Prof: Group learning wastes time

Group learning “is a waste of classroom time and an obstacle to student learning,” argues Bruce Gans, who taught English at City Colleges of Chicago.

At a community college where he worked, non-tenured English instructors were evaluated on whether they fostered “group activities such as study groups and team projects.” Those who didn’t use group learning risked losing their jobs.

Gans observed teachers who were up for tenure or contract extensions.

A literature instructor wanted students to understand metaphor. She “circulated a set of lachrymose pop song lyrics and divvied the students into groups of three to identify and analyze the lyric’s figures of speech.”

During the collaboration period, most of the groups alternated between working desultorily and not at all. The instructor leaned against the edge of her desk silently observing her realm, then circulated briefly among the groups.  There were many to visit, which precluded going into great depth with any.

Much might have been accomplished had the instructor used that class time to present accurate analysis and modeling the thought process of decoding metaphor and to directly question her students. Instead, the students learned very little from their group work.

In a class on how to write a research paper, another instructor paired students, distributed readings on the research topic and told students to teach each other how to paraphrase the passages.

Students texted, made phone calls, chatted and joked. It “seems exceedingly unlikely” they learned about paraphrasing, Gans writes.

The central value of being in a classroom consists in the opportunity to be instructed directly by an expert credentialed in a core skill and complex body of knowledge, a teacher who has experience articulating ideas clearly and in holding students to rigorous standards of proficiency and civility.

. . . The strategy of group work, in contrast, is to unleash learning by yoking together two or more students who often possess neither aptitude nor concern for the assignment.  If a professor divides a class into small groups to correct grammar errors in their papers, no one should be surprised when the final papers substantially retain the original errors and have incorporated new ones.

Group projects are supposed to teach students to collaborate. Gans is dubious. “Groups are creatures of compromise, consensus, the intellectual mean, the mediocre.”

Having students evaluate each other’s writing doesn’t work if nobody’s a good writer, argues Troy Camplin, a lecturer in English at University of North Texas in Dallas.

A remedial writing student asked why we did peer review since, “I feel like I’m getting nothing but bad advice. I mean, they don’t know any more than I do.”

. . . I spent about half of my time going around telling students to ignore practically everything their fellow students told them to do. My students did not know grammar, or how to write a good sentence, or how to write a coherent paragraph, or how to make an argument – and I was asking them to critique their fellow students on precisely those points!

Good writers tend to be avid readers, Camplin argues. “The practice of reading good writing allows you to see what good sentences, good paragraphs, and good arguments look like.”  Students need to read extensively “before they can learn how to write well.”

‘Reinvented’ Chicago colleges are growing

An advanced manufacturing program is drawing students to Chicago’s Richard J. Daley College.

“Once considered a deeply troubled urban institution where enrollment was plummeting, graduation rates were dismal and degrees held little value, the City Colleges of Chicago are undergoing a turnaround under the leadership of Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, reports Community College Weekly.  She arrived in 2010 pledging “reinvention” of the seven-college system. Enrollment and graduation rates are on the rise.

Two Chicago city colleges — Richard J. Daley and Olive-Harvey — are among the fastest-growing in the nation, Community College Weekly reports.

Hyman credits “strategic efforts to realign our programs with the demands of employers and four-year colleges alike and target our adult education offerings to community needs.” 

Launched in 2011, College to Careers enlists industry partners to help redesign job training programs. Each college has a vocational mission. Daley College focuses on high-tech manufacturing. Olive-Harvey specializes in training students for logistics and transportation careers.

Nationwide, community college enrollment is down by 4 percent as the recession eases.

Chicago City Colleges meet early goals

City Colleges of Chicago is moving toward its ambitious five-year goals, reports Community College Times.

By 2018, the seven-college system aims to award 40 percent more degrees and 15 percent more certifications, boost the graduation rate to 20 percent, and increase transfers to four-year institutions. In addition, Reinvention7 calls for more than two-thirds of occupational students finding jobs in their field, a third of new remedial students advancing to college-level work and speedier success for adult ed students.

Cheryl Hyman, who took over as chancellor in 2011, launched the reinvention effort. “Since 2010, the graduation rate has risen from 7 percent to 12 percent, numbers of degrees awarded are up 80 percent, total awards granted has increased 21 percent and credit enrollment has risen 15 percent,” reports Community College Times.

“I graduated from Olive Harvey College,” one of the seven campuses, Hyman says. “I knew what the institution had done for me. I had very high expectations because it put me on the road to a very successful career. However, coming here, I found that the institution was performing well, but only for a small number of students.”

In addition to a low retention rate, Hyman adds that she believed credentials were not “aligned with the demands of the workplace. Then I started to ask myself, even for the 7 percent that was completing, how valuable was that credential?” she says. “I also started looking at operations, knowing that finances were tight. Where are we making investments? Are our faculty equipped with the latest knowledge?”

