Community College Case Studies: 3 Lessons on Improving Learning

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Community College Case Studies: 3 Lessons on Improving Learning
As community colleges continue to grow in popularity, some campuses are experimenting with how they can improve learning. Be inspired by three case studies that follow the successes of community colleges in their quest to take learning to a new level.
The significant role community colleges will play in the country's economy has been underscored by the White House over the past few months with the first annual community college summit taking place in Washington this fall. However, in order for community colleges to become the relevant player that President Obama wants them to be, the current dismal graduation rates at community colleges across the country will need to increase. To that end, the initiative known as "Achieving the Dream" has been implemented to recognize community colleges performing above national standards and use those tools to elevate other colleges to a higher level as well.
Achieving the Dream is committed to assisting community colleges better serve their students so more students can realize academic and professional success. Colleges participating in the movement agree to carefully analyze their current procedures and student outcomes and develop and implement new strategies to improve student outcome overall.

In addition, participating colleges agree to monitor their progress and report their findings to Achieving the Dream so that other colleges can benefit from their knowledge and experience. This year, the organization learned three important lessons on improving learning from two of the participating community colleges in their pool.
Reducing Achievement Gaps = Increased Student Retention

Valencia Community College in Florida offered a number of programs for under-prepared students coming to the campus for the first time – more than 100 programs, in fact. However, the piecemeal approach to improving student performance was still resulting in a broad achievement gap, particularly along ethnic and racial groups. When Valencia joined Achieving the Dream in 2005, the college began to take a closer look at the strategies that would yield the best results, according to a report published by the organization. The outcome was implemented in four phases, beginning in the 2005-06 school year and included:
  • Supplemental Learning – This was offered for both pre-college mathematics courses and three other classes the college deemed particularly difficult for incoming freshmen.
  • Learning in Community – This program coordinated instruction in two difficult course for students who linked the classes together.
  • Linked Course Expansion – This stratgy brought more courses into the model listed above.
  • Student Life Skills Course – This course was mandated for students who tested into developmental courses in math, English and writing.
The results of the Valencia experiment were mostly positive, particularly for Hispanic students in math courses and African-American students in composition classes. According to the college website, students who successfully complete their education at Valencia either move directly into a skilled position in the workplace or transfer to a four-year university as a junior with guaranteed admission.
Cooperative Learning = Increased Student Retention

Patrick Henry Community College is a smaller institution located in the rural reaches of central Virginia. This school has a high percentage of minority students, with as many as 80% requiring some type of developmental course to succeed in college. Patrick Henry decided to focus on providing support to first-year students to ensure their introduction to the college experience was as smooth as possible. The cooperative learning program that resulted focuses on positive interdependence and individual accountability, and it includes the following strategies:
  • Base groups to provide ongoing peer support
  • Informal ad hoc groups that come together for a single session
  • Formal cooperative learning groups that focus on a single project or presentation
The college found that when students participated in classes that implemented these strategies, they were more likely to be successful in their studies and return to complete their education the following year.
Data-Based Decision Making

Another strategy implemented by Patrick Henry was data-based decision making that used information from other sources, like student surveys and placement tests, to dig deeper into patterns of student success. The model used demographic, social, psychological and academic factors to predict likelihood of completion success. By accurately identifying characteristics of students likely to drop out of school, they were better equipped to provide necessary interventions that would result in higher retention and greater student achievement.
Through the assistance of Achieving the Dream, these two community colleges were able to improve student retention and graduation rates within their schools. By using the data collected at both Patrick Henry and Valencia community colleges, other schools are in a better position to analyze their own student performance and implement effective strategies to improve their own performance as well.

When students are successful in their post-secondary education efforts, they are more likely to go on to professional jobs that benefit the entire country -- in addition to providing the individual students with the opportunity to realize their dreams.

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