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How to Build a Better Student Success Course

By Heather Boerner

Mandatory classes aim to help students develop better learning and study habits.

Success. It’s what every student who enters community college aspires to. More and more, it’s also what community colleges are being judged on.

But as almost any college administrator will tell you, there’s a difference between wanting success and being equipped to achieve it. That’s why more community colleges are offering mandatory success courses. Typically offered to entering first-year students, the programs are designed to foster the skills, mindset and habits needed to succeed in college.

At Durham Technical Community College, in North Carolina, educators have enacted a concept called SMART goals, designed to help students map their academic goals from start to finish.

“We move students deliberately through the process,” says Gabby McCutchen, assistant dean of student engagement and transitions at Durham Tech. “They can set goals for themselves based on what their strengths and interests are, as well as what careers are available to them and what careers are growing, versus what careers are being outsourced or replaced by technology.”

At Oklahoma’s Tulsa Community College (TCC), students focus on tackling challenges that arise in their lives.

“We try to look at, in goal setting and time management, ‘What are the obstacles you can see to being successful?’” explains Lori Coggins, who runs the school’s Academic Strategies program. “How can we problem solve in advance, so that when that problem — your child gets sick or you get behind in your coursework — comes up, you don’t panic.”

Along the way, students are always checking in on what strategies work for them, or don’t, and it begins the high-touch work necessary to help students to completion, Coggins says.

Thinking about launching a student success course at your college? Below, McCutchen and Coggins offer advice for administrators considering a program for first-year students.

Make it mandatory

Student success courses have been around for a while, but they haven’t always been mandatory. At Durham Tech, all degree-seeking students are required to take the course. At TCC, only developmental-education students and those who receive free tuition through Tulsa Achieves, a statewide gap-funding initiative, are required to enroll in the course.

That is a big part of really institutionalizing the course.

The transition to mandatory student success courses must be accomplished thoughtfully, McCutchen says. The course was not intended for soon-to-be graduates looking for one or two extra credits as a bridge to a college diploma. Administrators want students to enroll in the course when they first set foot on campus, when the lessons and skills learned are most valuable. To ensure there are enough resources to meet the needs of these students, Durham Tech hired three full-time faculty to teach the course.

“That is a big part of really institutionalizing the course,” McCutchen says. “Making it mandatory speaks volumes to students, faculty and staff on campus about the value of the course.”

Compare success

TCC and Durham Tech wasted no time comparing the academic achievements of those students who took the course against those who didn’t. The results were impressive: At TCC, nearly 86 percent of the students who took the Academic Strategies ENGL1003 course persisted to the next semester compared with 64 percent of those who didn’t take the course. At Durham Tech, 85 percent of students who took the student success course, called ACA122, persisted compared with about 70 percent of students who did not enroll in the course.

“The question became, ‘Is this just a case of success breeds success, or is there something special in our college success course?’” McCutchen says. “There was a time, when college advisers would tell students, ‘This is on your plan of study but it’s a waste of time. If you can get around it, you should.’” Today that’s no longer the case.

Very slowly, we’re changing the culture of the college.

“Those same advisers see the data we’ve collected, and they’ve heard the stories from the students who said, ‘I thought it would be a waste of time, but it has been incredibly helpful,’” McCutchen says. “Very slowly, we’re changing the culture of the college.”

What steps has your college taken to get students invested in their own success? Tell us in the Comments.

Heather Boerner

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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2 Comments

  • Avatar of Pallavi S

    The statistics of those students who pass to the next semester after taking the course says it all – these units should be mandatory in all colleges. it is not enough to sign up for a course and hope your natural talent and interest in will see you through. There are many factors that can affect success at college – many of them are nothing to do with academics. For example, work commitments, childcare problems, looking after sick relatives the subject…. It is helpful to make a plan about how you are going to cope with these things if the come up. Because studying is important, and being able to give yourself the time and the space to study is crucial.

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