Teaching Success

At Florida's community colleges, research finds that study-skills courses improve retention.
June 18, 2007

Study skills courses at community colleges really do help students succeed, at least in Florida, a study of the state’s 28 community colleges finds.

Sixty percent of students who enrolled in for-credit "success courses," classes that teach students skills for note-taking, test-taking and time management, had “academic success” during the study’s five years, while just 40 percent of students who did not take success classes had the same success and had earned a degree or certificate, transferred to a state university or continued enrollment in a community college.

In a field where student retention is a major concern, the results of the study, “Do Student Success Courses Actually Help Community College Students Succeed?” are significant, illustrating that success courses really are effective in helping students succeed.

Students who enrolled in success courses – even if they did not complete them – were eight percent more likely to earn a degree or certificate within five years than students who did not take a success course. They were also eight percent more likely to still be enrolled in community college five years later. The same data was used for a 2006 Florida Department of Education study that looked only at students who completed success courses.

Released today by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, the study tracked 37,000 students who first entered a Florida community college in the fall of 1999 over the course of 17 terms (five years and eight months).

Thirty-six percent of students enrolled in a state-regulated “student life skills” course. At some colleges, the classes are mandatory while at others they are electives. Twenty-eight percent of the students studied took both a success course and at least one remedial credit.

Controlling for gender, race, English proficiency, test scores and several other student characteristics, success course enrollment is associated with a “probability of success” nine percent greater than for students who did not take the classes.

Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at CCRC and one of the study’s three authors, said it was “surprising that one course across the system could have such a dramatic effect on what happened to a student.”

Though results did vary from college to college, Jenkins said that Florida’s “structured system” for success classes meant that results were generally similar between the campuses. Even in states with less centralized success programs, Jenkins said he “suspect[s] we would find this effect,” with students who took success classes more likely to obtain credentials, stay enrolled at the college or transfer to a four-year college.

The study was sponsored by the Lumina Foundation’s Achieving the Dream initiative, which aims to help community college students succeed by analyzing data on student achievement. Several Florida community colleges are participating in the project.

Dominique Timmons, a 19-year-old student at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, said that without the success course she took there, she “definitely would not be doing as well.” The class, she said, “taught me things I didn’t know about” like that she should sit toward the front of a classroom to learn more. Without the time management skills she learned in the class, “I’d be running around not knowing what to do.”

Timmons wants to be a chef and will transfer to Johnson and Wales University’s Miami campus in March 2008. “I know I can take my skills there,” she said. “I can take my skills with me and they’ll help me do well.”

Ted Wright, special assistant to the president for strategic initiatives at Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, said that his college has used success courses “to treat the heart attack and keep the patient alive for the first day” rather than planning for long-term success because the classes are required of students who need “significant” remediation.

“So many of these students are leaving after one semester or not even completing one semester,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep them here a little bit longer … to help them through the first and second semesters and outside the classroom before looking longer term.”

The instructors of Broward’s success courses also serve as their students’ “success coaches,” providing additional support and counseling for students during their first semester.

Tallahassee Community College requires success courses of students who place into two or more remedial classes but allows all students, whether in their first semester at the school or their last, to take a success class as an elective. Sheri Rowland, the acting director of Tallahassee’s Student Success Center, said that statistics collected since the fall of 2003 show that first-time college students who take the college’s success class have higher GPAs and fewer withdrawals than those who don’t.

The college will offer 63 sections of 28 to 30 students in the fall semester, Patrick McDermott, a success course instructor, said.

Jenkins, one of the study’s authors, cautioned that though the success course is “not a silver bullet, it certainly does have a substantial effect.”


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