Student Applied Benchmarking: A Whole College Student Success Effort

Denise Barton and Emily Moore
Innovation Showcase

According to Inc. magazine (Curtain, 2017), the number one skill that high paying employers want in employees is the ability to solve complex problems. At Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, we are striving to help students develop problem-solving skills with the support of staff and faculty across the college through Student Applied Benchmarking (SAB). Students in this program design solutions to problems with the help of college employees. The culmination of this collaborative effort is the SAB Showcase, an event that provides students with the opportunity to present their ideas in poster form to Wake Tech’s President, Dr. Scott Ralls, and other college leaders. 

History of the Program

In 2009, Wake Tech’s Dr. Stephen Scott—now President Emeritus—benchmarked the work of Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón from Miami Dade College and created a process that he called Applied Benchmarking. The Applied Benchmarking process is a continuous improvement effort that involves implementing new programs, processes, or ideas after consulting an expert in the field. In 2010, Dr. Scott asked all executive leaders at the college to complete a project, resulting in 15 new ideas for Wake Tech. In 2011, all supervisors were required to participate in Applied Benchmarking, increasing the total number of new ideas to around 100. Finally, in 2012, all employees were required to participate. With over 1,000 employees, the number of new ideas and programs grew exponentially. Several of the ideas that emerged through the Applied Benchmarking process have been recognized by community college organizations across the U.S. for their excellence. In 2016, noting the success of the program for employees, Senior Vice President Bryan Ryan and Vice President Sandra Dietrich recruited college leaders to launch Student Applied Benchmarking so that students would have an opportunity to benefit from this continuous improvement effort as well.

The first students who participated in SAB looked at ways to improve the college’s Service Learning and Honors programs. They not only recommended changes to those programs, but also participated in the development of solutions. One student group created a video to advertise the Honors program, while another student helped develop a Student Ambassadors program for Service Learning. During the second year of the program, student ideas included creating a weekly student video news update, bringing healthy vending machines to campus, developing a student athletic boosters club, adding fresh produce to the campus food pantry, and more. The essence of the program is empowering students to find ways to solve problems and improve their communities. As Diane Albahraway, head of the Business Administration department, puts it, “It’s about putting problem solving power in the hands of students.”

As the program has grown, so has the need for staff and faculty sponsors across the college. Sponsors help students navigate the three main aspects of the project: finding an expert to benchmark, adapting a solution to fit Wake Tech, and creating a proposal for implementation. Any college employee can be a sponsor, and one of the program goals is to involve sponsors from as many college departments as possible. The program has attracted a diverse group of both faculty and staff sponsors so far, including Ryan himself. One staff sponsor recently reflected, “I enjoy helping students think through the best way to approach people and present their ideas. This is something they will need to do to be successful in their careers.”

Students who successfully complete projects are invited to the SAB Showcase, where they present their projects to college leaders and judges. The students who submitted the top five projects, along with their sponsors and the leaders of the SAB program, are invited to a recognition dinner to celebrate their achievements. The top student winner receives a $1,000 scholarship.

Left : WTCC President Dr. Scott Ralls talks with students about their SAB projects.
Right : A student explains her project to WTCC Executive Vice President Dr. Gayle Greene.

Theoretical Basis

Student Applied Benchmarking is grounded in research on cognition, motivation, and developmental psychology. As Patricia Cross (1998) observed, “the teacher must not be looked to as the person with the right answers; rather, the task of education is to help students think through the conflicts that exist in a relativistic world and reach their own understanding” (p. 9). Through Applied Benchmarking, students learn more about real-world issues and develop solutions using their understanding and identification of the problem. Reid and Johnston (1999) also noted the importance of a more student-participative approach to teaching and learning: When students are more involved and engaged in attaining an education, they are more apt to increase their efforts and gain a more thorough understanding of what they are learning. Project-based learning and experiential learning are effective methods used to support application of concepts learned, and SAB is a form of both of these teaching and learning techniques.

