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Success rates for community college students lag those at other institutions. Why? Many factors are at work. Many community college students come from high schools where they received lousy teaching. A new book, Teachin' It: Breakout Moves That Break Down Barriers for Community College Students (Teachers College Press), argues that instructors make an enormous difference to community college students.

The author, Felicia Darling, a college skills instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, responded via email to questions about her book.

Q: Graduation rates are much lower at community colleges than at most four-year institutions. What do you consider a good graduation rate for a community college? How should we judge community colleges on completion?

A: Community colleges have lower graduation rates because they have a different mission and serve a more diverse student body. Therefore, three factors should be considered when discussing “good graduation rates.” First, the majority of students attending four-year universities seek to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, while many community college students do seek to graduate with an associate’s degree, there is a wide variety of other aspirations represented. These include transferring to a four-year college, obtaining a certification, completing industry-specific training, exploring career options and taking recreational courses. All of these can be attained without actually “graduating” (i.e. completing an associate’s degree).

Second, unlike four-year universities with entrance criteria that funnel in students with high levels of academic preparation, the open-access nature of community colleges means that some students attend even without a high school diploma or GED. Therefore students enter community college with a broader range of academic skill development and preparation. Third, due to their mission, community colleges serve more students who are underrepresented among those who possess four-year degrees. These include students of color, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, students from the LGBTQ+ community, students from low-income households and first-generation college students. While underrepresented students may be more resilient and motivated, they are also more likely to face obstacles to graduating. These include navigating a system that is discriminatory, experiencing food and housing insecurity, reintegrating into society after being incarcerated, balancing work and school, and supporting families.

That being said, community colleges should aim for a 90 percent graduation rate within three years for those students attending full-time who declare the goal of attaining an associate’s degree. I would say 100 percent, but I recall, with a heavy heart, students like Lisette, a 19-year-old who began the semester with a promising A and wanted to be a nurse. She stopped coming to class after the ninth week, because she had to care for her mentally ill mother and seven younger siblings, who all lived in a homeless shelter.

Q: What are the major problems you see with traditional instruction methods as applied at community colleges?

A: The major issue with traditional approaches like the teaching is telling and the primarily lecture model is that they miss opportunities to unleash the full learning potential of the maximum number of students in the classroom. In particular, there are two reasons why traditional approaches fall short. First, community college students come from diverse cultural backgrounds and embrace a wide range of identities. Consequently, they bring a wealth of cultural knowledge to the classroom. Unfortunately, the traditional, direct-instruction approach, where the instructor is the authority, overwrites these students’ funds of knowledge.

When instructors draw from students’ wealth of cultural assets during instruction, they communicate that they value students’ identities. Using a more egalitarian, inclusive approach like complex instruction can help illuminate students’ assets. This means doing more inquiry-based, group learning where all students’ contributions are taken up equally and all students are held to the same high standard.

The second reason why the traditional lecture-style approach is so problematic is that community colleges are open-access institutions, so students enter with a range of academic skill preparation and a variety of gaps in content knowledge. When instructors shift their role from lecturer to facilitator of inquiry-based learning in groups, it redresses gaps in knowledge and skills. When students work in groups with carefully crafted tasks, they can approach learning from their strength areas by drawing from their prior knowledge. In addition, they can build on the knowledge of their peers by engaging in scaffolded discussions where they negotiate meaning and co-construct new knowledge. Education psychology theory and cognition research demonstrate that students learn better in groups. This means giving more low-floor, high-ceiling tasks with multiple entry points to give the broadest access to students. Facilitating discussions around group-worthy activities allows all students to build on their prior knowledge and skills and to communicate their unique reasoning and perspectives. In addition, this approach makes student understanding of the content explicit, so instructors can refine instruction to meet the needs of more students.

Q: At many community colleges, a majority of students need some remediation. Are there approaches to remedial teaching that could help many students?

A: While the majority of students entering community college place into remedial courses, there is a growing trend toward placing students directly into transfer-level courses with corequisite support courses instead. The goal is to increase transfer and completion rates of students -- especially underrepresented students. The following three instructional strategies are useful for students placed into either remedial or transfer-level courses. First, it is important to foster a growth mind-set classroom. Community college students frequently have experienced failures when learning in the past, and they may have internalized negative mind-sets around schooling and their identities as learners.