Students need credentials that will be respected by four-year institutions and by employers, Hyman says. “We need our students to be good problem-solvers, be good critical thinkers, be creative. The only way they can do that is with a good foundation of liberal arts training.”

City Colleges has hired more counselors, added “wellness centers” to help students deal with emotional and social issues, created veterans’ centers and established a “Student GPS” that provides semester-by-semester pathways for each course of study.

New test assesses non-academic readiness

Student success depends on motivation as well as academic preparation. A new ETS test called  SuccessNavigator claims to measure students’ readiness to show up for class, ask question and persevere, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Steven Robbins, director of research innovation at ETS, said the test can be used in tandem with conventional placement exams to find students with remedial needs who have the motivation and other non-academic tools for success in college – a suite of attributes some researchers have dubbed “grit.”

“It makes sense to try it because we know the traditional methods aren’t working,” said Melinda Mechur Karp, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Students take the 30-minute test online at a cost of $5 (to the college). It assesses their commitment, self-management and social support, as well as academic readiness. In addition to generating a report to a counselor, the student gets a “customized action plan” with advice on seeking out tutoring or careering counseling or improving their health and wellness.

City Colleges of Chicago, which is field-testing SuccessNavigator, may use it to identify remedial students who could move quickly to college-level courses, said Rasmus Lynnerup, vice chancellor for strategy and institutional intelligence. The test “allows us to have a personal relationship with students” as soon as they arrive, he said.

Santa Monica College used the test in its student success course, said Brenda Benson, dean of counseling and retention.

Instructors received classroom-level reports after students took the test. While not providing results for individual students, Benson said instructors were able to see how the class stacked up on about 15 measures, like social supports or time management skills. They could then tailor their instruction based on each group of students’ overall needs.

Faculty “found it really useful,” Benson said, adding that “students seem to love it.”

Community colleges, chronically short on support staff, may use the exam to make advising more efficient. I wonder if high schools will be interested as a way to focus students on improving their non-academic readiness for college.

From community college to a STEM bachelor’s

Universities are turning to community colleges in the search for potential STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students who are black, Hispanic or female, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Using a $2.6 million Gates Foundation grant, the University of Maryland Baltimore County will pilot a national model for increasing the number of community college students who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. The City Colleges of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago wil use a Kresge Foundation grant to help minority males transfer and earn STEM bachelor’s degrees. Mount Holyoke College is helping female community college students earn a STEM bachelor’s, with a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Transfer students in STEM fields face the same problems any community college transfer might face: courses that don’t line up, credits that don’t transfer, trouble adjusting to the class size or format, a lack of a community feeling. Those problems, however, are often more acute for STEM students. After all, 500-person lecture classes are more common in science departments, and requirements are often more stringent in those fields, too; an engineering student who takes the wrong class in his first year at community college will likely have a harder time finishing a bachelor of science degree in four years than an English student would have with a bachelor of arts.

Becky Wai-Ling Packard, a professor of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke, interviewed 30 Massachusetts community college students in STEM fields before and after they transferred to a four-year institution. Twenty-six transferred and 22 persisted in STEM majors after the first semester.

Most of the students reported positive feelings about their community college experiences, citing inspiring professors, peer support, and helpful advising as reasons for their success. Once the students got to their four-year colleges, however, sentiment turned negative. Most students reported struggling in at least one course, and said that compared to their community college courses, the four-year classes often moved at a faster pace, were more difficult, and provided less support. The content in the courses didn’t always line up, either. One student said she had taken the first semester of organic chemistry at her community college, but the second semester course at her four-year college assumed knowledge of things she hadn’t learned, so even though she had earned credit for the first semester of organic chemistry, she ended up having to take it over again.

Mount Holyoke’s STEM transfer initiative provides scholarships, advising and mentoring to help transfers complete a STEM degree. Students meet with science faculty members regularly and go through a special orientation.

Chicago faculty union OKs performance pay

Unionized professors and staff at City Colleges of Chicago have agreed to performance pay, reports Inside Higher Ed.  Instead of receiving annual “step” increases for seniority,  faculty members could earn bonuses based on student outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, remedial students who go on to college-level courses and graduates’ earnings and employment rates.

The bonuses won’t be linked to individual performance. If the district reaches it goals, all faculty members will receive more money. “We’re calling it student success pay. It’s a group incentive,” said Laurent Pernot, vice chancellor for institutional advancement.

The American Federation of Teachers represents nearly 1,500 full-time professors and professional staff at the seven colleges.

The contract was passed with the support of 72 percent of voting faculty members and 80 percent of professional staff members. But many faculty leaders opposed the deal and the union leaders at two of the system’s campuses recommended that members vote no.

