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Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

Courageous Conversations: Achieving the Dream and the Importance of Student Success

December 02, 2009

Working with these students became a college priority, and administrators hit upon two faculty-led pilot initiatives that were already in process on campus: learning communities that linked a developmental English course either with a college-survival-skills course or other subject matter and a math initiative that paired courses in developmental math (pre-algebra and beginning algebra) with the “On Course” curriculum developed by Skip Downing, which addresses personal responsibility for learning and study skills such as time management and goal setting.

The college is currently looking at data from these two initiatives—measuring student progress against a comparison group of students with similar ages, GPAs, and other factors—to tweak offerings and, ultimately, to make decisions about which programs to take to scale. For example, the college recently decided to ramp-up learning communities linking English with a college-survival-skills course because that was found to work better than just creating learning communities that linked students in several academic courses.

The developmental math initiative, which has been offered in 10 different versions on the college’s three campuses since fall 2006, has shown even more promising results: As of late 2007, 51.3 percent of the students taking beginning algebra paired with “On Course” had completed the class with a C or better, versus 44.2 percent in the matched cohort group. These students also performed better on other measures of success, going on to complete the next-level math course in larger numbers (37.5 percent versus 29.5 percent) and earning more credit hours in later semesters (an average of 22.3 versus 17) with higher GPAs (an average of 2.31 versus 2.15). Both the ratio of credits earned to credits attempted and persistence rates were higher for the class with the intervention, and results have been similarly encouraging in later cohorts.

While a final decision is pending, administrators say it’s likely that this model will be taken to scale and required of a certain subset of students, to be determined by further research on the relationship between student success and factors such as placement scores and high school GPAs. In this way, the college hopes to address a significant challenge—getting students to enroll in Achieving the Dream interventions, which are currently voluntary.

Cuyahoga established metrics for its 2008-09 annual goals, created a data warehouse system to speed the processing and distribution of information, and now uses student outcomes data to make administrative decisions such as course scheduling and recruitment plans. For instance, the college had a policy of dropping students for non-payment at a certain point in the semester. A year ago, administrators piloted a program that gave students more time to pay their bills while providing extra reminders about things such as registration, financial aid, and tuition deadlines. When research showed that the college retained 500 more students with the new system, the finance office made the policy permanent.

Many other colleges are developing similar cultures of evidence, where student outcome data are used to identify problems, set priorities, develop interventions, and measure progress toward success, often with the help of Achieving the Dream coaches and data consultants. At Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina, initial research showed that only 12 percent of lowest-level developmental math students moved on to college-level courses because of stumbling blocks such as a slow progression through developmental courses and a lack of financial aid. In response, the college launched the Transitions initiative, which links its adult-education program with developmental education for students who place into the lowest-level remedial courses in reading, writing, and math.

This initiative, which is entirely tuition-free thanks to the state’s adult-education policy, runs five days a week for five hours a day, providing intensive basic instruction and allowing students to move through multiple developmental education levels quickly, based on their scores on frequently administered tests. Although results are still preliminary, they are encouraging. Based on one semester of data, 95 percent of Transition students remained in the program throughout the semester, compared with 43 percent of those in typical remedial courses. Twenty students passed through a total of 34 developmental education levels while in the program, compared to only 20 levels for the 14 students in regular offerings.

Broad Engagement
One institution that has focused on broad engagement in its student success initiatives is Patrick Henry Community College in Virginia. During its initial Achieving the Dream year in 2004, the college doled out assignments such as literature reviews, conference attendance, and college visits to identify best practices to more than 40 of the college’s 50 full-time faculty members, staff, and administrators. During the December holiday break, the college held a retreat in which the researchers came together to report on what they had learned and to agree on ways to foster student engagement and improve the persistence and success rates of all students, especially those in developmental education courses. The college eventually decided to adopt cooperative learning strategies in nearly all disciplines and departments. This pedagogical approach, developed by the Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, promotes students’ active engagement in their learning through small-group work and team building. It also uses interactive learning strategies such as having professors solicit regular feedback on what students are absorbing.

To get faculty invested in cooperative learning, Patrick Henry sent representatives for training at a college in Minnesota that uses the approach. The college then offered workshops and training sessions on campus, along with a small stipend for faculty members who went through the instruction and subsequently used cooperative learning techniques in their classrooms. Seven full-time faculty members became certified cooperative learning trainers and lead ongoing training for their peers.

Administrators built cooperative learning requirements into the job descriptions for new faculty members and recently began paying increased fees per credit hour for adjunct faculty members who get the training. Consequently, all full-time and 85 percent of part-time faculty members have been introduced to cooperative learning through voluntary or required in-service activities and orientations, and at least 40 percent of full-time faculty routinely use cooperative learning strategies in their classes, with others incorporating them sporadically.