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Taking the Why Out of the Equation: Formulas for Student Success

November 2012, Volume 15, Number 11

By Sonya McCoy-Wilson, Laura Jones, Lauren Lopez, and Gregory Chambers

In the foreword to Student Success in Community Colleges, John Nixon argues that our success in assisting students to discover their unique motivations is dependent upon our capacity to help them identify with the culture of higher education; with learning itself; and with faculty, staff, and other students (2010). Nixon suggests that the challenge of achieving identification is most effectively met at a college where programs and services are integrated across disciplines, and all faculty and staff are motivated by the mission of student success. The key word in Nixon's claim is discovery. As instructors, we know that our students will need the skills that we teach in our courses. We may even routinely attempt to demonstrate how a mathematical concept or a writing task can be applied to a real-world or workplace situation. But our lectures can only go so far. Until our students discover independently that their math and English courses do indeed matter, they will continue to ask, Why do I have to take this class?

Atlanta Technical College (ATC) is one of 25 colleges in the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG). TCSG institutions recruit students by spotlighting in-demand programs which lead to real careers. The ATC mission statement asserts that the “integration of academics and applied career preparation to enhance student learning is essential in meeting the workforce demands and economic development needs of the people, businesses, and communities” the institution serves. This mission echoes John Nixon's assertions regarding student success.

However, when we talk to many of our students, and even our instructors, it becomes clear that the integration of programs and services across disciplines has failed to occur. Students, many of whom are here because they have an urgent and immediate need for employment, find themselves in English and math courses and tend not to understand that these classes are a part of any type of integration whatsoever. They don’t feel that the general education classes they are taking have anything to do with learning how to do their jobs, nor do they feel that the mission of the institution is enabling them to complete their personal mission of training in a field that will offer gainful employment upon completion of a program.

To address this disconnect, the faculty at ATC first surveyed, then held a focus group with students and a group of colleagues who teach technical courses. As a result of these efforts, we have identified and integrated innovative active learning methods into classrooms that will help students to contextualize math and English requirements within the scope of their primary academic and career goals. These simple, yet crucial, steps help students discover the relevance of general education courses. We believe these techniques can help other community college instructors and students take the why out of the equation.

Why Address the Why?

The project to take the why out of the equation at ATC started as an informal discussion among colleagues. Concerned about creating learning environments in our classrooms that were more conducive to student success, we commiserated then collaborated through shared ideas and success stories, frustrations and triumphs, failures and victories. We soon learned, however, that what had started as a shared yearning among coworkers for more enjoyable and satisfying classroom experiences—where students are less resistant to and more engaged with course activities—had much deeper implications.

The instructors at ATC are currently evaluated on their individual classroom retention and student success rates, which are linked to institutional enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. While we know that our administration is daily investigating and implementing innovative and exciting policies and procedures to enhance and enrich the student experience, there are students in our classrooms right now—today—who are frustrated, disillusioned, scratching their heads, and asking themselves and us why they have to take general education classes. If these students don’t succeed in our classes, it means that we are not succeeding at our jobs. And while we know that every committed educator's primary motivation is to help students succeed, the stark reality is that now, more than ever, our jobs depend on it.

Assessing Student and Faculty Perceptions

ATC faculty began the process of finding out why students felt they were sitting in our general education classrooms by surveying their English 1010 and Math 1012 students. Results indicated that most of the students surveyed failed to see any relevance between our classes and their career aspirations, and had skewed perceptions of how they would use the skills they did learn. While associate-degree-seeking students tended to have an easier time contextualizing, or making relevant, general education course requirements, many students shared that, in hindsight, they wish they’d had a better understanding of just how applicable math and English skills would be, not only in the workplace, but now that they are back in the classroom again.

The responses we received from approximately 100 students provided immediate and urgent rationale for continuing our research. So, armed with student responses, we began to probe our technical instructor colleagues for their input to questions about the kinds of knowledge they expect their students to have when they come to their classes, and how they would respond to students’ questions about why math and English courses are part of their programs. Ultimately, we found that we were inspired by the philosophies we shared, and a little embarrassed that we hadn’t made time before to reach across the college and collaborate.

As a follow up to the initial general education student surveys, ATC faculty invited students and technical instructors from a variety of programs to participate in a focus group to further assess perceptions and solutions. A moderator from the English faculty member facilitated the discussion.        

The moderator first asked the instructors how math and English courses benefit their students. All three instructors responded that math and English courses are the foundation to technical programs. An Electronics Technology faculty member, for example, explained that many of the courses in his program are considered pre-engineering. He illustrated how students are required to use trigonometry in those courses, and that they benefit from already have a working knowledge of basic math and algebra before they take the electronics courses.

The moderator then asked the students if they were surprised to discover that they were required to take math and English courses when they first came to ATC. One student, who described himself as having been home-schooled, explained that being a student at ATC was daunting to him. He felt ill prepared and intimidated. Another student shared that her apprehension and resistance were a result of her feeling as though the college math and English courses would just be a repeat of high school math and English. She explained that she soon discovered the concepts she learned in college algebra were concepts she never learned in high school math.

