Active learning helps first-gen students

Classes that require active learning — as opposed to listening to lectures — help first-generation and black students, according to a new study, reports the New York Times.

Active learning raised average test scores more than 3 percentage points, and significantly reduced the number of students who failed the exams, the study found. The score increase was doubled, to more than 6 percentage points, for black students and first-generation college students.

For black students, that gain cut in half their score gap with white students. It eliminated the gap between first-generation students and other students.

Disadvantaged students tend to have weaker study skills than other students, said Kelly A. Hogan, one of the study’s authors. They are less likely to participate in class and are more likely to feel intimidated and isolated.

The study compared student performance in an introductory biology class taken mostly by freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In three terms, Dr. Hogan used a lecture-based approach. In three other terms, she demanded more student participation.

The more active approach gave students more in-class activities, often done in teams, including sets of online exercises. There were similar online exercises assigned to be completed before class along with textbook reading, intended to force students to think about the material rather than just memorize it, and still others for review after a lesson. Many of the exercises were ungraded, but the instructor could tell whether students had done them.

. . . “In a traditional lecture course, they’re not held accountable for being prepared for class, and they really don’t need to be, because an instructor is going to tell them everything he or she wants them to know,” Dr. Hogan said. “Would you read a report for a meeting if you knew your boss was going to spend 15 minutes summarizing it for you? I know I wouldn’t.”

Students in the more active class were far more likely to say they did the reading. They also reported spending more time doing the work and participating more in class. They were more likely to see the class as a community.

Analyze behavior to raise success rates

Increasing retention and graduation rates remains an elusive goal for community colleges, write Terry O’ Banion and Ross Markle on DiverseEvaluating student behaviors, such as time management, goal setting and persistence, can help raise completion rates, they argue.

O’Banion is president emeritus and senior fellow for the League for Innovation in the Community College. Markle, senior research and assessment advisor at Educational Testing Service, helped create the SuccessNavigator™ assessment.

Almost 50 percent of community college students drop out by the second year. That’s especially disastrous for black and Latino students, who primarily turn to community colleges for higher education.

 Successful college students have to manage their schedule and schoolwork on their own, maybe for the first time. They need to understand what’s expected of them. They need to know how to find support. They must be committed to attaining a degree or certificate and feel assured that it’s worth their time and tuition. These factors are especially important now for the many first-generation students who enter community college.

. . . students with strong academic study skills, commitment to academic goals, personal time management and social support are much more likely to complete their degrees.

Such measures are stronger predictors of graduation than academic ability, write O’Banion and Markle.

Asking students “about how they organize their time, what they value in a college degree, and how they cope with stress, challenges and financial or family pressures” could help colleges do a better job of helping students develop the behaviors that lead to success, they write.

Alamo: Self-help course may replace humanities

Alamo Colleges students will study the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People instead of history, philosophy or literature, if Chancellor Bruce Leslie gets his way. Leslie is seeking state approval for a course based on Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling  self-help book. Learning Framework would be part of the core curriculum, replacing one of only two humanities requirements.

Some faculty and administrators at the San Antonio area colleges are opposed, reports Inside Higher Ed.

“When you look at the humanities courses that are offered, there are logic classes or a world civilization class or language courses,” said Charles Hinkley, chair of Northwest Vista’s history department, which would be deeply affected by the change. “Even if the [proposed] course is a worthwhile course to take, it’s still not clear that it’s more vital to students’ development than these other courses.”

Leslie said the new course will help students “do college,” while letting them earn credits that will transfer to a state university.

Business leaders are looking for graduates with “soft skills,” such as leadership and time management, said Leslie. Among the “seven habits” are “putting first things first” and “beginning with the end in mind.”

Learning Framework, known as EDUC 1300, is a pre-core requirement in the Dallas County Community College District, notes Inside Higher Ed. “Cross-listed as a psychology course, it’s supposed to focus on learning strategies and cognitive processes.” Veterans and others who’ve learned “soft skills” elsewhere can get waivers.

College readiness starts in preschool

College readiness starts in preschool, concludes a report by an American Association of State Colleges and Universities task force. To prepare young people for higher education, colleges and universities should work with local schools and community partners to reach children of all ages, the task force recommends.

