ccDaily > Campus-wide changes at one Va. college yield successful results

Campus-wide changes at one Va. college yield successful results


Bronte Miller, a developmental math instructor and SCALE facilitator at Patrick Henry Community College (Virginia), works with students in an active cooperative learning group.

Photo: Patrick Henry Community College

Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) offers proof that it is possible to scale fundamental changes in pedagogy and curriculum.

Since embracing college-wide use of active cooperative learning (ACL) techniques, it has increased fall-to-fall persistence rates 26 percent and two-year completion rates 30 percent.  Fall-to-fall persistence rates increased from 54 percent for the 2005 cohort of 545 first-time college students, to 68 percent for the 2008 cohort of 588 students. Completion rates for those groups increased from 10 percent to 13 percent, respectively.

“There is no way our college would go back to a lecture-based institution,” said James Gregory Hodges, dean of instructional support services at PHCC. 

Although PHCC is a small college, its work with ACL is applicable to larger institutions trying to scale innovations. In fact PHCC has been so buoyed by the improvements in its student success outcomes, it opened the Southern Center for Active Learning Excellence (SCALE) to teach others how to incorporate ACL techniques in their teaching. To date, more than 350 faculty members from 20 community colleges have attended SCALE's multi-day training sessions.

Addressing a skills deficient

Located in the rural foothills of south-central Virginia, the college chose ACL as its key Achieving the Dream strategy eight years ago for its potential to develop problem-solving, communication and social skills that employers seek. Unemployment in the college's service area has lingered near 20 percent for 15 years, and many of PHCC's 3,000 students are displaced factory workers. 

The college also developed an online tool that helps advisors decide which students to place in ACL developmental math courses.

Hodges said the team of faculty, administrators and staff who began working on Achieving the Dream in 2004 explored a number of ways to change the culture and climate on their campus. He said their work was driven by the question: “What are we going to do to meet their (students’) needs and help them along their journey?” 

Since then, all PHCC's full-time faculty and 75 percent of adjunct instructors have received professional development in ACL. In addition to investing in professional development through grant funds from Achieving the Dream and the Developmental Education Initiative, the college's state-funded renovation of two buildings included purchasing round tables and chairs and desks with trapezoid tops that can be linked quickly to form table arrangements that facilitate ACL.

To encourage faculty to adopt active, cooperative learning, PHCC:

  • Began by asking faculty to volunteer for professional development in active, cooperative learning.
  • Gave stipends to faculty members after they submitted curricula that use active, cooperative learning techniques.
  • Offers professional development to adjunct faculty at periodic evening programs that include a meal in order to keep up with turnover among the part-time faculty. 
  • Awards additional points on evaluations to full-time faculty who use active, cooperative learning techniques.
  • Accelerates the pay scale steps for adjuncts who attend the professional development programs. 
  • Sets the expectation that faculty will use active cooperative learning by including it in the job description for all faculty positions.

With more than a third of PHCC's faculty attaining advanced standing in the ACL pedagogy—developed by David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota—college personnel now lead professional development programs at SCALE and elsewhere.  

Offering flexibility

ACL entails students working together in various collaborative ways. For instance, a student may be assigned a partner to discuss a particular point an instructor made during a mini-lecture, and later in the class work on a problem set with a different partner or small group of students. Throughout the semester, the student will develop a project with a larger group of students. Examples of ACL activities developed by PHCC faculty can be viewed here.

Academic freedom means that some faculty use ACL techniques daily, others weekly and others only occasionally. Nevertheless, Hodges estimates that 80 percent of the full-time faculty use ACL. With this critical mass of participation in ACL, more students are taking ownership of their learning, and it is paying off:

  • The persistence rate of PHCC students enrolled in at least one ACL course during their first term is 13 to 15 percentage points higher than students who did not have an ACL course.
  • Overall retention of ACL students is 57 percent compared to 46 percent for students who have never taken an ACL course.
  • The retention rate for students who have taken two ACL courses is 70 percent.

"The proof for us is in the numbers," Hodges said.