and sponsored by the Gateway to College National Network, shows a nearly 80 percent persistence rate between spring 2011 and summer 2011 compared to 45 percent college wide. Likewise, spring 2011 to fall 2012 persistence rates were also higher in students involved in Project DEgree compared to matched controls. Through this data a clear need to expand the use of these learning communities has been identified and GPC has placed strong emphasis on developing the framework to institutionalize the practice (fig. 2).
Figure 2. Persistence Rates for Project DEgree
Integrating the Roadmap
At the heart of the Roadmap project, we targeted a specific set of academic programs that support student success through the integration of HIPs. These included our emerging FYS course, and the LC developed through the Project DEgree program. While these initiatives were new to the college they provided an ideal scenario to evaluate the impact of these HIPs in a specific cohort population. With this in mind we developed a pilot project to examine the effectiveness of the creation and integration of this robust and proactive program of academic and social support that engaged students to become active partners in their own quest for academic success. In the study we investigated how a tailored student educational program including an FYS, an LC, and project-based learning modules can affect specific learning outcomes including critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, teamwork and problem solving, and measures of academic success including GPA and academic persistence.
Initially we decided on a mixed methods strategy that included both quantitative statistical analysis and qualitative measures collected from focus group reports. The study tracked student performance in two groups: (1) a traditional lecture class that did not include any specific HIPs, and (2) a select student cohort (Project DEgree students) exposed to a specifically tailored student educational plan including an FYS (GPCS 1010), project-based learning, and a learning community. Quantitative measures, including comparison of academic success through specific course grades, overall GPA, and persistence will be compared between the two groups once those numbers become available.
Overall, students reacted positively to their experiences in the program. It should be noted that the LC included tutoring and a “Choices for Life” course that explored specific topics which promote healthy, proactive lifestyles, as well as either an English or math course. Student responses to focus group questions indicated that the program was important to them because they felt it was “a great course for the transition into college.” Students also liked the fact that the course material was presented in different ways, such as guest speakers or projects. Specifically, students reported that the FYS was helping them gain a better understanding of academic life, including time management skills, the ability to identify their priorities and rank them based on importance, and the importance of different learning styles to help them discover which way they learned best. Students reported that they were better able to understand college life and were more aware of their career options after being a part of the project. The students also felt that having a “great instructor” was an important factor in making the class enjoyable and effective.
Often two-year commuter colleges struggle to build collaborative environments for their students. However, students involved in the project reported that they were participating in increased teamwork as a result of the activities and assignments. Primarily, they reported that they were provided support and encouragement from each other through the LC. For example, one student said, “if somebody needs help with their studies and if we feel like we are good enough to explain it to them, we do.” Some students even mentioned that they wanted more group projects because they require students to work together and encourage collaboration. Students also felt their writing and communication skills had improved during the course of the semester. Overall, the students reported an increase in their confidence levels as a result of the project and more engagement with their coursework. They also felt they were more aware of career options. One student said, “It actually gives us clarity on a lot of things, especially for school and careers.” Apart from feeling engaged in the classroom, the students also reported feeling increased engagement with activities on campus, and felt their instructor played an important role in helping them feel like they were a part of campus life.
Overall, students reacted positively to the program, expressed increased knowledge of academic life, increased engagement with others on campus, and increased critical and creative thinking skills—all of which lead to an increased expectation that students will complete their two-year degree and advance to further undergraduate study.
Conclusions and Future Directions
During the course of this project GPC was forced to struggle with some serious financial shortfalls. These shortfalls necessitated an adaptable and scalable action plan in the light of changing institutional dynamics. In the end, we learned that persistence does pay, and that building on small successes is a viable strategy. As we regain our financial stability, we have not lost sight of our educational mission to increase student success. Concomitant with the work of the Roadmap project, GPC has recently established a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) based on HIPs to improve student outcomes. The QEP is titled “EDGE: Engagement Drives GPC Education,” and its goals are to change behaviors, attitudes, and learning outcomes in selected classes across the college. Behaviors: Students will be more likely to persist in their courses; faculty will increase their focus and skills in making their courses engaging. Attitudes: Students will perceive their courses as more relevant and will report greater engagement as part of their overall college experience. Learning outcomes: Students will improve in their ability to think critically, to make connections between course content and real-world issues, and will perform better on assessments of course content. The college has established an office of the QEP to manage these efforts to infuse HIPs more broadly across the curriculum, particularly in the introductory classes taken by large numbers of students. We expect that the lessons learned in our three years of the Roadmap project will inform the implementation of the QEP as our college continues in its quest to provide the highest quality education possible for our students.
Gabelnick, F., J. MacGregor, R. S. Matthews, and B. L. Smith. 1990. “Learning Communities: Creating Connections among Students, Faculty, and Disciplines.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 41: 1–39).
Pascarella, E. T., and P. T. Terenzini. 2011. Some New Evidence on What Matters in Student Learning. Presented at the Council of Independent Colleges 2011 Institute for Chief Academic Officers and Chief Advancement Officers, St. Petersburg Beach, FL.
Porter, S. R., and R. L. Swing. 2006. Understanding How First-Year Seminars Affect Persistence. Research in Higher Education Vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb., 2006), pp. 89-109.
John C. Redmond is an assistant professor of anthropology, department of cultural and behavioral sciences; Mary Elizabeth Tyler Boucebci is the community-based learning coordinator, office of quality enhancement plan; James D. Engstrom is the department chair of cultural and behavioral sciences--all of Georgia Perimeter College.