Diversity and Democracy

Improving Civic Engagement by Assessing Students' Needs

At the conclusion of their service, Middlesex students write good luck messages to future residents of the Habitat for Humanity house they helped build in Bedford, Massachusetts

At the conclusion of their service, Middlesex students write good luck messages to future residents of the Habitat for Humanity house they helped build in Bedford, Massachusetts

Throughout its history, Middlesex Community College (MCC) has sought to align its mission with its goals related to personal and social responsibility. The college demonstrates this commitment by intentionally integrating personal and social responsibility into its academic and cocurricular programming, particularly through community engagement initiatives. As a result of this work, MCC was recognized as a Civically Engaged Campus by the Carnegie Foundation and has been on the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll since 2006. But despite these accolades, MCC knew that it could do more to engage its diverse student population in meaningful learning experiences. Thus, MCC began using assessment to identify new ways to involve students in questions of personal and social responsibility.

Unique Challenges

MCC is one of the largest community colleges in Massachusetts, serving over 12,000 commuter students on two campuses each year. At MCC, 61 percent of students are from low-income or first-generation families. While in school, our students raise children, care for elderly relatives, and work to support their families and fund their educations. Consequently, in 2009-10, 56 percent of the student body attended school part time, resulting in significant challenges for large-scale community engagement initiatives.

MCC faces additional challenges related to the unique needs of students on our two very different campuses. On the campus in Bedford, an affluent town thirty miles north of Boston, attractive brick buildings surround a grassy quadrangle. Fifteen miles north in Lowell, a midsized city of slightly over 100,000, the campus consists of a series of multistory buildings. Lowell's urban environment comes with additional differences: the city attracts many immigrants, and linguistic minorities compose approximately 40 percent of the population. The average annual high school dropout rate in Lowell is 32 percent.

The student body's rich diversity yields exciting opportunities to develop teaching and learning initiatives related to personal and social responsibility. It also requires faculty and staff to offer educational options beyond the traditional academic schedule to meet the needs of nonresidential students with competing priorities. MCC faculty and staff have risen to the challenge. They have developed a menu of experiences in and out of the classroom that not only help students develop personal and social responsibility, but also require them to demonstrate skills and knowledge in communication, critical thinking, problem solving, values, ethics, and social policy--all of which are collegewide learning goals. MCC has thus woven its education for personal and social responsibility into the fabric of the college's learner-centered approach--an achievement made possible through the use of assessment.

Institutional Assessment

Community Engagement Activities

In response to students’ needs, MCC offers a wide variety of opportunities for students to connect with community members inside and outside the classroom. Recent examples include:

  • Flu immunizations administered by nursing students at Saints Medical Center in Lowell
  • Community Wellness Fairs held in collaboration with MCC's Fitness Center, Nursing, and Medical Assisting Programs
  • Oral hygiene instruction provided by dental assistant students to cancer patients at local oncology and radiology units
  • Targeted community outreach by dental hygiene students to increase awareness of preventative oral care and promote healthy attitudes among elementary school children
  • Visits to MCC's chemistry lab for children involved in local organizations, hosted by professor Sally Quest and her students
  • Health and disease-prevention materials designed by professor Jean Cremins and her microbiology students for distribution at Milly's Place, a family shelter in Lowell
  • Alternative Spring Breaks in New Orleans and with Habitat for Humanity in Lawrence, Bedford, and Westford, Massachusetts
  • Participation in the Merrimack Valley Heart Walk as part of a citywide effort to raise awareness about cardiovascular health
  • Halloween safety guidelines presented by criminal justice students at Girls Inc. in Lowell

It is difficult to improve learning outcomes without first establishing a baseline and a plan for improvement. Thus, in 2006, MCC implemented a broad assessment program that includes ongoing evaluation of institutional, programmatic, and course-based student learning outcomes. The college created a defined assessment cycle to measure the extent to which students are achieving these outcomes. It also designed and implemented activities aimed at increasing student achievement. As a result of these efforts, MCC was chosen as one of twelve community colleges to assume leadership in the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Roadmap Project, which aims to create robust programs that use learning outcomes as a lever to increase student persistence and achievement.

MCC's initial assessment program established six Institutional Student Learning Outcomes (ISLOs). One of these ISLOs targets students' development of social responsibility and includes awareness of multiculturalism and diversity; understanding of ethics, values, and social justice; and capacities related to citizenship and community engagement. MCC has created pathways toward achieving this ISLO, in part through core curriculum requirements such as the Values, Ethics, and Social Policy requirement.

Students enrolled in courses meeting the Values, Ethics, and Social Policy requirement formed the initial cohort for assessing students' sense of social responsibility. Faculty and advisers evaluated these students' development of social responsibility using a rubric designed by the college community (available at https://www.middlesex.mass.edu/strategicplanning/
). The MCC assessment team then triangulated the findings with recent data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and the Core Commitments Personal and Social Responsibility Index (PSRI) that reflected students' self-assessment of the same goals.1 Results revealed that a majority of MCC students see themselves as members of a community with specific needs and value involvement in that community, but only a small number apply those understandings and values by participating in community-based projects.

Seasons of Service

On receiving these results, MCC was poised to reconsider how it educates for personal and social responsibility. Faculty and administrators knew that while MCC had a robust service learning and community engagement program, that program did not always meet the needs of the diverse student body. While MCC offered a variety of activities, these options didn't always fit into students' busy lives. The assessment process revealed that the college needed to develop additional flexible options to ensure that all students had the opportunity to engage in service and develop greater competency in practicing personal and social responsibility.

Starting in September 2009, MCC offered faculty, staff, and students a variety of community service opportunities throughout the year with the goal of surpassing the 2,400 hours performed on the previous year's Day of Service, a community-wide, single-day service initiative that had been particularly well attended. MCC community members chose from a host of service opportunities and recorded their service hours as part of the Seasons of Service (SOS) initiative. SOS participants volunteered at numerous organizations addressing community priorities. Over the course of the 2009-10 academic year, MCC students, faculty, and staff performed approximately 3,200 hours of community service through the SOS project.

MCC continues to strive toward increasing our students' opportunities to enact personal and social responsibility by using lessons learned through assessment to develop a depth and breadth of opportunities suited to our students' diverse needs. As a result, MCC is working to educate students for personal and social responsibility through a range of integrated curricular and cocurricular options. Our assessment work informs our practice, allowing us to evaluate student growth on an ongoing basis and providing the rationale to continue improving our students' learning experiences.

1 Editor's note: See Robert Reason's article on page 8 of this issue of Diversity & Democracy to learn more about the PSRI.

Clea Andreadis is the associate provost for instruction and assessment; Kimberly Burns is the associate dean for K-16 partnerships; Elise Martin is the associate dean for assessment; and Rebecca Newell is director of leadership development and student activities--all at Middlesex Community College.


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