Academic readiness is a necessary condition for college success, but it is not sufficient. Students must also have the necessary personal characteristics—such as motivation, self-efficacy and study skills—and the social support to persevere when challenges could lead them to give up.

“Quality preschool is the single most important factor in preparing at-risk students for elementary school,” according to the report. Teaching basic math concepts and developing children’s language skills is “critically important.”

In elementary school, reading and mathematics are both key to continued school success. Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are likely to be academically disadvantaged throughout the rest of their education. As children get into their adolescent years, skill in mathematics is particularly important regardless of the major that one will pursue in college.

High schools need “timely and useful” feedback on how their graduates are doing in college, the report recommends. In addition, high school students should have access to dual-credit programs.

U.S. academic achievement is “on a downward trajectory” compared to other countries, the task force warned. “Our institutions are devoting too many resources to remedial education, and despite this, graduation rates are far below what the country needs, even when measured after six years rather than the traditional four; and too many students are leaving our institutions without degrees but with significant debt.”

‘Success courses’ succeed in boosting retention

“Student success classes” are succeeding in improving retention rates, but some community colleges are resisting the trend, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Success classes typically teach study skills, time management and how to set goals and use college resources.  But, with resources running short, these courses can crowd out traditional academic classes. While success courses are “sometimes seen as a patronizing extension of high school,” most colleges award one to 3 credits.

“Research indicates that students who complete these courses are more likely to complete other courses, earn better grades, have higher overall GPAs and obtain degrees,” according to A Matter of Degrees, a report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

In Florida and Virginia, students who took a success course in their first semester earned more college credits and were more likely to return for a second year, a Community College Research Center study found.

At Tulsa Community College, students who take “Academic Strategies” are 20 percent more likely to remain enrolled and more likely to earn a C or better in future courses, reports Inside Higher Ed.  Durham Technical Community College reports a 30 percent increase in retention.

Community colleges often require remedial students to take success courses, but only 15 percent of community colleges require student success courses for all first-time students, the CCCSE report found. “We need to relinquish the reluctance to require,” said Kay McClenney, the center’s director.

Houston Community College is among the largest mandatory adopters among community colleges. All entering students who haven’t previously completed 12 college credits — about 12,000 students each fall — take one of five different student success courses during their first semester.

Three of the courses have a specific career focus – like engineering or health care – but all of them “are designed to orient students to the behaviors, expectations and rewards of college as well as support services,” according to the college’s website. Students must pick a major and file a degree plan after finishing the classes.

California community colleges should require a “success course, learning community or other support activity” for students who are poorly prepared for college, a task force recommends. However, there’s no consensus on whether all students should take such a course.


Supports for success don’t reach most students

Community colleges are raising success rates by helping first-year students connect with professors and classmates, concludes A Matter of Degrees, which is based on surveys by the Center for Community College Student Engagement. However, many students don’t take advantage of the help that’s available unless their college requires it, as I write in U.S. News.

“Promising practices” to improve success rates include grouping students in a “learning community” that takes several courses together or a “first-year experience” program that creates a small community including faculty and staff.  Student success courses that teach time management and study skills also help students make the transition to college life.

Few students study for placement tests. As a result, 72 percent test into remedial courses. Once there, most don’t seek tutoring or extra instruction.

Advising is hit or miss. Nearly half of new students don’t seek help in choosing classes and even fewer talk to a counselor about balancing academics with work and family commitments.

“Students don’t do optional,” says Kay McClenney, director of the CCCSE. In some cases, colleges should make participation mandatory, she argues. In others, colleges can integrate “student and academic supports into classroom experiences,” such as teaching study skills or use of the library as part of academic courses. “Colleges should provide more structure, fewer options and clearer pathways for students,”  she concludes.

Brazosport College in Texas requires all new students to take a success course.

Zane State College in Ohio requires “instrusive counseling” — personal meetings, phone calls, e-mails and Facebook conacts — to keep high-risk students on track.


Should ‘success class’ be required?

California may require low-skilled community college students to take a “success course” that teaches study skills and “college knowledge” reports EdSource Extra. The California Community College’s Student Success Task Force recommended non-credit student success courses as a strategy to improve graduation rates, but didn’t specify whether the classes should be recommended or required.

Many community colleges already offer success courses in various forms.