In looking at the impact of motivation and self-empowerment on student success, Martin, Galentino, and Townsend (2014) found that successful students are those who seek solutions to problems on their own. The SAB program empowers students by giving them an opportunity to choose an area for improvement that interests them, increasing their motivation to solve the identified problem or issue. In addition, Tucker, Herman, Pedersen, Vogel, and Reinke (2000) discovered that asking African American students to participate in the process of generating solutions to eliminate the achievement gap between White students and students of color provided new solutions and perspectives. Increasingly, community college leaders are recognizing that involving students in solving the problems that affect them results in valuable learning for both students and colleges. Including stakeholders in decision-making should be a staple of any college’s continuous improvement process.

Program Assessment

A survey at the end of the SAB program provides information about its effectiveness. Results from the first year revealed several markers of success. Eighty-three percent of sponsors felt that the Applied Benchmarking process helped students prepare for a future career, and 87.5 percent of students agreed. Both sponsors and student participants (100 percent) felt this program made students feel more connected to the college and the curriculum. All students who participated in the program said they would use the Applied Benchmarking method to solve problems in the future, and 50 percent agreed that their participation improved their grades.

Students and sponsors were also asked to describe what they liked best about the SAB process. Student responses included personally helping the school and being valued, seeing other people’s work and meeting new people, receiving support from the college, being encouraged to express concerns freely and openly and to take action, contributing to improving the college, and having clear steps in the process. Sponsor responses included working with students while discovering the connection between their ideas and real-world applications, having students narrow their interests and decide on a transfer path, experiencing the SAB Showcase and the excitement it generated for all involved, participating in conjunction with an Honor’s project, and seeing the outreach and connections the students made.

Improvements suggested by students included having different poster award categories, engaging more people in the Showcase, giving applicants more notice beforehand, allowing runners-up to first place, giving everyone a certificate and top winners a plaque, having students submit an abstract for the program, adding more scholarship opportunities, and providing more opportunities to meet others and learn about their projects.

Future research on the Applied Benchmarking process as experienced by students should provide valuable information for additional improvements to the program. Formal research has been approved by Wake Tech’s institutional review board and will begin during the next academic year of SAB programming.


The Applied Benchmarking program implemented at Wake Tech began as a way to help employees develop grassroots strategies for college improvement. Adding students as participants in this program has made those grass roots grow even deeper. Students—those who are most affected by college programs and policies—are designing solutions to problems and proposing ideas for change. The inclusion of students in Applied Benchmarking has resulted in both improvements to the college and increased engagement and learning for students. Recruiting faculty and staff from across the college to sponsor students in their efforts has made this a whole-college effort. As the program grows, so will the potential impact across our campuses. Ultimately, SAB empowers students as problem solvers and increases their potential for success both at the college and in the future.


Curtain, M. (2017, December 29). The 10 top skills that will land you high-paying jobs by 2020, according to the World Economic Forum. Inc. Retrieved from

Cross, K. P. (1998). Why learning communities? Why now? About Campus, 3(3), 4-11.

Martin, K., Galentino, R., & Townsend, L. (2014). Community college student success: The role of motivation and self-empowerment. Community College Review, 42(3), 221-241. DOI: 10.1177/0091552114528972

Reid, D. J., & Johnston, M. (1999). Improving teaching in higher education: Student and teacher perspectives, Educational Studies, 25(3) 269-281, DOI: 10.1080/03055699997792

Tucker, C. M., Herman, K. C., Pedersen, T., Vogel, D., & Reinke, W. M. (2000). Student-generated solutions to enhance the academic success of African American youth. Child Study Journal30(3), 205-205.

Lead image: 2019 Student Applied Benchmarking Showcase participants

Denise Barton, Ph.D., is Senior Professor, Business Administration, and Emily Moore is Administrative Department Head, Communication and Theatre, at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.