Effectiveness of Online Community College Success Courses
June 2013, Volume 16, Number 6
By Melanie Abts
The benefits of a community college education are many: a college educated population raises incomes and lowers poverty, creates opportunities and solves problems, reduces barriers, and elevates civic engagement (Kirwan, 2007; Rodgers, 2005). Community colleges are the largest and fastest growing sector of U.S. higher education, providing a crucial gateway to four-year institutions and addressing today’s workforce needs. However, fewer than half of community college students complete their programs of study. That number is even lower for traditionally disadvantaged students, including low-income, minority, and first-generation students (AACC, 2010; Miller et al., 2009; Oblinger, 2010).
Currently, the most significant barrier to college success—and increasing the corresponding low graduation rates in higher education—is students’ lack of college readiness skills (Conley, 2010; Bowen et al., 2006; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Upcraft et al., 2005). The issue of academic preparation can be even more problematic for students in an online setting (Lorenzo, 2011). Palloff and Pratt (2003) indicate that, “Students who are taking online courses for the first time often have no idea about the demands of online learning” (p. 11). An online student must possess specific abilities and skills that include self-motivation, time management, and technology proficiency (Bell, 2006; Kelso, 2009; Lorenzo, 2011; McGhee, 2010).
Research has shown that first-year success courses can help students prepare to become productive, high-achieving college students (Lingo, 2009; O’Gara et al., 2009; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Upcraft et al., 2005; Zeidenberg et al., 2007); however, most of this research primarily concerns the university level (Kelso, 2009; Tobolowsky, Mamrick, & Cox, 2005; Tighe, 2006).
There may be several reasons for the lack of research on college success courses at the community college level. Apart from the traditional community college focus on teaching and learning rather than research, community colleges do not offer this course in a consistent format (Cohen & Brawer, 2008). For example, the course has many different titles, such as College Success, First-Year Experience, Academic Skills, College Readiness, College 101, and Study Skills (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Upcraft et al., 2005). The success course also takes many forms, from a noncredit workshop seminar to a full course with transferable credit (Hunter & Linder, 2005). The curriculum varies and may include an emphasis on career exploration, goal setting, personal development, study skills development or improvement, or all of the above. This lack of uniformity makes outcomes harder to compare and measure (Hunter & Linder, 2005). Furthermore, the lack of consistency in instructors for the course also limits research. For example, some colleges train faculty in different disciplines to teach the course, others use student affairs professionals, and still others use counselors or counseling faculty (Hunter & Linder, 2005).
Rio Salado College
The Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) consists of ten colleges, two skill centers, and numerous education centers serving more than 260,000 students in credit and noncredit courses. Its colleges offer 1,000 occupational degrees and certificate programs, 37 academic associate degrees, and a total of 10,254 courses.
Rio Salado College, one of the Maricopa Community Colleges, is primarily online, with 80 percent of its students taking online classes. The college provides 48 weekly asynchronous start opportunities for most of its courses, including online college success courses. This approach is both practical and effective in serving students across the district, and many MCCCD students have taken at least one college course from Rio Salado because of the convenience and flexibility of its offerings. The college has extended educational access to students who found traditional college to be out of reach in Arizona, nationwide, and around the world (Bustamante, 2011).
Rio Salado’s Online College Success Course
Rio Salado College has been offering its 1-credit College Success course, CPD 115, online since July 2009 and the 3-credit Strategies for College Success course, CPD 150, since January 2010. CPD 115 teaches strategies for college orientation, personal growth, and study skills development. CPD 150 covers the CPD 115 curriculum as well as educational and career planning.
Rio Salado College success courses, developed by a part-time college counselor, are taught by adjunct faculty/part-time college counselors, and all counseling adjunct faculty receive training from the course developer before teaching a section. Faculty who have received the training have access to an adjunct counseling portal that provides information regarding course procedures, announcements, and assignments.
With flexible Monday start dates, students may begin a CPD 115 or 150 course forty-six times per year. Instructors can have new students starting in their section for several weeks until their course is full (25 students). Having a master course with many sections helps track the effectiveness of the course and helps ensure that students are learning course competencies.
Assessing College Success Course Effectiveness
An action research study was conducted March through October 2011 to determine the effectiveness of Rio Salado’s two online college success courses. The Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire measured students’ perceptions of their own college readiness in a pre-test/post-test format. Understanding students’ perceptions of their own college readiness is the college’s first step in understanding the effectiveness of these courses. The majority of the research sample came from students enrolled in CPD 150, at a total of 70 students (77%); the remaining 21 students (23%) in the sample were enrolled in CPD 115.
Data analysis revealed that students reported they had better study skills after the course than before completing the course. Particularly, learning strategies, test anxiety, self-efficacy, effort regulation (self-management), control of learning beliefs, study skills, and time and study environment stand out as showing substantial improvement for the students.
- Identify and apply time-management strategies.
- Identify and apply goal-setting strategies.
- Identify preferred learning style and describe its relationship to teaching and learning strategies.
- Identify and utilize interpersonal communication skills.
- Identify and utilize strategies to organize study materials.
- Identify and utilize note-taking strategies.
- Identify and utilize textbook, academic, and classroom strategies.
- Identify and utilize test-taking strategies.
- Identify and utilize strategies to improve memory.
- Identify and utilize strategies for critical and creative thinking
Almost all of the participants (96%) agreed that the CPD course content would be useful to them in other courses and would help them improve their academic skills. A large number of the participants thought that the content seemed interesting (82%), and that the course would improve their career prospects (79%). These answers indicate that participants valued the course and the content being taught. Twenty-four percent of students thought all Rio Salado students were required to take a college success course, even though these courses are electives.
The findings of this research, along with other Maricopa research projects on college success, have helped to influence change at MCCCD and Rio Salado College. Rio Salado will now make College Success Strategies mandatory for students who place into one or more developmental education courses. The district is exploring the possibility of making this course mandatory for all students who are new to college. Other MCCCD colleges are starting to develop one-course, many sections models for their college success courses, and offering mandatory training for their faculty who teach the course. In summary, the action research study supports findings that college success courses are effective, and that they can be and should be scalable.
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Melanie Abts is Counseling Faculty Chair at Rio Salado College in Arizona.