Five Strategies to Inspire and Facilitate Learning

Tony Holland
Learning Abstracts

The 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, initiated one of the largest K-12 educational reform movements in the history of the United States. An American Imperative (Wingspread Group on Higher Education, 1993) called for an overhauling of higher education in the U.S. to put students at the center of the educational enterprise. Building on these two landmark reports, the learning college became a popular and effective reform model for postsecondary education after publication of A Learning College for the 21st Century was written by Terry O’Banion in 1997. Implementing small-scale change can be a challenge; transforming an entire system of education might be considered impossible. In his book, O’Banion suggests a framework for that change that involves students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community members. Stressing the premier role of faculty in the process, O’Banion says, “Substantial change in education will not occur unless the faculty are as deeply engaged as key stakeholders” (O’Banion, 2014, para. 2).

The importance of the faculty role can be seen in highly successful boutique programs focused on helping a small cohort of students, which have provided valuable information about strategies that are effective at inspiring and facilitating learning. However, efforts to scale these programs and initiatives often fail if they do not involve a critical mass of faculty. This article offers insight into how five basic instructional strategies can lead to significant increases in student learning, retention, and completion, whether the aim is broad institutional transformation or improvement in a single class. These five strategies provide the guardrails needed to maximize the number of students benefitting from increases in learning, while minimizing the time it takes to achieve substantial improvements in student satisfaction, attendance, preparation for class, persistence, critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and problem solving.

Each of the five strategies in this article falls into two major categories: active engagement and supportive relationships. Infusing these strategies with increased instructional relevancy and maximum engagement allows for even deeper and more meaningful learning. The strategies are general enough to provide guidance without impeding the freedom to choose specific activities to develop an action plan for improvement. However, the freedom to choose also comes with a responsibility for the results of those choices.

Assess Student Perceptions

The first strategy is in response to the number one reason students leave college: They do not feel connected (Community College Center for Student Engagement, 2009). Since accrediting agencies usually have standards which are met through the assessment of student perceptions (e.g., course evaluations), a critical question is how faculty use the results from these assessments to create a more positive learning environment. If the focus is on learning, it would be a natural response to develop an action plan based on evaluation data.

Since increasing positive perceptions of the learning environment has been shown to improve learning for all students, and up to five times more for low-income minority students (Berrett, 2013), this should be one of the first strategies implemented to close socioeconomic achievement gaps. However, with 93 percent of colleges and universities facilitating these course evaluations at the end of each term, valuable input is lost from students withdrawn from the courses. Combine this with the national average of just 29 percent online response rate on these evaluations, and the need for more intentional efforts becomes apparent.

By including a question on course evaluations regarding students’ perceptions of whether the instructor cares for them as individual students, valuable and quantifiable data can be obtained as a baseline to monitor improvements in the percentage of “strongly agrees.” Improving positive perceptions can be as easy as scheduling some office hours each week as “student hours,” or times when students may seek assistance without the need of a formal appointment. More frequent use of students’ names is another easy and effective approach. Following this awareness of the power of emotions and perceptions on learning with a more intentional approach to each student interaction helps foster a culture of caring and appreciation.

By putting a premium on the survey question regarding students’ sense of caring by the instructor, one of the most popular teaching maxims is addressed: “Students do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Developing a culture of caring and appreciation is crucial to overcoming the insecurity and low self-worth that may be felt by some community college students, as they are also developing the grit needed to persist to completion.

Provide Clear Learning Objectives

The second strategy is to provide clear learning objectives or expectations of what the student should be able to do (explain, state, identify, etc.) for each summative assessment. These are sometimes referred to as unit objectives and are provided in advance of each unit of study, as distinct from learning outcomes to be achieved by completion of the course. These unit objectives provide students with a specific focus on what will be covered each class period.

Since providing clear expectations is the first step to any process involving learning and/or performance, it is imperative that specific objectives are provided in advance of content coverage. This promotes preparation and accountability for both the student and the teacher. Providing these same types of expectations in the form of a study guide a few days before an exam, on the other hand, can signal to students that preparing for class is not important or necessary. In this situation, students may wait to receive a study guide and then cram for an exam, resulting in shallow learning.

One of the major obstacles to success for low-income students, and much more so for those in families experiencing generational poverty, is the perception that efforts do not control success. Providing clear expectations is the first step to empowering students. This strategy emphasizes to students that their efforts do matter and provides them more control over their learning while energizing them with the structure and grit needed to persist through challenges and hardships.

Utilize Virtual Lecture Videos

The third strategy addresses a primary reason faculty give for not implementing more active learning strategies: lack of time. Implementing active learning strategies—which increase engagement, relevancy, and general education outcomes—is critical as faculty work to limit those strategies resulting in the least amount of retained material and overall learning: the passive, teacher-centered environment of a straight lecture format.

