The Aspen Institute recently announced 150 community colleges eligible for the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The prize recognizes community colleges that have achieved strong student outcomes in four primary areas: certificate and degree completion; student learning; employment and earnings; and success for minority and low-income students. While each eligible institution has proved its all-around excellence, the following series looks at member colleges with outstanding performance in one of the above areas. Here is the third installment, which focuses on student learning.
Cynthia Bioteau, president of Florida State College at Jacksonville, has a goal in mind: “My hope and vision is that every course offered at FSCJ will have a component of service learning.”
Service learning is key, she notes, because students are able to take the theory they are learning in class and apply it in a real-world setting, through community service or engagement. Then, when students bring that real-world experience back to the classroom, they better understand the concepts and principles being taught. Research also shows that service learning can positively impact students’ career awareness.
For example, several FSCJ sociology students opted to complete their required service-learning hours working with victims of human trafficking. Because of that eye-opening experience, two students have decided to pursue careers in human services.
FSCJ uses national data to develop service-learning projects and routinely polls students on their individual experiences.
“Based on student feedback, we learned that service learning reinforced skills taught inside the classroom, allowed students to gain valuable real-world experience, promoted creativity and innovation and allowed for interactions with diverse populations,” says Jill Johnson, FSCJ director of marketing and communications.
In all, FSCJ students logged 16,000 hours of student service across disciplines in the 2014–15 academic year.
The new and improved student-services department
FSCJ’s push toward more service-learning opportunities is part of an overall concentration on how to best serve the 50,000 students learning across its five campuses and online. Starting in July 2015, FSCJ rolled out a revamped student-services department designed to be much more student-focused.
The school hired additional career coaches and 20 more advisers to help students even before they enroll. Now, the majority of student-services personnel interact face-to-face with students rather than just entering their data. Across departments, faculty, advisers, student-government supporters, and student-learning and civic-engagement offices are working together for student success. “That’s a real culture shift here,” Bioteau says.
Also, “as part of the redesign, every student is contacted within three days of their registration — personally, by someone in the college. We’re working with faculty for early alert and really breaking down barriers and bridging student success and academics so it becomes one.”
Faculty’s role is key
One of the ways FSCJ prioritizes student learning is with the help of faculty. In 2008, the college established an assessment process in which each program identified its expected student-learning outcomes and course-level outcomes. Faculty is charged with tracking student learning and embedding learning outcomes in the courses they teach.
Faculty has broad discretion in selecting the evidence that will be used to assess achievement of student-learning outcomes. Among the direct measures being used are capstone assignments, portfolios and written exams.
“When you connect the dots for students, faculty and staff [working] toward student performance using outcomes as a measures, all of a sudden there is a clarity to why we’re all doing what we’re doing,” Bioteau says.
The results so far
Bioteau admits the decision to revamp student services was somewhat controversial, but early data seem to suggest FSCJ’s collaborative, high-touch approach is benefitting students — at least in some areas, such as reduced wait times for advising. Last year during spring peak, students waited an average of 2.5 hours to meet with an adviser; now the wait time is less than an hour.
“Our students love it,” Bioteau says. “Anecdotally and by data, they’re showing they love it. We were able to really breathe fresh air into how we were supporting students. Overall, there’s an environment of hope and possibility as opposed to complacency and how we’ve always done things.”