For at least 25 years, student success courses were offered at City College of San Francisco as a one-unit, not-for-credit course, said Nadine Rosenthal, the director of City College’s Learning Assistance Center.

It has since expanded to a three-unit course taken by some 800 students that can be used for transfer to a UC or CSU campus. It consists of three segments: one focused on personal growth and learning styles; another on study strategies and test-taking skills, and another on critical and creative thinking. An average of 40 students are enrolled in 22 course sections.

Rosenthal said surveys showed that students found the “time management” and “goal setting” portions of the class most valuable, followed by techniques for memorizing and concentrating on course materials.

But she opposed making it a required course for students who are shown to be lagging on a placement test. She said it would be “logistically challenging” as well as extremely costly to offer as many as 100 course sections without a major increase in staffing — an unlikely prospect during this period of extreme cuts to the community colleges’ budget.

Colleges are expanding student success courses to reach more students without hiring more counselors, said Bob Gabriner, a task force member and director of the Education Leadership Program at San Francisco State.

Combining classes with support services can reach students who’d never seek out a counselor, concludes a MDRC report on several approaches.

At Chaffey College in California, a voluntary success course for students on academic probation had no effect, MDRC found. Redesigned as a two-semester, mandatory program, it showed “large and significant” results. “Almost twice as many students in the program group as in the control group got off probation and returned to good academic standing.”

In Florida, community college students who’d taken “student life skills” classes were more likely to earn a credential, a 2006 study found.

Students’ view: High school was easy, college was hard

Why do students go to college? Why do they drop out?  In Their Own Voices: Young Texans Talk About Barriers to College Completion (pdf) lets Texans who’ve enrolled in two- and four-year colleges discuss college challenges. The focus groups include college drop-outs, graduates and current students.

Public Agenda partnered with the Lumina Foundation‘s Productivity Initiative and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to produce the report.

Young Texans see a college degree as valuable, but some wonder if it’s worth enough to justify the costs, the report found. Many have friends who are struggling to find work and pay off college loans. 

“Inadequate academic preparation and poor advising in high school set the stage for failure,” the report concludes. Not surprisingly, “for those without strong support systems, solid preparation, and a clear sense of purpose,” the transition to college is difficult.

Between more challenging academics, financial issues and family concerns, pressures mount quickly and powerfully to derail students, particularly those who enter college without clear goals.

Community college students liked the small classes and the chance to connect with instructors. At four-year  colleges and universities, professors were more distant.  College advisers provided little help, participants said.   

Students said higher standards and challenging curriculum would improve their chances for college success, notes College Bound.

. . . many students realized that they were not prepared for the challenge of college-level classes, did not have the requisite study skills or the discipline, and were not ready for the sink-or-swim approach of faculty compared with that of their high school teachers.

Focus group participants recommended requiring four years of math in high school and focusing more on writing longer essays.  They said students should be encouraged to take college-level classes through AP and dual-enrollment programs. Above all, don’t dumb down the curriculum so students can pass, the students and former students advised.

Other recommendations:

  • Have college students talk with high school students about the realities of college.
  • Improve advising so it’s a plan that can be followed over the years.
  • Make it easier to get financial aid and keep tuition rates affordable.
  • Allow students to specialize their education sooner.
  • Provide online classes for working students.

Focus groups were conducted in five Texas cities:  76 percent of participants hadn’t earned a degree;  18 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree, and 6 percent had earned a certificate or associate degree.

New technology, old (bad) study techniques

College students are transferring ineffective study habits from wire notebooks to wireless netbooks, concludes a new study published in The Journal of Educational Psychology.  From Science Daily:

. . . students tend to study on computers as they would with traditional texts: They mindlessly over-copy long passages verbatim, take incomplete or linear notes, build lengthy outlines that make it difficult to connect related information, and rely on memory drills like re-reading text or recopying notes.

Meanwhile, undergraduates in the study scored 29 to 63 percentage points higher on tests when they used study techniques like recording complete notes, creating comparative charts, building associations, and crafting practice questions on their screens.

“Learning occurs best when important information is selected from less important ideas, when selected information is organized graphically, when associations are built among ideas and when understanding is regulated through self-testing,” said Ken Kiewra, an educational psychologist at University of Nebraska and a co-author of the study.