At a time when more information is available via smartphones than at libraries, knowledge can be obtained easily through more efficient means. By providing short (5-10 minute) instructor-made lecture videos paired to each unit’s objectives, faculty help students better prepare for active engagement in the learning process. This also frees valuable class time for use of strategies which promote deeper learning and skills more essential to life success, such as critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and communication. Around-the-clock content availability provides valuable support for all students, especially the most underprepared.

San Jose State University implemented lecture videos in an engineering course with one of the highest rates of withdrawals (Azevedo, 2012). When compared to performance in the traditional lecture section, exam scores in the video lecture section resulted in improvements in excess of a letter grade, despite having more difficult exams which covered more content.

Administer Frequent Formative Assessments

The use of lecture videos also allows more time for another engaging activity and the fourth strategy: frequent low-stakes assessments. These formative assessments provide valuable information which allows students and faculty to quickly adjust learning strategies, as well as to critically reflect on previously covered material. Daily short quizzes, essays, group work, discussions, and other assessment measures are focused more on increasing learning than higher-stakes summative assessments. Therefore, immediate feedback to enhance learning is more important than the actual grade value for these assessments.

Employ Early and Intrusive Intervention

Working in synergy with course evaluation results to improve positive student perceptions, the fifth strategy—early, intrusive interventions—also focuses on developing more supportive relationships. These faculty-student interactions are crucial to student persistence, retention, and completion rates. Valencia College data mimicked national statistics which indicate students’ chances of completion are cut in half upon withdrawal, failure, or an earned D from one of their first five courses, and cut in half again upon their second failure, D, or withdrawal (Garcia, 2018). Skepticism of the data from Florida quickly dissipated upon analysis of our own data at Wallace Community College-Dothan (WCCD) in Alabama, as it was almost identical to these findings. Frequent, early, and intrusive interventions are beneficial to learning as well as to improving low persistence rates.

First-day or first-week interventions for students retaking a course are critical for developing an individual plan of action to improve their performance. Meeting with all students scoring below a 70 percent on the first exam is also an effective intervention strategy. These early interventions allow for small corrections which provide motivation and confidence for future corrections, a key to developing a growth mindset where mistakes are approached as opportunities to improve.

Synergetic Strategies

The synergetic effects of these five strategies combine for much more improvement than simply a sum of the parts, the same of which is true for total faculty participation. When implemented across an introductory biology course at WCCD, over 900 more students per year showed up prepared for class than the year prior to implementation of these strategies. Overall withdrawal rates for the top ten enrollment courses were cut in half the year after implementation.

Although these five strategies increase learning for all courses, implementation is imperative in course redesigns for first-year, general academic, gateway courses. With almost half of community college students not showing up for the second year (American Association of Community Colleges, 2012), it is evident that retention is a significant problem and major contributor to lower enrollment.

The focus on applicable skills needed for success in the workplace and life produces employees ready for the challenges of this century. A recent national survey (Budzyk, 2013) indicated that 93 percent of employers cared more about critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills than an undergraduate student’s concentration. However, just as students are required to adopt more effective skills outside their comfort zone to be successful in the workplace, the same holds true for faculty.

Although the five strategies in this article provide the instructional foundation for building a learning college, a collegewide initiative is not a prerequisite for their use. Individuals or departments can use these strategies and the many effective engagement and active learning techniques they encompass. A quick Internet search of active learning strategies yields dozens of specific activities related to these five core strategies. A powerful environment for transformation results from combining this information with positive, constructive collaboration and the courage to change.

Implementing these five proven strategies for improving student learning, persistence, and completion empowers faculty to achieve results previously unattainable with less effective instructional strategies. Their integration into teaching practice also helps facilitates success for the diverse array of students who access community colleges.

Integrating these instructional strategies into the curriculum requires the courage to try something new and a willingness and adaptability on the part of faculty who will adjust and fine-tune the activities for maximum learning and effectiveness. The end result of empowering a more diverse group of students to advance toward their higher education goals and build more productive and rewarding lives is a powerful incentive for drawing on that courage.


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Community College Center for Student Engagement. (2009). Making connections: Dimensions of student engagement. (2009 CCSSE findings). Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program.

Garcia, J. (2018, May 29). Valencia College president Sandy Shugart – He's a poet, a picker and a prophet. Florida Trend. Retrieved from

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. A report to the nation and the Secretary of Education. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Education.

O’Banion, T. (1997). A learning college for the 21st century. Westport, CT: Oryx Press.

O’Banion, T. (2014, April 14). Why education reform fails. Point of View. Community College Week, 26 (18), 4-5. Retrieved from

Wingspread Group on Higher Education. (1993). An American imperative: Higher expectations for higher education. Racine, WI: Johnson Foundation.

Tony Holland is Special Assistant to the Chancellor, Teaching and Learning, for the Alabama Community College System in Montgomery, Alabama.

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