Rules of (Community College) Engagement

November 12, 2007

It's no great secret that community college students spend much of their time away from campus. As this year's report on an annual survey of the academic experiences of students at two-year institutions puts it: "Most students simply are not on campus enough for engagement to occur spontaneously. They rarely bump into instructors on campus and have serendipitous informal conversations."

Thus, the report argues, community college faculty need to take advantage of their limited classroom time, and administrators need to think about ways to create opportunities for students -- and particularly part-timers -- to engage with instructors and their peers while on campus.

The Community College Survey of Student Engagement, released Monday, reached that conclusion after tracking data compiled over the past five years (700,000 students, 548 institutions) on how students spend their time and interact with people at their institutions.

In addition to the wide-angle view, the survey provides its usual look at a three-year cohort -- those who responded from 2005 to 2007, a group that includes more than 310,000 students from 525 institutions.

The students responded to survey questions in the spring after having several months' worth of experiences from which to draw. Those who are included in the report are the "survivors," as the report says. But, as CCSSE notes, many more students don't stay past the first semester -- and researchers want to know what factors into a student's level of engagement and satisfaction at the start of college.

That's why, in the "special focus" survey section, questions this year asked students to think back to their first four weeks of college. (Questions asked to beginning students this fall about their first month will be released as part of a separate report in the spring.) The results from this year's focus section show that:

  • Fewer than half of students met with an adviser to discuss academic plans in the first four weeks.
  • Slightly more than half completed an assessment test for course placement.
  • Thirty-two percent didn't attend an orientation program, and only one in three who did said they were "very satisfied" with the experience.

Kay McClenney, director of the survey, said that some of the engagement results are alarming, given that the first few weeks of college are essential in capturing students' attention.

"Students tell us the most important service is academic planning," [In fact, 90 percent of students surveyed say advising and planning are either "somewhat" or "very" important.] "To see that there are a number of students who haven't seen an adviser, who haven't had academic planning, those are the undirected students who are going to fall through the cracks. These are things that colleges can do something about."

They can, for instance, require that part-time students take placement tests that indicate when remediation is needed, the report says. Academic advising and participation in study groups could also be mandatory, it adds.

"Engagement isn't going to happen by accident," McClenney said. "Higher education at large has tended to just put things out there in catalogs or on walls. We're saying these experiences have to be inescapable."

McClenney said the survey data about the composition of community college classes is nothing new, but it illustrates the challenges institutions continue to face in structuring their programs to meet the needs of the majority of their students.

More than half of community college students work more than 20 hours per week, and about one-third spend 11 hours or more per week caring for dependents, the report notes. Nearly two-thirds of community college students attend part time, and about two-thirds of faculty members teach part time.

“There is ample evidence that attending college part time puts students at greater risk of not attaining their educational goals," the report notes. And CCSSE data show that part-time students report lower levels of engagement than their counterparts -- “a finding that may be unsurprising but calls nonetheless for strategies that will more effectively engage part-time students.”

Not surprisingly, survey results show that part-time faculty report spending less time advising students outside the classroom than do full-time faculty. And when they're in the classroom, nearly a third of all faculty who responded to the Community College Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, offered as a companion to the student report, said they spend more than half of class time lecturing. More than one in five spend no time on small-group activities, and the majority spend less than 20 percent of class time on such activities. Given that students report relationships with faculty are vital to keeping them engaged, the report advocates using interactive methods of instruction whenever possible.

How Faculty Members Use Class Time

In your selected course section, on average, what percentage of class time is spent on each of these activities?
  0% 1-19% 20-49% 50-74% 75-100%
Lecture 2% 28% 39% 22% 9%
Teacher-led discussion 4% 48% 38% 8% 3%
Teacher-student shared responsibility 25% 46% 23% 5% 2%
Small group activities 21% 53% 21% 4% 1%
Student presentations 40% 48% 9% 2% 1%
In-class writing 50% 40% 7% 1% 1%
Experiential 65% 17% 11% 4% 2%
Hands-on practice 27% 34% 22% 9% 8%

Outside of the classroom, there appears little interaction between faculty and students. Fifteen percent of students surveyed said they talked about ideas from class with instructors when away from class "often or very often," and about half said they never had such conversations.

How Often Do The Community College Students Surveyed Used the Following Services?

  Often Rarely/Never
Academic advising/planning 12% 36%
Career counseling 5% 50%
Job placement assistance 3% 46%
Peer or other tutoring 7% 46%
Skill labs (writing, math, etc.) 14% 37%
Child care 2% 37%
Financial aid advising 17% 32%
Computer lab 32% 24%
Student organizations 5% 44%

How Important To Students Are The Services?

  Very Not At All
Academic advising/planning 61% 11%
Career counseling 50% 22%
Job placement assistance 36% 36%
Peer or other tutoring 39% 30%
Skill labs (writing, math, etc.) 43% 25%
Child care 27% 55%
Financial aid advising 60% 23%
Computer Lab 59% 16%
Student organizations 23% 42%

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