Dashboards for Success

Pierce College employs practical data to help boost graduation rates

 

March 15, 2017
 
Screen shot of one of Pierce College's dashboards (click for full view)

Tom Broxson taught an online section of introduction to geography at Pierce College, a community college in Washington, for 10 years before seeing much data about his students. When Broxson became one of the first users of the college’s new data dashboard two years ago, he was surprised by the information he found about his students.

Broxson said his students’ 80 percent passing rate had dropped to about 65 percent for four terms. “It was a real significant drop and I was utterly unaware that that happened,” added the district dean of natural sciences and mathematics at Pierce College’s Puyallup campus. “I had no clue until I saw that in the dashboard.”

Broxson said he saw ways to use the data to improve his students’ passing rate, and enthused by the dashboard’s potential, began sharing his findings with his colleagues.

Other Pierce College faculty members were not so quick to embrace the dashboard, including English professor Corina Wycoff.

 “I felt hesitant about using the dashboards at first because I worried they’d be implemented punitively,” Wycoff said.

Chancellor Michele Johnson said the dashboard was met with “such resistance even though we tried to frame it as being committed to student success.” But, she added, “We had to be patient enough to let some people mess around in the data.”      

Patience prevailed. What helped quell Wycoff’s and others’ fears was Broxson’s willing to share his data with his others, and administrators' pledge not to use the data to punish instructors.

Now Wycoff is a big fan. "When used with good will and transparency, the dashboards can reveal trends not always evident within the classroom,” she said.

Wycoff has made changes to her teaching approach based on the data. One of her biggest shifts -- a mandatory, rather than a voluntary, one-on-one conference with students about writing assignments.

“These aren’t just dashboards,” said Carly Haddon, Pierce College’s data solutions developer, of the many types of dashboards the institution now employs. “They are really actionable tools for [faculty] to go in and dig into their data, to see what’s happening in the classroom.”

The dashboards, along with a number of other impactful changes, have helped Pierce College significantly improve its three-year graduation rates from 22 percent to 31 percent among new degree-seeking students and 21 percent to 30 percent among first-generation students.

Data for Change

Johnson said the college began taking a hard look at itself in 2010 when it participated in the Governance Institute on Student Success, sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT).

“We really started focusing on data and on our mission,” Johnson said.

Meeting the needs of a diverse community is a key component of the institution’s mission. But, Johnson said, it hadn’t realized how completion rates were much lower for students who are parents, Pell Grant recipients and minorities.

To make real change, Johnson and others knew that instructors needed to know more about their students and how they fared academically. That’s why the dashboards were conceived.

Pierce College wanted the dashboards to show information in myriad ways. Haddon led the charge using Tableau software to make data accessible and meaningful for all staff.

“There was no usable data warehouse in place at Pierce College, which made any analysis difficult,” Haddon said. So she looked at what kind of data requests were coming from departments. “The results made it very clear that successful course completion at the faculty level should be our first dashboard to be released.”

Erik Gimness, the college’s director of institutional research, said the biggest logistical challenge was setting up the database with current and warehoused data. “The first dashboard took about a week to fully complete, from design to beta testing to finished release,” he said.

After the course completion dashboard, 13 other dashboards were created covering topics including later success -- how students fare in their next sequence class after leaving a particular course.

An added bonus is that the dashboards have made staff meetings more productive. “Instead of speculating and requesting data, we just look up what’s happening,” Broxson said.

Growing Faculty Use

The first dashboard’s implementation started with the handful of people in the college’s Targeted Skills Training cohort and then a small group of beta testers. The users began talking with their colleagues about the dashboard’s usefulness, which led to others requesting access.

“Very quickly we were able to … get over half of the faculty using the dashboard voluntarily,” Broxson said.

Nearly all Pierce College’s 130 full-time faculty members, along with a growing number of its 300 adjuncts, have been trained to use the dashboards. Faculty make up 67 percent of system users.

Although widely accepted, there are challenges to using the multiple dashboards, Gimness noted. The user needs to know which dashboard answers what questions, as well as understand the functions within each view and how to ask the right questions in the first place.

During the past two years, faculty members have used the dashboards to harness ever-expanding streams of data, including advisement success in semester-to-semester enrollment. Broxson hopes the college can do even more with the dashboards.

“We’re looking at what happened to students in past terms for the most part,” he said.  “But we’re moving more in the direction of being able to integrate our [learning management system] data [to] determine when there is a change in a student’s behavior that would indicate they’re at risk of not continuing.”

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