. . . While a spokesman for the college system spoke about how the contract de-emphasized seniority in favor of accountability, a spokesman for the union insisted that key protections for seniority remained.

A joint faculty-administration committee will discuss ways to set “meaningful but achievable” goals, said Pernot. For example, one goal is to double the three-year graduation rate in five years, going from 10 percent to 20 percent.

Chicago replaces 5 of 7 city college presidents

City Colleges of Chicago will replace five of seven college presidents, reports Inside Higher Ed. Mayor Rahm Emanuel already has replaced five of seven members on the Board of Trustees.

Chancellor Cheryl L. Hyman has launched a “Reinvention” plan for the system.


Chicago’s B students need remedial help

Ninety percent of degree-seeking students at Chicago’s community colleges need remedial classes, Chancellor Cheryl Hyman tells the Chicago Sun-Times. Few Chicago Public School graduates are ready for City Colleges of Chicago classes: 94 percent test into remedial math, 81 percent into remedial English and 71 percent into remedial reading.

Cheyanna Wilson graduated from Chicago’s Curie High School with a 3.0 grade-point average that included a B in a “College Algebra” class.

At Malcolm X College, where she enrolled to earn an associate’s degree in accounting, she did not meet basic math requirements. Before she could take accounting classes, she needed to take — and pay for — a non-credit remedial math course.

In 2008, 44 percent of students under 25 at a public two-year college and 27 percent of students under 25 at public four-year schools were taking at least one remedial course, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Yet four out of five remedial students graduated from high school with a GPA above 3.0.

Increasingly, remedial classes aren’t just for adults who’ve been out of school for years and need a refresher, the Sun Times reports. Many recent high school graduates with B or C averages end up in remedial classes to learn high school skills.

Victoria Onifade, 20, a 2009 graduate of Uplift Community High School in Uptown, said she didn’t know about placement testing at City Colleges until she enrolled.

“I didn’t take it seriously,” she said. “I’m mean, you’re getting good grades in high school.”

She didn’t pass the English portion and used part of her Pell Grant to pay for the remedial class.

“It’s a waste of time,” she said.

City Colleges of Chicago officials have talked about ending the school’s open admission policy. For now, the colleges are experimenting with a summer skills class for 200 Chicago Public Schools graduates. The goal is to prepare students to start in the fall in college-level classes.

Remediation costs City Colleges $29.4 million, or $1,668 per student, each year. Forty percent of remedial students take two non-credit classes, an additional 21 percent took three remedial courses and 10 percent took four courses.

Only 17 percent of students who test into low-level math  and 26 percent of low-level English students ever pass a college class in the subject. Even fewer complete a credential.

Chicago rethinks community colleges

Chicago will ‘reinvent” its community colleges, vows outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley. City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) is 99 years old.

“The bottom line is that we need to get the highest possible return on our investment in City Colleges to ensure Chicago’s economic future,” Daley said in a news conference. 

“That’s why earlier this year, I named new leadership for the City Colleges of Chicago and challenged them to reinvent the system from top to bottom so that it better prepares our students to meet the economic challenges of today and the future,” he said.

Cheryl Hyman, the new chancellor, and Martin Cabrera Jr., chairman of the board, announced that faculty, staff and students will team with external advisory councils to work on improving completion and transfer rates and moving remedial students quickly to college-level classes.

Currently, only 16 percent  of students transfer to a four year institution, and only 4-5% earn a bachelor’s degree.  More than half of CCC students drop out before completing 15 credit hours.  

A review conducted this summer and fall found eight priority areas for improvement:  

Program portfolio review: increase the economic value of credentials and the number of transfers to higher education.

Remediation: improve outcomes for students needing remediation, including more swiftly moving students into credit programs, and creating partnerships with Chicago Public Schools and others.

Adult Education: improve programs so that students are on the pathway to completion of their program and successfully transfer to college credit courses.

Student support and pathways: improve advising, tutoring, job placement, and transfer and other wraparound supports.

Faculty & staff development: create development programs that better support faculty and staff in their service to students, establish performance goals and evaluation methods.

Operational excellence and optimization: improve the return on non-instructional related investments, and build an investment strategy that supports student success.

Technology: drive significant improvement in both instructional and non-instructional technology and data integrity to ensure students, faculty and staff have the tools necessary to succeed.

Strategic capital planning and investments: modernize our facilities and ensure we have the resources and technologies to prepare students for success in their new careers. 

The Reinvention effort is backed by the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust, the Gates Foundation and the Joyce Foundation.   

CCC is already making changes, Hyman said.  Counselors are reaching out to 15,000 students at risk of failing one or more classes. Additionally, CCC is working with the Chicago Public Schools to develop a summer bridge program for incoming students in need of remediation. 

No institution in Chicago is better positioned than City Colleges to become the economic engine that prepares a skilled workforce,” Daley said.