7 Community Colleges Open an Online Doorway to Better Grades and Graduation Rates

Lissa Gotwals for The Chronicle

Shanequa Byrd, a new student at Central Piedmont Community College, discusses her academic goals with Tony Jones, the director of counseling services. Mr. Jones uses a series of online assessments developed by the college to focus these conversations.
November 06, 2011

There are two things Clint McElroy knows about community-college students: A huge number of them don't stay in school. And many of them—who are often the first in their families to go to college, and who must juggle work and parenting—don't understand how to balance all those demands while studying at the college level.

"These are students who just don't have the tools to put themselves in the driver's seat," says Mr. McElroy, dean of retention services at Central Piedmont Community College, in Charlotte, N.C., where retention had historically run between 60 and 70 percent.

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But Central Piedmont has harnessed technology to start to turn these numbers around. Its Online Student Portal learning system, a Web site, assesses the learning styles of at-risk students (whether they learn best through reading, hearing, or hands-on work) and helps them understand how their personality traits might connect to study and career choices. It also provides a ready link to college counselors and instructors, allowing them to send so-called "early alerts" if a student starts having trouble in a class. And it carries a record of these interactions from term to term, so students and advisers can easily see where students have been—and where they're going.

From 2004 through 2008, students who participated in all aspects of the Web-portal program, along with a "college success" course, did much better than those who didn't participate. They were about 9 percent more likely to stay enrolled from spring to the subsequent fall term. They were about 11 percent more likely to get A-through-C grades in their courses, and about 3 percent more likely to graduate. And their retention rate in their first college term reached 87 percent­—a big leap from the previous figures for overall retention.

Now Central Piedmont, with money from Next Generation Learning Challenges, a nonprofit group focused on improving college readiness and completion, is providing the technology, free, to six other colleges to see if the Web portal can produce similar results in other places. "We just had a 13-percent budget cut, and classes grew from 24 to 30 students," says Sue Olesiuk, interim dean for academic success at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, also in North Carolina, which started using the system this summer. "This technology makes it much easier for us to stay in contact with students." And frequent contact translates into successful students, she says.

While colleges are just starting to learn whether the system can easily be adopted by multiple institutions, education researchers feel the idea has promise. "The approach certainly makes sense to me," says Melinda M. Karp, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center of Columbia University's Teachers College, who has studied advising and retention. Typically, she says, "there is a huge disconnect between the faculty side of the house and the advising side." She does, however, have concerns that the benefits of such a program will diminish if contact with a student isn't carefully maintained from term to term.

Students feel that the program is already working. "I have a checkered past, and I have not been to school in a long time," says Timothy A. Graham, a 49-year-old unemployed truck driver from Charlotte who has been enrolled at Central Piedmont for a year. "So it's really helpful to be told, 'This is what you need to do to succeed here.'" Finding out that he was primarily a visual and auditory learner helped him and his adviser craft ways of taking notes that made it easy for him to recall material, he says.

The problems Mr. Graham faces are serious ones nationwide. According to a 2011 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the retention rate among full-time community-college students was only about 60 percent. Among part-time students, it fell to about 40 percent. And just 27 percent of all students graduated within three years of starting community college, according to "What Works in Student Retention," a 2010 report by ACT, the nonprofit education-assessment organization. The survey, of 305 colleges, reported that the leading reasons for attrition were a student's lack of readiness for college-level work, deficient study skills, and money problems.

In 2003, Central Piedmont began to tackle those barriers. With a grant from the Department of Education, it initiated a series of "college success" courses for new students whose placement-test scores put them into developmental courses in two subject areas, because they needed remedial work. It also ramped up its counseling center. And it began work on the Online Student Portal. "We decided on a shotgun approach," Mr. McElroy says. "We were going to try everything that might work. So we got everyone around the table: faculty, counselors, the IT chief. We wanted input and buy-in from everybody."

In particular, he was interested in improving students' sense of what psychologists call self-efficacy. "A lot of our students don't know they can be agents in their own lives," he says. "They don't know they can change things for themselves. And they have a sense of shock when they come here."

That's why the college incorporated learning-style and personality assessments into the online profile, says Tony Jones, director of counseling. "It's not defining them, or saying, 'You are only this way.' It's really a way of getting a conversation started."

When students log in to the portal, they are asked to agree or disagree with about 50 statements about their personality, similar to those in the widely used Myers-Briggs personality inventory. It includes statements like "You enjoy being unpredictable and doing things without planning ahead" and "You often tell people how they should behave toward other people." Immediately after finishing, students are given several charts showing whether they are more introverted or extroverted, more thinking or feeling, and other characteristics. "I learned I was an extrovert," says Mr. Graham. "That fit with a career in substance-abuse counseling, which is what I want to do, and I'm taking classes in human services and counseling."

The learning-style assessment consists of about 30 questions like "Do you pay close attention to teachers' expressions on their face or their body language?" and "Are you good at making graphs, charts, and other visual displays?" The results rate students on three dimensions: auditory, visual, and movement-oriented, or kinesthetic.

Mr. Jones says he remembers using this test with a student on academic probation. "She said, 'I'm doing everything I know how to do,'" he says. "I encouraged her to take the test, and she came up as heavily kinesthetic. I said she could get up and walk around while studying, or listen to music, or squeeze Silly Putty. For a kinesthetic, there is a connection between movement and memory. But this really went against her preconceptions of what a good student did, which was to hunch over a book and take notes." The student tried the new approaches, and improved her grades so much the next semester that she was taken off probation. "It would be a stretch for me to say it was because we did these things, but they did provide the opportunity to talk about studying strategies," Mr. Jones says.

Linda Dunham, the chair for the college-success courses, says her conversations with students often go like this: "'So your learning style is auditory. How can you make that work for you?' And then we talk about what could work."

One danger of this kind of test is if instructors try to match teaching style to learning styles. The portal allows instructors to see what the mix or predominant style is in a classroom. But research has shown that attempts to match learning styles do not improve results for students, says Richard E. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "I don't think the evidence is there yet," he says. He would prefer to see the discussion shifted from pinning particular styles on students to getting students to think about how they learn most effectively.

Mr. McElroy, the retention dean at Central Piedmont, says that's exactly what goes on at his college. "We don't want instructors to teach differently. It's really a reminder to vary what they do."

Another benefit of the portal is that it breaks down walls that separate counselors and instructors. "I am much more inclined to sit down after class and pop open the Web site and send a student a note if I've noticed she's been absent a lot, or to send counselors an early alert," Ms. Dunham says. "If I had to get up and walk to the counseling offices, even though they are right downstairs, I'd be much less likely to do it."

The online repository of alerts and notes is a particular boon to adjunct instructors. "About 70 percent of our instructors are adjuncts, and this really helps them," says Ms. Olesiuk of Asheville-Buncombe. Their hours are less regular, but "the online system lets them check on students from home, and contact the counseling service more easily. Before it was much harder because they weren't in the same place." (The site allows only senders and recipients to view the contents of these notes; others can simply see that action was requested and taken, but for privacy reasons they cannot see details.)

And when instructors are teaching many sections of a course, with 100 or more students, the online history is a reminder that "each of those numbers represents one student, a real individual," she says.

Mr. Graham, the unemployed truck driver, says he now feels like an individual with a chance of success. "I've tried college before, and I failed," he says. "Now I'm ready." He had a 4.0 grade-point average during his last term, he says. "I know that I have a chance to go even higher than Central Piedmont in my life."

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