When the moderator asked the students if, in hindsight, they had discovered ways to apply concepts from math and English to their prospective career fields, one Paralegal Studies student explained that because "the majority of the work paralegals do is preparing legal documents and proofreading," he views the writing skills he acquires in his English classes as an integral part of his future as a paralegal. Another student explained that the concepts she learned in math and English courses allow her to draw conclusions and build critical thinking skills, which she applies in her studies as a nutritional scientist.

Students also shared the frequency with which they encounter other students who complain about their math and English courses. When asked, the students unanimously agreed that they hear these complaints daily. One student says that 50 percent of the students she encounters don't pay attention in class, and the other 50 percent want her to give them the answers. Of course, she uses her skills as a future teacher to help the students with study skills and strategies.

In light of these challenges, the moderator asked the students to share any advice they would give to incoming ATC students with regard to mastering their English and math courses. With a bit of insight well beyond her years, one student said that students must first be made aware of the significance of the English and math courses, and that they are the foundation for everything else. In her experience, she said most students believe their only purpose in coming to a technical college is to get a job; however, "overall, these general education courses are setting [students] up to be effective in their jobs and outside of their jobs." The English courses help students to master communication, writing, and critical thinking skills. The math and science courses reinforce those skills so students learn to think analytically. If students focus only on the program courses, says the student focus group participant, they are limiting themselves. But when they link the general education courses with the program courses, they can use all the skills in their careers, in their relationships, and as a citizen of the world.

Finally, the moderator asked the students if they could offer any advice to math and English instructors to help contextualize math and English coursework, or if they could share any assignment that was particularly poignant. One student described an assignment called Letter of Intent/Statement of Purpose, in which students share their five-year goals during the first week of classes. For many students, part of that five-year plan was transferring to a four-year college or university. The student explained that the assignment forced her to contemplate her value as a college student and to consider what she had to offer to a university. For the first time, she actually researched the university she wanted to attend. Another student explained that he was given the same assignment, which prompted him to make an appointment with an advisor at Georgia State University so he could get clear guidelines for his path to the university. Faculty participants affirmed the student's assertions that instructors should construct assignments that require students to contemplate their educational and career goals.

Seeking First to Understand

Ultimately, contextualizing math and English courses for students at technical colleges illustrates the value of math and English in their studies, future careers, future educational pursuits, and their lives in general. Once instructors contextualize math and English, students become invested in not only the courses and how those courses fit into their life plan, but also the pursuit of lifelong learning itself. According to Farr and Kopp (2010), authors of Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, student investment = I can x I want, i.e., desire times belief. In technical college education, contextualizing general education courses fosters a sense of desire and belief in the students we teach; if students believe the material is significant, then they have the intrinsic desire to master it. Once instructors foster this desire/belief combination, students trust that their instructors are imparting something valuable and significant. We can also translate this theory of investment as internal motivation. And as we have found, our math and English lectures go only so far. Ironically, we must take some constructed, orchestrated measures to lead our students to this independent discovery. We cannot simply tell our students that math and English are important. We must illustrate their significance through active learning methods and contextualized projects and assignments.

In guiding our students, we must, as Stephen Covey advised, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Once we understand our student population, we are better able to teach them. Understanding is not an easily accomplished task. Our student populations are ever evolving. The face of higher education has dramatically changed. Given that our students come from such diverse backgrounds, we must embrace, understand, and engage the 18-year-old just out of high school, the 25-year-old who wishes to pick up additional job skills, and the 50-year-old displaced worker who must now return to college to start a new career but can’t remember how to add fractions. In order to reach these students, we can consider the words of Paulo Freire (1970), who argued in his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” Freire holds that student and teacher are responsible to each other in the acquisition of knowledge. The conventional classroom paradigm is one in which students become passive receptacles, accepting and receiving the concepts and materials that instructors actively give. In this model, the good student simply receives and regurgitates what the instructor has told her. This conventional model is a one-way dialogue rather than a reciprocating conversation. We must seek reciprocity. We must turn this model on its head. We, as educators, must not only teach our students how to excel in our respective subjects, but also illustrate to students why our subjects are primary pillars in their educational foundations. We must take the why out of the equation and allow our students to solve it. Once they have the solutions, they are invested in knowledge and education as a journey and not a destination. Investing our students is purposeful yet imperative. Once they are invested, the proverbial sky will open, and where we lead, they will follow.



Covey, Stephen. (1989). Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York:Free Press.

Farr, Steven and Wendy Kopp. (2010). Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher's Guide to Closing the
Achievement Gap. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Friere, Paulo. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppresed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Nixon, John. (2010). Student Success in Community College: A Practical Guide to Developmental Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Sonya McCoy-Wilson is department chair for English and Social Sciences, Laura Jones is an English instructor, Lauren Lopez is department chair for Math and Natural Sciences, and Gregory Chambers is a math instructor at Atlanta Technical College in Georgia.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 11/01/2012 at 11:26 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -