Community Colleges

Class Size Matters

Posted on February 11, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges |

At my institution, most classes are capped between 24-35 students. I have been involved in many discussions with colleagues where we discuss our anecdotal evidence about ideal class size: small enough (~24-28 students) that we can learn all our students names, give full attention to quality feedback on their work, and create a warm classroom atmosphere – but not so small (<10 students) that it is difficult to get meaningful classroom discussion going.

So I was happy to find an article by Steven Benton and Bill Pallett of the IDEA Center with actual evidence about class size.

The authors ask:

  • Do the learning objectives, teaching methods, teacher standards, and workload expectations vary, depending upon class size?
  • Do students’ learning, motivation, and work habits in large classes match those in smaller classes?

Their findings, based on 10 years of collecting data from students rating of instruction using  the IDEA Center tool,  are interesting, but not surprising (and more nuanced than can be summarized in a short blog post).

The bottom line: yes, class size makes a difference – and that has more to do with what the instructor does than what the students do. In very large classes (50+ students), instructors are more likely to emphasize factual knowledge and less likely to support students’ development of communication skills. That is, instructors in very large classes are more likely to lecture than those in small (10-14 students) and medium-size (15-34 students) classes. In turn, students in large classes are less likely to report progress on creative capacities (writing, inventing, designing, and performing).

One overall finding that interested me was that in their data, lecture remains the most frequent teaching method regardless of class size. Only 5% of their sample included surveys from Associate’s granting colleges (the rest were from colleges and universities). Do you think their results would be different if community colleges were better represented in the sample? (I do).


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Why I care what Sandy Shugart has to say

Posted on February 10, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges, Completion Agenda, Higher Education |

Sandy Shugart is the President of Valencia College, the winner of the 2011 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. I have read a lot about Valencia (and written about it in this blog before) and I think we can all learn from them.

This week Shugart wrote a column in Inside Higher entitled Rethinking the Completion Agenda (Feb. 7, 2013).  In this column, he describes X principles to inform the work of the community college sector:

1. Be careful what and how you are measuring — it is sure to be misused.

Shugart warns that “completion” remains a largely undefined term – educators, administrators, the press, and the public might not have the same ideas. Current practice tracks first-time, full-time students, for example – and we know that that type of student is just one of the students we serve. If that student transfers after one year at the community college, she is considered a non-completer (ans she isn’t even considered in the measures followed by the receiving institution).  We need measures that include part-time students, early transfers, non-degree-seeking students, and more.

2. Measure for improvement.

3. College outcomes measures should be based on college-ready students

If we are really measuring improvement (see Principle #2), then we need to make that clear: including both students who came out of high school performing on college level and those who require some remedial preparation in one measure (e.g., first-time, full-time graduation rate) obscures the real opportunities for improvement. Shugart advocates reporting outcomes for developmental students (pre-college students) separately. (The performance of developmental completers is primarily a measure of developmental program performance, not the collegiate program).

4. Align accountability measures to the proper level of analysis.

We need informed policy makers who will understand the difference in accountability at the institutional, programmatic, and course levels.

5.   Performance measures should primarily be value-­added.

6.   Think educational ecosystem, not just institution.

As Shugart says, community college students are not experiencing us just as single institutions, but as ecosystems or networks of higher education institutions. They swirl in and among, stop out, start back, change majors, change departments, change colleges. This was not the norm back in the days when most faculty, administrators, and state and federal policy makers were college students ourselves. But is is the norm now so when policy makers talk about the outcomes of investing in higher education, we need to make sure the conversation is framed around the ecosystems.

7.  The most important person to care about completion is the student.

I have heard Shugart saying something like this before and I come back to it often: the college is what the students experience.

We need to give students a reason to graduate – like articulations with senior colleges (this feeds back into the ecosystem paradigm). We need to create pathways so that students can clearly navigate to their real goals.

Shugart’s final word on the Completion Agenda:

8.   Learning comes before completion.

If we are going to get more students to complete, we need to engage our faculty. As Shugart says, “Completion really doesn’t engage faculty. Learning does….The degree is a means to an end. Relevant, deep learning is the end.”

Shugart ends by offering some concrete suggestions to engage our state leaders, our accrediting bodies, our trustees and governors, our foundation partners, our institutions and our students in ecosystems thinking:

  • Add to the old model of articulation of credit the much more powerful model of intelligent design of degree pathways across institutional boundaries.
  • Within these pathways, encourage students to make earlier, more grounded choices of major long before transfer looms.
  • Require completion of the associates degree prior to transfer and provide a meaningful value proposition to students who do graduate before transfer – a guarantee, if you can.
  • Federate our data on student performance across institutional boundaries and develop ecosystem-­level research agendas with collaborating institutional research teams that will lead to improved student learning and performance.
  • Rethink the metrics used for measuring institutional performance as components of a larger ecosystem and develop measures of the larger ecosystem performance, as well.
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The Aspen Prize: Creating a Faculty Culture of Student Success

Posted on February 6, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges, Completion Agenda, Higher Education |

The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program committee members know a thing or two about recognizing community colleges that support student success. In 2011, the Aspen committee awarded its first prize for Community College Excellence to Valencia College (Orlando, FL). Valencia was cited for its unusually high completion and job placement rates and because Valencia provides an outstanding example of how deep attention to teaching excellence, review of evidence, and ongoing experimentation can drive consistently improving rates of student success.

