If a tool you are using doesn’t serve your needs, you’re better off building a new one. That’s what the faculty and administration at South Mountain Community College (SMCC) — part of the Maricopa County Community College District, in Phoenix, Arizona — discovered last year.
It all started with a group of instructors and counselors gathered around a conference table: “We were saying we wished we knew the connection between the amount of tutoring students get and how well they do in classes,” says Dawn Penich-Thacker, an English instructor and the director of the writing center and tutoring partnerships at SMCC. “We were guessing at the number but wanted to know if we could get more accurate information.”
They weren’t getting useful data from their tracking system, and customizing the product was too expensive.
That’s when Rey Rivera, vice president of learning, decided to bring the issue to SMCC’s Foundations Academy, which he co-chairs. The group of faculty, staff and administrators looks at best practices to improve developmental education. They brainstormed an ideal tracking system and approached the IT department to see whether the system could be developed in-house.
Developing a customized homegrown system
Penich-Thacker says SMCC is filled with collaborators who are used to working with all departments, especially IT. That’s why they were able to build a system that drew from other departments, including human resources and student data, to make the Learner Support System (LSS) easy to use.
In 2013, the IT staff spent the spring semester working out the new system’s logistics and then rolled it out for pilot testing that summer. “Our IT staff delivered everything we wanted, and they continue to tweak it whenever we have new ideas,” Penich-Thacker says. “It’s continually evolving and improving.”
A student walks into a tutoring session or workshop, logs in with his student ID, and sees his schedule, which is automatically pulled up. A tutor can view the student’s information and can “claim” the student and start the session. SMCC administrators now have useful data, such as which tutor worked with which student, and for how long.
When the session ends, the tutor is prompted to rate the session’s success on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being low). A rating of 1 generates an automatic email to everyone in the student’s network so that an instructor can take appropriate action.
“We’ve had budget reductions the last few years, and the data helps us maximize our tutoring resources and adjust the hours to reflect the needs of the students,” Rey says.
Having access to strong data allowed the college to see that students who received three hours of tutoring over the course of a semester had double-digit increases in retention and success compared with students who did not receive three hours of tutoring. Based on that finding, every developmental course now requires students to spend three hours with a tutor, getting faculty assistance or taking a workshop.
Scaling up for student success
“We’re happy to understand the impact our tutoring has had on our students,” Rey says. “It was nominated as one of the top innovations in the district, and now it’s touted as a model.” Already, five colleges in the district have expressed interest in using the software. He and Penich-Thacker are hopeful that more colleges will follow.