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Changing faculty culture leads to better student outcomes

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Community colleges that are making progress in raising student success rates have developed a strong faculty culture in which instructors are committed to improving student learning, according to a new report from the Aspen Institute report.

"Building a Faculty Culture of Student Success" from the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program describes how colleges that were eligible for the Aspen Prize have encouraged faculty to consistently seek new ways to improve student success. 

The colleges profiled in the report vary widely in their characteristics and populations served and have developed different approaches to engage faculty.

Tying tenure to outcomes

Valencia College in Florida revamped its tenure process to focus on teaching ability. The effort was initiated by faculty who were concerned about data showing that students who had to repeat a class did even worse the second time. The instructors also were unhappy about a tenure process that rewarded them for skipping a class to attend a meeting.

It's all about college culture

The college organized about 200 educators into learning communities where they examined the research, explored the college’s strategic learning goals and took part in professional development activities. That process led to the establishment of an informal leadership core to focus on improving teaching and learning, and then to a smaller group charged with redesigning a tenure system that recognized teachers who improved student learning.

Valencia’s new tenure plan defined seven educator competencies that instructors are expected to master, focused the tenure review process on a commitment to high-quality teaching and learning, and established a Teaching/Learning Academy to guide faculty through the tenure process.

Educators are now expected to create an individual learning plan that includes at least one action research project to evaluate whether their teaching strategies are resulting in higher levels of student success.

Collaboration encouraged

The impetus for change at Western Kentucky Community and Technical College (WKCTC) came from a proficiency assessment that found only 40 percent of students had basic reading skills. To turn that around, faculty members were trained to teach students specific reading strategies alongside the content curriculum in their courses. They also had opportunities to join “learning circles” comprising 15 to 20 colleagues to share ideas on how to implement the strategies.

The learning circles are now a mandatory part of new faculty orientation at WKCTC. Faculty began to work together to develop several improvements, including a common, rigorous standard for student competency in entry-level English. The college appointed early adapters as “ambassadors” to help their colleagues embrace new ways to teach reading skills.

In Virginia, Patrick Henry Community College’s efforts to engage faculty stemmed from a three-year graduation/transfer rate of just 19 percent in 2004 and data that showed low levels of student engagement in the classroom.

The college adopted a cooperative learning strategy focused on hands-on group work. The effort began with professional development for just a few faculty members and, as student outcomes improved, the training was made mandatory for all full-time faculty.

The Fort Steilacoom Campus of Pierce College in Washington took a different path, using its union contract negotiation process to promote a master teaching program.

Faculty take part in a weeklong course where they present a project they developed to improve their teaching and receive feedback from their peers. The instructors then implement their projects and gauge whether their strategies improve student outcomes. Projects approved by administrators are posted on the college website and shared in training sessions. Faculty who successfully complete the program receive a $2,500 salary increase.

Develop an action plan

Based on the experiences of these and other colleges, the Aspen Institute report recommends the following steps for changing faculty culture:

  • Create a “widespread belief that the status quo is not sufficient.” That calls for the collection of data and building an urgency for reform.
  • Build a core team made up of influential people who care deeply about improving outcomes.
  • Develop an action plan to institutionalize and sustain the change over the long haul.
  • Regularly evaluate, reflect on and continuously improve the strategies to determine whether the new college culture is leading to higher student success rates.
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