Encouraging Deep Learning

Annual survey of community college students reveals that many do not engage in critical thinking often enough to generate classroom success.
November 11, 2010

Many community college students do not engage in enough classroom activities that enhance their “broadly applicable thinking, reasoning and judgment skills,” according to the latest Community College Survey of Student Engagement released today.

This year’s release of the survey, now in its 10th year, draws from the responses of more than 400,000 community college students in 47 states, the Marshall Islands and the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Ontario. In addition to the annual set of questions about their classroom and campus experiences, this year’s respondents were asked specific questions about “deep learning” techniques — defined as those “abilities that allow individuals to apply information, develop a coherent world view and interact in more meaningful ways.”

The authors of this year’s survey argue that the percentages of students who reported that they engaged “often or very often” in “deep learning” activities indicate that community colleges must do a better job of promoting them in the classroom if they hope to boost student performance.

Only 43 percent of students reported that they “included diverse perspectives (different races, religions, genders, political beliefs, etc.) in class discussions.” Forty-five percent noted they “learned something that changed [their] viewpoint about an issue or concept.” Fifty-six percent stated that they “put together ideas or concepts from different courses when completing assignments or during class discussions” and “examined the strengths or weaknesses of [their] own views on a topic or issue.” Finally, only 57 percent reported that they “tried to better understand someone else’s view by imagining how an issue looks from his or her perspective." As these are experiences that just about all students should have, the survey's authors think these figures are all way too low.

The survey’s authors argue that strategies, like these, that strengthen student learning are essential in helping produce more community college graduates, as the sector has been challenged to do by the Obama administration and various education groups.

“While summits are clearly important, policy papers are critical, and changes in institutional culture are fundamental, graduation rates simply will not increase unless we attend with equal urgency to what goes on between teachers and their students,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, in a statement. “It’s really a straightforward position. We have to invest in faculty work to invest or learn about effective educational practices, deploy them in classrooms of all kinds — whether virtual or face-to-face — and then bring them to scale.”

Integrating Student Support

Elsewhere in the survey, many students reported that they do not always know about the availability of their college’s student and academic support services or how to access them. And some who do use these services noted that they “find them inconvenient” or “feel stigmatized by using them.”

Fifty-one percent of students reported that they have “rarely” or “never” used their college’s career services. Forty-seven percent noted the same estrangement from peer or other tutoring. Thirty-seven percent reported that they have had little or no exposure to an on-campus skill lab for writing or mathematics. Finally, 34 percent noted they have “rarely” or “never” taken advantage of academic advising/planning services at their institution.

The survey’s authors argue that “intentionally integrating student support into coursework circumvents many of the barriers that keep students from these services.” They highlight a number of institutions that have tried such integration.

For example, Delta College, in Michigan, brings tutors into all “first-level” sections of remedial English and mathematics courses. Tutors offer one-on-one support sessions for all students with a course grade lower than B during the traditional course time “so the students can have no excuse for skipping them.” And Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas now provides student orientation in all entry-level English classes offered during the fall semester. The college did this because many students were not enrolling early enough for summer orientation.

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“We have to relinquish our reluctance to require, even when that reluctance arises from an abundance of empathy for multitasking students,” McClenney noted.

In addition to the national report, CCSSE also released individual benchmark scores on its website for all of the 241 community colleges that participated in this year’s survey. The colleges are evaluated in five categories — “active and collaborative learning,” “student effort,” “academic challenge,” “student-faculty interaction” and “support for learners." Though colleges get benchmark scores, CCSSE opposes the use of them to generate rankings of community colleges; however, The Washington Monthly released just such a community college ranking this summer.


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