Making and Sustaining Change
Consideration of context
When I began this project Suffolk County Community College was bulging with enrollment. Like the surrounding communities, the demographics of the college were changing and higher proportions of underrepresented populations were attending the institution. Despite these institutional changes, enrollment in geoscience programs was shrinking and both gender and ethnic demographics within geoscience classes were not representative of the student population. Furthermore, success rates for underrepresented populations were far below college norms for these groups. As a result of the declining enrollments and poor success rates of our students, faculty within the geoscience department were actively exploring and developing ways to attract and retain new students but with little success.
During this same period the college was struggling to institutionalize and close the loop on our formal program assessment processes across the three regional campuses. Additionally the college had just joined the Achieving the Dream program and was actively working to encourage faculty development in areas that supported student success.
Things that worked well that we would do again
In my experience, due to the individual time constraints of faculty and negative experiences associated with prior classroom innovations, many faculty are highly reticent to support new pedagogies or classroom activities without being certain that the changes will improve outcomes. Therefore in order to encourage change in the classroom faculty need time. Time to evaluate their own courses and programs, time to develop new or existing classroom activities, and time to reflect and improve upon their efforts. In this sense, annual faculty workshops and on-going activity updates by participating faculty were absolutely crucial to the success of this project.
Each year our fall workshops provided faculty with the time and space needed to closely examine key aspects of our program or classes. The diverse backgrounds of participants allowed faculty to collaborate and share their experiences with various pedagogical tools and approaches in order to avoid potential pitfalls in newly developed activities. Through these workshops faculty have developed strategies to encourage student success within their own courses and encourage greater participation in their programs.
In order to encourage faculty to persist in their efforts, pedagogical discussion was added to all department meeting agendas. During this portion of the meeting faculty were encouraged to discuss any new innovative practices and the impact of the activity on the students and the faculty. Through these discussions faculty were provided the time to reflect on the activity itself. Instead of focusing on the final grades or issues that arose during the activity the group focused on the overall objectives, the methods used to reach the objectives and how the activity might be improved to increase student success.
Supporting faculty change
To reach the objectives of this project I developed a program of workshops designed to focus faculty attention back to their students and their students' experience within the program. Through these workshops faculty were provided time to discuss what student success in the program meant, our current strategies for encouraging student success, the programmatic resources and activities that attract new students.
Our first workshop, Student Success in the Geosciences: Why Can't They Do That?, began with an exercise where faculty from five different colleges compared their perceptions of success with that of their students. Throughout the workshop faculty attention was directed toward the experience of the student. After learning about the psychology of learning, faculty were asked to reflect on their own pedagogy and their understanding of the student body to determine areas within their course that can be improved to not only help students better understand the material but also develop individual student learning strategies. Finally faculty learned numerous active learning strategies and discussed how each of the strategies could be utilized in their class.
In the following workshop, entitled Collaborating for Success: Building communities to increase success and participation within our programs, participating faculty were asked to take a broader look at their programs and how institutional activity and culture influences their students. After a brief presentation about the factors influencing student persistence in the sciences, participants performed a SWOT analysis of their programs to develop strategies to broaden participation, increase student success, and recruit majors. In order to better understand retention within courses faculty participated in a "Blooming" activity where faculty evaluated their course exams based on the categories described by Bloom's taxonomy. Faculty then compared their expectations on major assessments to the Bloom's category expected on other low-stakes formative assessments.
In the last workshop, entitled, From Design to Assessment: Developing Successful Science Courses and Programs, participants took a "soup to nuts" approach to program evaluation. During this workshop participants first learned how the Next Generation Science Standards may impact the preparation of incoming students. From there, participants evaluated their program learning outcomes and created a shared curriculum map to determine in which classes students are exposed to program level goals and identify potential gaps in the learning experience. After careful review of the curriculum maps, participants then turned their attention to their individual courses to determine how well course activities were aligned with course learning outcomes and how individual classroom activities might could be adjusted to better align with course objectives and fill potential gaps in program learning outcomes. Finally participants discussed how to include metacognitive strategies within their own course to help students develop deeper understandings of course material and more efficient, lasting study habits.
Strategies for overcoming challenges
The greatest challenge I faced was creating the momentum that would encourage faculty to take the first steps to implement new ideas. As a single voice it is understandable that faculty would be wary to accept all of my suggestion or ideas at once and set about changing their courses and pedagogies. To overcome this I relied on small, manageable changes that had large noticeable impacts in the classroom and a few well-respected faculty willing to try. Successes in their courses and their willingness to publicly describe and explain all aspects (positive and negative) of the changes they adopted provided more credence to the programs and the positive reinforcement for others to try.
Things to think about before you start this type of project
Change is hard. Changing people is harder. One of the hardest lessons learned through this project occurred early on for me. Realizing that a student's success in my course was just as valid a measure of the student's knowledge of material as it was of my ability to teach or reach the student—If I knew and understood general gaps in student knowledge, experience, and training and, as their professor, did nothing to help address those deficiencies but built my course around that prior knowledge, how could I expect them to be successful? That realization hurt, as I always considered myself to be an effective teacher who was highly supportive of my students. Although I still believe I was, it was just not in areas that would be most beneficial to their growth and success in our program. Over the years, during my annual workshop I have heard many faculty make similar claims about their own teaching. I know exactly what they are going through. Instilling pedagogical change requires us to question core beliefs about ourselves and accept a level responsibility for the actions/ability of others that we may not have in the past. In order for that to happen everyone needs the time and space for open reflection and positive dialogue within an atmosphere that nurtures self-assessment and values professional development. In other words, take it slow, celebrate small gains, and always focus on improvement. Only a few people may become actively involved in the beginning but how you assist their work and efforts will greatly influence how and when others become involved or seek your advice.
Assessment is now a component of most department meetings. Unlike previous years, where assessment was seen as a four letter word or administrative busy work, I have used this agenda item to not only discuss administrative assessment but to also discuss less formal assessments within our classes and programs. Through these discussion I have encouraged greater cooperation between disciplines and provided time throughout the semester for faculty to focus on their pedagogy and gain advice or help from their colleagues. Throughout the department, faculty are taking on more student-centered projects designed to address identified deficiencies in the program or preparation of the students and have been working closer with our transfer institutions and service departments to improve the student experience within the program.