Second, doing “inreach” is a powerful instructional move. This means using instructional time or course materials to connect students with campus resources like financial aid, tutoring, mental health services, academic counseling, mentoring or student clubs. Underrepresented students make up a disproportionately large number of students placed into remedial classes at community colleges. Research indicates that completion rates improve when community college instructors connect entering students to institutional resources. The third approach is that instructors should seamlessly layer college skills into the curriculum in ways that dignify students’ lived experiences. Examples of college skills are: using professional academic language when communicating with professors, knowing how to study for and take different types of tests, navigating financial aid, taking effective notes, knowing how and when to get a mentor, or code-shifting. For first-generation college students, instructors may be the only one they know with a college degree.

Q: You have extensive experience in teaching math, and math is a major stumbling point for many community college students. Would you please offer an example or two of making math instruction have more impact on your students?

A: On the first day of class, students do an activity called “Finding Your Growth Mind-Set.” Students draw a picture of something they are now good at, something they got better at over time by expending great effort. This is an area where they have a growth mind-set. They draw themselves playing soccer, baking, playing guitar, speaking in public, fishing or writing, etc. Afterward, in pairs they discuss strategies they used when they made mistakes or when things got challenging in this one area where they have a growth mind-set. I scribe their strategies on the whiteboard, then we discuss how these can be applied to learning math. We circle back to their drawings and this class list of strategies as the math content grows increasingly complex and cognitively demanding. This launch activity not only reinforces a growth mind-set but also acts as a springboard for co-developing norms with students around doing the inquiry-based group work that is foundational to the course.

The second activity involves applied problem solving in groups. When I introduce the topic of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing with positive and negative integers, I do not begin with the typical lecture on the rules followed by having students complete 20-40 problems on a worksheet. Instead, I introduce the topic by having students explore real-life, culturally informed problems that previous students gave me or ones that I created from my Yucatán study. Students work in groups of four and use visuals to solve these problems in their own ways. Then, each group explains their assumptions, reasoning and solution to their problem to the entire class. After two days of solving and presenting, students derive their own rules for using the four operations (+, -, x, ÷) with integers -- and write them in their own words. For homework, students create and solve their own real-life word problems, and these are graded with a rubric. A student from Jordan created a problem to find the distance traveled if one was to travel from the top of Mount Nebo to the bottom of the north end of the Dead Sea. Another student wrote a word problem in Spanish that she developed with her mother about business accounting.

Q: Your book talks about the importance of mind-set -- for students and instructors. Would you explain what you mean by that?

A: The research is clear. Beliefs and attitudes of both instructors and learners impact student outcomes. Many students enter college with unproductive attitudes about school and learning from their prior experiences in elementary or secondary school, with the media or society at large. For example, “Girls do not do well in math”; “People who look like me are not college material” or “People who are good at music are born that way.” For community college students seeking to transfer to four-year colleges, their first course lays the groundwork for achieving that goal. Therefore, it is important for instructors to foster a growth mind-set classroom where all students recognize that experimenting, making mistakes, taking risks and expending great effort are all a natural part of being a competent and powerful lifelong learner. Furthermore, recent research indicates that when educators possess growth mind-sets, then their students achieve at higher levels, so it is important for educators to nurture their own growth mind-sets about learning, as well.

In addition to fostering their own growth mind-sets, it is also important for educators to cultivate an equity mind-set. We know that when educators have differential expectations for different students based on their ethnic/racial, linguistic or socioeconomic background, then the achievement gap widens. Therefore, educators need to frame their instructional moves with an equity lens. This may mean exploring their own implicit bias, writing a positionality statement or educating themselves about the cultural backgrounds and histories of their students. This work to cultivate an equity mind-set is particularly important when teaching students who are subjected to discrimination on a daily basis, like students of color, students from the LGBTQ+ community and students from low-income households. By cultivating an equity mind-set, instructors ensure that classroom instruction does not perpetuate these unfair systems but instead disrupts these larger systemic inequities at the classroom level. All students should feel invited to communicate their unique perspectives in the classroom as part of their journey to develop their identities as powerful learners.

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