Are we really data-driven?

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Student success, equity and institutional effectiveness are hot topics at every community college. Government grants and private foundations have funded numerous studies and continue to support research on how to improve student engagement, close achievement gaps and increase graduation and transfer rates at community colleges. There is no shortage of data in any of these areas.

What there is a shortage of, however, is a collective will to put into practice what has been learned from the data.

Improving conditions

We know from existing research that there are specific conditions on community college campuses that do help students engage and progress in achieving their educational goals. In interviews with 46 community college faculty, staff and students for my study, “Creating a Culture of Informal Mentoring at Community Colleges: Conditions that Strengthen and Weaken Relationships and Students’ Structural Resiliency,” three conditions were cited repeatedly as being instrumental to student engagement and success: small classes, active learning and student-faculty interaction.

These conditions together contributed significantly to improving not only the educational outcomes of the 20 students I interviewed, but also their sense of self-worth, their optimism for the future, and the overall quality of their community college experience. Having opportunities to be in small, interactive classes with faculty who they like and relate to makes students feel invested in and cared about by their college. Why? Because small classes, active learning and student-faculty interaction facilitate relationship building—and relationships drive everything.

Knowing this, consider the policies and practices on our community college campuses: Is relationship building a priority? Do our practices really reflect data, established best practices and empirical evidence, or are we hopelessly – and to the detriment of our students – enrollment and dollar-driven?

Creating connections

If research tells us that students do better in small classes, then why do large university-style lecture classes — often with more than 100 students — still exist at community colleges? If we know that active learning strategies are more beneficial to students than lecturing, then why are they not the norm in every classroom at every community college? And if research tells us that student-faculty interaction is critical to student development and success and that the majority of community college students only come to campus for class, then why are we not more intentional with class scheduling to allow time for students and faculty to interact before and after classes?

The students I interviewed for my study did not participate in college clubs or activities. They had jobs and family responsibilities, and their time on campus was very limited. Yet, they still wanted opportunities to develop relationships with their professors and their classmates.

Faculty who are in tune with the lives of community college students understand this and incorporate relationship-building strategies into their classroom activities. I learned in my interviews that these faculty have in common many of the same classroom practices and behaviors: They demonstrate caring and interest by checking in with students at the beginning of every class. They promote collaboration and community by regularly breaking into small groups. And they find ways to build in one-on-one time with students during class.

They have learned from years of experience that spending more time on small group work and other active learning strategies, and less time on lecturing, results in more engaged students, better attendance, fewer discipline issues — if any — and a higher likelihood of informal mentoring relationships developing. These faculty also arrive early to class — sometimes as much as an hour before — and they stay after for as long as students need them.

Every student I interviewed, especially those who could not be on campus during office hours, expressed appreciation for faculty who make themselves available before and after class. Not surprisingly, these faculty are often the most popular with students at community colleges.

Sure, enrollment matters. Dollars matter. But shouldn’t outcomes for students matter more? Can we have it all? I believe we can. Students want to interact with faculty and each other. They want meaningful learning experiences in collaborative environments. And they will enroll in classes that offer both. If we as community college practitioners, administrators and policy makers have the will to play the long game, consider return on investment and be patient through short-term growing pains, I believe we can have it all.

We can have small classes, active learning, student-faculty interaction and high enrollment at community colleges. Are you in?

About the Author

Sharon McMahon
is an instructional assistant in world languages and on the President’s Task Force for Race, Equity, and Inclusion at Long Beach City College in California.