Cambrian College: New Program Translates Into Practical Retention Strategy

Member Spotlight

At the Cambrian College Quality Teaching Resource Centre (QTRC), the coordinator is always looking for new and innovative ways to bring faculty together within and across programs, with the ultimate goal of enhancing student success. So when one of her colleagues mentioned professional learning communities (PLC), she had to know more. She quickly learned that this approach is used exclusively at the elementary and secondary level in numerous school systems across North America, but no one has brought it to the postsecondary level, yet. 

Everything about the concept fit beautifully with Cambrian's student-centered culture. The three main tenets of the approach are: (1) Student success and true student-centered teaching are the driving force behind all curriculum delivery decisions; (2) a culture of student focus can be best created and maintained in a climate of faculty collaboration; and (3) student success must be measured empirically and systematically.

Not to be confused with the concept of professional communities that is becoming prevalent across North American post-secondary institutions, the PLC concept isn't focused as much on the faculty and the notion of sharing resources as it is on enhancing student success. Heightened collegiality and the sharing of resources is certainly a natural by-product of the PLC approach, though they aren't its raison d'être. In Cambrian's college setting, this would translate readily into a practical retention strategy. The big question was how the faculty would respond to the initiative, given that at face value, it looks like extra work. And frankly, it is. The PLC approach emphasizes the need for weekly faculty meetings and clear products of those meetings by reviewing data and developing action plans resulting from the data.

The timing of the roll-out of this initiative at Cambrian coincided well with the needs of the chemical engineering program faculty and students. There had been a pattern of serious student retention issues throughout the three-year diploma program, but most notably between its first and second years. Students who were deemed quite capable of the work and demands of the program were choosing to exit at the end of their first semester, in some cases, but more frequently at the end of their first year. The cause of student withdrawal rates had never been confirmed, but the faculty strongly suspected that the students were lacking a sense of connection to other students, particularly those in the upper semesters who were clearly managing the program well. Previous efforts to stem the tide of withdrawals were ineffective, so the chemical engineering coordinator and faculty decided to institute a structured approach in the form of a mentorship program to respond to this trend.

The program was first introduced at orientation. It would involve all students in the program. A social meet-and-greet was also held toward the beginning of the semester, during which students would be introduced to the other members of their working group. These groups were established by faculty and were comprised in equal numbers of students from all years of the program. They were encouraged to meet weekly throughout the semester, though the agenda for each session was to be driven by the members of the group.

It was immediately clear to the chemical engineering faculty that the PLC concept would be an ideal mechanism through which to monitor the effectiveness of the mentorship program and plot its impact. The QTRC coordinator met with the chemical engineering faculty at the end of the winter semester, prior to the initiation of their mentorship program, to discuss the PLC approach more thoroughly as it pertained to their particular goals and objectives. Meetings among faculty have taken place throughout the semester, though it is too early to say what impact the whole intervention is having.

For more information about the PLC concept as it has been applied at Cambrian College, contact Irene Nizzero. For more details regarding the mentorship program in the chemical engineering department at Cambrian College, contact Hadi Fergani.

Reference: DuFour, R., Dufour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington: Solution Tree.