Building a community of caring in co-requisite courses

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Houston Community College (HCC) serves about 80,000 students annually. More than one-third need remediation. Most of those students are placed in co-requisite courses, which are college-level courses with developmental supports.

There have been challenges with that model, Catherine O’Brien, HCC’s associate vice chancellor of college readiness, said during an AACC Digital presentation. About 40% of students are not passing courses, and students of color are overrepresented in this group.

HCC partnered with the University of Houston to identify and learn from innovative faculty what works in co-requisite learning. They interviewed faculty members who were nominated by deans and faculty chairs for their highly effective teaching strategies.

What they learned

Building students’ confidence is essential for these students to succeed.

“Many students come in with notion that they’re incapable of doing the work,” O’Brien said. 

Faculty encourage and support students with exciting, engaging teaching – not just lectures with PowerPoints.

That confidence built in co-requisite courses spreads to the rest of the classes they take at the institution.

“It sets them off for success,” O’Brien said.

A community environment

Successful faculty also use these courses to build a learning community. Students are placed in teams and get to know and learn from each other. That way, the classroom becomes a safe space where students can make mistakes, be vulnerable with each other and feel confident enough to raise their hands and say “I don’t understand this.”

O’Brien acknowledged that learning communities looked different during the pandemic. However, students in co-requisite courses still had opportunities to participate and engaged through synchronous online learning.

Highly effective faculty also show empathy and care. They realize students have complex lives. Faculty are more flexible and communicative, reaching out via email and text when students miss classes. And they pay attention to the quiet students, O’Brien said. When someone is struggling, faculty don’t single out that student, but rather explain a concept in a different way to the whole class. 

“If we don’t believe our students can be successful, they’re going to sense that,” O’Brien said. “It’s important that we show our students we believe they have the potential.”

Another thing learned through talking with faculty was that they want ongoing professional development – and like their students, they don’t want lectures. They want to learn from each other. 

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Flexible grading during the pandemic

When the pandemic shut down campuses in 2020, Western Nebraska Community College moved academic courses online. But they tried to stay in person with career and technical courses (CTE) as long as possible.

“We really needed to have face-to-face teaching,” said WNCC President Carmen Simone during another AACC Digital session on Thursday. The college was able to continue with in-person CTE courses for a few weeks, but eventually did have to end on-campus labs and clinicals.

That meant “grades became impossible for us,” Simone said.

Typically, students who couldn’t finish a course were given an “Incomplete.” They would have 90 days to finish the course or that grade would become an F.

That didn’t seem fair during a global pandemic, when students were struggling with possible illness, unemployment and other stress factors. Instructors started issuing a grade of “E,” for “Emerging.” This grade gave “flexibility for students so they could put their minds at ease,” said Brian Elkins, WNCC’s registrar.

An “E” grade was more open-ended, allowing students more time to complete a class.

In May 2020, 231 “E” grades were given to 124 more students. Students could complete their courses over the summer and, as of the end of August 2020, all “E” grades had been resolved and permanent grades were placed on their transcripts.

During that summer, the registrar’s office would periodically review the status of students.

“Anytime you have something floating out there, routine reporting is very important,” Elkins said.

Though the pandemic is easing, WNCC plans to continue to use the “E” grade in cases where students have a crisis.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.