November 14, 2008
What has also become clear through SPECC’s exploration of FIGs is the power of viewing classroom data through the lens of larger trends and patterns. Most campuses have a good deal of information available at the institutional level: data about student demographics, enrollment, retention, and the like. And some institutions seek out information that allows for a comparative perspective. For instance, West Hills College administers the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). Students participating in learning communities who were queried as part of the 2007 CCSSE study reported higher levels of engagement than did the overall college sample (West Hills College, SPECC Report, 2008, p. 6).
Additionally, FIGs can be an occasion for faculty to raise questions that fall into what might be described as the “missing middle”-the gap between information from individual classrooms and institutional-level data in the form of big-picture, aggregate trends and patterns. The power of focusing between (and connecting) these two is nicely illustrated by a story from Los Medanos College where the Developmental Education Committee realized that their efforts to reshape curriculum and pedagogy needed to be informed by evidence faculty members did not have, including and especially patterns of student course taking and success beyond the level of individual courses. The Committee approached the Office of Institutional Research, and the two groups worked together to develop a data-gathering plan that would address the questions faculty wanted to understand more fully. The result was a report tracking students from the capstone pre-collegiate courses in English and math into the first level of transfer English and math courses (Los Medanos College, SPECC Report, 2006, p. 8). This was not the kind of information Institutional Research staff members were in the habit of preparing; nor was it a perspective that faculty were accustomed to seeing. But it turned out to be a powerful impetus for attention to intensity and intentionality. As noted earlier in this report, the Institutional Research data gave faculty “a convincing rationale” to take measures that keep students moving through the developmental sequence without stopping out.
At Los Medanos College, mathematics faculty worked with institutional researchers to track the progress of students who took and passed elementary algebra. “Of those who completed elementary algebra but waited to enroll in intermediate algebra, only 25 percent successfully completed a transfer-level math course within three years,” reports Myra Snell, a faculty member in math at Los Medanos. “Of those who went directly to the next level, 47 percent completed a transfer course in the three year period.” As it turns out, the same pattern holds in the English department, where the numbers are 12 and 41 percent, respectively. Snell concludes, “This prompted a much greater sense of urgency about the need to counsel students about continuing in the developmental math sequence without stopping out. It also provided a convincing rationale for encouraging faculty to give up precious class time to do activities that connect students to campus resources like the career center and academic counseling. We cannot take for granted that students who successfully complete our courses will persist” (Snell, 2008). (Basic Skills, 18)
Additionally, the collaboration between faculty and Institutional Research points to the value FIGs can add as sites where educators (not only faculty, that is, but a wider group of individuals, full-time and part-time, whose work contributes to student success) can engage together with the richest and most useful range of information and evidence.