Now the Aspen team is providing a new resource for faculty and administrators to bring the Valencia success model to our campuses. Published today, Creating a Faculty Culture of Student Success, explains how Valencia established some of their unique practices. The guide also provides several examples of how Valencia and other community colleges (West Kentucky Community and Technical College and Patrick Henry Community College (VA)), followed different paths to creating a deep faculty culture of continuous reform driven by the goal of increasing student success.

The guide describes the change process at Valencia in four steps:

Step One: Establish a Broad Demand for Change

Step Two: Build the Team

Step Three: Determine and Execute a Plan for Institutionalization

Step Four: Evaluate, Reflect, and Continuously Improve

The guide also provides some strategies for moving past “sticking points” – these all-too-familiar roadblocks (“The problem is the students,” “We can’t improve until we have more money and more people,” “We already have programs to address these problems,” “We agree on the need to change, but we can’t agree on what to do,” “The team is excluding particular constituencies,” “People are interested but do not think they will have time to participate,” “We just don’t have the resources to keep this going,” “Our program was developed and championed by one person, who is retiring. How can we keep this effort going?”)

This four-step plan is not rocket science – but the guide provides some great examples that give food for thought about improvements that other community college can replicate.

One of my big take-aways relates to Valencia’s emphasis on faculty development (in which they heavily invest). They have seen that for faculty and staff to examine data and act by implementing alternative approaches, they need support and professional development. Professional development clearly tied to the specific change being pursued can significantly increase chances that faculty will adopt change at scale.

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What do entering students need? Academic Advising

Posted on February 5, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges, Completion Agenda, Higher Education |

Well, the results of the 2012 CCSSE and SENSE surveys are in and both point to the need for redesigning community college academic advising practices.

Faculty, students, and staff agree: academic advising is vital to student success! And now data from the SENSE survey (Survey of Entering Student Engagement) shows that too many entering students are not engaging in ways that help them chart a successful course.

What do we mean when we say academic advising? Well, academic advising is not just about selecting courses. Good academic advising should include:

  • talking with students about their outside commitments to determine how many courses to take
  • helping students to set academic goals and create plans for achieving them
  • helping students understand how placement test scores are used to determine if they are ready for college-level courses or if they need to take courses to help them become college-ready
  • helping students understand how many hours outside of class (per week) they need to spend to prepare and study for each course they are taking
  • making sure students know where to find help if they are considering withdrawing from a course

Mercer County Community College participated in SENSE in September 2012. We will get our SENSE data back about February 1, 2013 and be able to see how well we meet the national benchmarks for student engagement.

For more, see CCSSE’s Engagement Matters, Vol 10.1 (January 2013).

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The Completion Agenda – A New Report (Jan. 2013)

Posted on February 2, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges, Completion Agenda, Higher Education |

(As I wrote that title, I wondered how many posts over the next few years I will be revisiting the topic – I think it might be often…).

A record number of students now attend college…but too few of them graduate. Improving college completion rates as an economic and moral imperative.  This is not news. But a new report, An Open Letter to College and University Leaders: College Completion Must Be Our Priority, helps provide some focus for what we can do.

The report summarizes a yearlong effort by the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, an 18-member commission that includes presidents from every college sector. The mandate came from President Obama, who has challenged the nation to have the world’s highest proportion of people with college credentials by 2020.

The report starts from a position that community college leaders have been talking about for a few years now: community colleges are no longer about access but about success. “…Offering access without a commitment to help students complete their degrees is a hollow promise.” Indeed.

We know students need flexible schedules, more financial help, and an efficient remediation system that doesn’t discourage them so much that they drop out. But how do we do this?

Well, a start is to look at the colleges that have made progress and see if we can adapt their practices. For example:

  • looking at how many students we are graduating or helping to transfer and set specific goals for improvement
  • streamlining and accelerating remedial classes
  • using outside assessments to measure learning acquired outside the traditional classroom

The report also notes the challenges facing colleges today:

  • state support for higher education has dropped an average of 25% since 2008
  • the federal government measures college completion as receipt of a credential by first-time, full-time students; transfer students are treated as dropouts and part-time students are not counted at all

The commission who wrote the report ask us to look at three broad areas where reform is needed:

I. Changing campus culture to boost student success (Strategies include assigning ownership, implementing initiatives campus-wide, studying past mistakes, creating a student-centered culture, improving the academic experience, giving credit for previous learning, providing support services for non-traditional students, and investing in faculty development).

II. Improving Cost-effectiveness and quality (Strategies include offering flexibility to working adults, easing credit transfer, encouraging competency-based learning, delivering courses more efficiently, narrowing student choice to promote completion, and improving remedial services)

III. Making Better Use of Data to boost success (Strategies include pinpointing weaknesses in preparation, harnessing information technology to identify at-risk students, and communicating with students about progress to graduation)

The authors conclude with a recommendation for how to get on board with the completion agenda: the first step is to assess candidly our record of keeping and graduating students or helping them transfer successfully to another college.

At Mercer County Community College, we started this with our Foundations of Excellence self-study (2010-2012). Let’s keep the momentum going.

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“Post-Traditional Learners” are Today’s Traditional Learner

Posted on February 2, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges, Higher Education |

In his new report, Louis Soares, policy advisor to the American Council on Education, introduces us to the concept of the Post-Traditional Learner: Post-traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education: A Manifesto for College Leaders.

Post-Traditional Learners can be characterized as 25-64 year old working adults who have not yet earned a post-secondary credential. Soares identifies five commonalities that drive these learners:

  1. They are wage earners for themselves or their families;
  2. They combine work and learning at the same time or move frequently between the two;
  3. They pursue knowledge, skills, and credentials that employers will recognize and compensate;
  4. They frequently require developmental education to be successful in college-level courses;
  5. They seek academic/career advising to navigate their complex path to a degree.

According to Soares, post-traditional learners are “reshaping the demand for postsecondary education in the 21st century into a more fluid form of college-going with longer, episodic participation.”

How can we help the post-secondary learner succeed? Soares writes that these learners will need “more customized pathways to degree or credential completion and a focus away from credit hours to the ability to demonstrate and apply knowledge.”

 Soares advocates three principles for disrupting current institutional, instructional, and revenue models to achieve better results for post-traditional learners (and the nation):

  1. Go Beyond the Academy to Take Leadership—A Consortium for Teaching and Learning;
  2. Rebuild the Definition of Postsecondary Education from the Post-traditional Learner Out; and
  3. Be Entrepreneurs of a New Venture, Not Stewards of Existing Institutions.

Soares vision scares me a little in its ambition (and implications), but there is also much food for thought in his report – and some real benefit to using his new term to help our sector identify the realities of those we serve.

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Disruption in Higher Education: MOOCs

Posted on February 2, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges, Higher Education, MOOCs |

Why is everyone talking about MOOCs? Well, mostly because we know what they are (Massive Open Online Courses), we can see why they are cool (making college-level teaching available to anyone who has internet access, anywhere, anytime, and for free), and we know they will disrupt higher ed as we know it today – but we don’t yet know exactly how. (I wrote teaching instead of learning or education because the missing part of [many] MOOCs is the assessment of learning – but that, too, is changing).  So we need to stay on top of this story so our sector (community colleges) can be part of the transformation instead of watching it go by us.

To better understand the potential of MOOCs, I signed up for Udacity’s Introduction to Statistics course (taught by Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity). I haven’t finished the course yet but I learned about the platform, saw how students can get engaged and participate as active learners, and I liked it! At one point, I looked up from having worked on the graphing and probability sections and more than an hour had passed without my knowing it (much the way my sons can play video games for hours with no sense of the passage of time or the need for food or sleep).  If our students can learn the same student learning outcomes from a MOOC as an MCCC course, then they should be able to show that (e.g., take and pass MCCC’s final exam) and receive credit. And that could change everything…

To see what people whose insights are way more important than mine think of MOOCs today, check out the  Harvard Business Review blog: Eight Brilliant Minds on the Future of Online Education (the 8 include Larry Summers, former president of Harvard; Bill Gates; Rafael Reif, president of MIT; Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity; and Daphne Koller, CEO of Coursera.) The conversation was part of a panel at Davos moderated by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. Audience member Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, commented

“The overall quantity and quality of formal education hasn’t changed whereas the informal education has skyrocketed in the last 30 years. People used to go to library and now go to Wikipedia. We haven’t really begun to understand the impact on that.”

If you would like to try a MOOC for yourself, check out what is available at Coursera (courses taught by faculty from Cal Tech, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and others), EdX (for courses taught by faculty from Harvard, MIT, Berkley, and others) or Udacity.  New courses are added all the time.

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January 30, 2013: Community College Degrees Pay!

Posted on January 31, 2013. Filed under: Community Colleges |

Are Community Colleges a private benefit or a public good? Well, as in many things, this is a false dichotomy – the answer is: both. But can we quantify that private benefit? The public good? Thanks to a newly released report from the American Association of Community Colleges (January 2013) we can quantify the contributions of community colleges to graduates and to society!

The report cites hard evidence to show that workers earn bigger paychecks for each level of education they have completed, from high school graduates to Bachelor’s degree-holders. And bigger paychecks mean more in taxes for the state and local governments.

The report also shows how strong the value of two-year degrees and certificates are in the workforce. For example, one-quarter of Bachelor’s-degree holders earn LESS than workers with Associate degrees.

So why do state governments invest less money per student in the community college sector than in public, four-year institutions? (Rhetorical question). Is it fair that community colleges enroll 43% of all undergraduate students but receive only 20% of state tax appropriations for higher education (Another rhetorical question).

Part of being a community college professional is advocating for our sector. I hope my colleagues will take a look at the report so we can tell our state and local government officials to support community colleges – and support bigger paychecks for our graduates (and more in taxes for our communities).


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