Goal Two Essay: Learning Assured

Sunday, March 14, 2010

March 14, 2010
by Sandy Shugart

The title of this goal – “Learning Assured” – generated deep and challenging discussions at every stage of collaboration in shaping the strategic learning plan. No one can guarantee that every student will learn. That kind of assurance is beyond our control, even as a learning college. But the discussions led us to keep the language of assurance both as an aspirational goal and to describe a kind of mindfulness about our results. This mindfulness has already proven to be essential to the significant progress the college has made in fostering steadily improving student learning results for the past decade. Make no mistake, these improving results are both real and important. The college achieves graduation rates that are nearly three times as high as our peer institutions. Student persistence rates from term to term and year to year have risen by some twenty percentage points above our results in the mid-nineteen nineties and most of our peers’ current results. Rates of success in gateway courses have improved and gaps in achievement among various student groups have been narrowed, though this work poses ongoing challenges. These are the ways we represent results formally, and they are remarkable enough. But even more remarkable are the thousands of individual student stories they represent – thousands more succeeding, their lives and perhaps their families transformed by the power of an opportunity made real in performance.

How have these remarkable results been achieved? This question is often posed by other institutions from across the country, one suspects in search of a silver bullet solution to the challenges all colleges face in student learning success. But there really isn’t such a single magic solution. Rather, there are thousands of little decisions and changes made to the learning environment emanating from a culture of student success rather than any single specific strategy. This culture is built on a history of collaboration that has created a system of beliefs about our students and what comprises a powerful learning environment. At the core of these is the belief that “anyone can learn anything under the right conditions.” This single belief is one of the Big Ideas that sustain our momentum in these efforts when many others who began the learning centered journey have lost focus. We continue to aspire to a higher calling as an institution and as collaborating professionals. If anyone really can learn anything under the right conditions, then our challenge is to discern what those conditions are for our learners, remove institutional practices that undermine these conditions, and find ways to partner with the learners to improve each of their learning experiences. This is the aspirational dimension of Learning Assured.

So what about the dimension of “mindfulness?” Here, “Learning Assured” takes on a more granular focus on the results our students are actually achieving and leads us to a continuing commitment to evidence-based practice at every level. The core of this is achieving clarity together on the expected learning outcomes for every learning experience. This is not meant to be a confining, prescriptive management tool, but a shared commitment among professionals to reach agreement on the essential core of learning we expect from our students and to use the assessment of what is actually learned as our first criterion for every decision we can – curricular, instructional, learning support, and administrative.

In our former strategic plan we called this “Learning First.” Under that goal, many significant changes were made in the college’s systems, procedures, and programs to improve learning, touching everything from admission and registration to the deployment of technology to hiring and development of faculty and staff. This work continues under the new plan. To it we will add careful attention to naming and measuring the outcomes in areas of core skills – reading, mathematics, and writing – as well as our general education program and other programs. Faculty have been and will continue to be engaged in a continuing process of refining learning outcomes for every course and program and developing instructionally appropriate models of assessment. This work is critical to both the learner and the institution. Because the learner controls so many of the conditions of his or her learning (like showing up, studying, seeking assistance, putting in productive learning time, etc.) we have to find ways to partner with each learner. The fulcrum of this partnership is clarity on outcomes and their assessment. Only with this information can the learner grow in his or her habits of learning and receive the essential feedback that so powerfully reinforces good learning and redirects them when they fail to meet the standard. This insight that the purpose of assessment is to improve learning, another of Valencia’s Big Ideas, reminds us that the learner is the primary audience for our published outcomes and the assessment data he produces under testing. Our work in outcomes assessment is, first, for the learner.

Of course, clarity on our outcomes and their level of achievement is also very important to the professionals who mediate the learning process, enabling us to adjust our approaches and our systems based on real results. The college has become quite good at this, tackling issues of course and program design that are much less common in many other colleges.

So where will we focus our efforts for the coming several years? Look first for continuity in the work. That is, the work undertaken in Achieving the Dream, in building the student engagement model we call LifeMap, in learning communities (LinC), in Supplemental Learning, and in student success will continue to be scaled to the whole institution and rigorously tested against our results. To these efforts we will add several more. The work of developing and refining learning outcomes and their assessment will continue among the faculty, not because some other agency may require them, but because we believe the work is essential to our learners’ success.

In particular, work is already underway to clarify our expectations and practices in the teaching of writing, an essential skill for all subsequent college level learning experiences. Identifying the levels of writing competence to which our students must perform and agreeing on some common assessment approaches are vital early steps already in the works. Similarly, focusing more precisely on the reading skills and levels our students need to achieve to succeed in subsequent coursework may well lead us to rethinking course pre-requisites for many college level courses.

A speaker at a national conference was recently heard to say, “Mathematics is where aspirations go to die.” This shocking comment wasn’t meant as a criticism of mathematics teachers, but to awaken the audience to a fact Valencia has already begun to face: enabling our students routinely to succeed up through college level mathematics is an essential part of our strategy. Much of our work tied to the Achieving the Dream Initiative and now in the Gates funded Developmental Education Initiative is focused on achieving major improvements in student performance in mathematics at every level. Our mathematics faculty has made an extraordinary commitment to this effort and the early results are encouraging. But there is much still to do. Major improvements in the learning support programs in mathematics have been undertaken and will need to be expanded. A major experiment in curriculum redesign is already underway in developmental mathematics and may require several iterations to get the results we hope to see. This is a normal part of the cycle of improvement in any program.

At the program level, the college continues to focus on the power of a student’s earliest experiences with us to shape their future success. We have called this working theory “Start Right,” yet another of Valencia’s Big ideas. A student’s success in his or her first five courses on first attempt continues to be one of the best predictors of continuing academic success and graduation. For this reason, hundreds of faculty and staff took an active part in the Foundations of Excellence self-review last year. Many of the recommendations from that review will be implemented over the next couple of years, including a bold experiment in expanding the work we have done in learning communities to a full “first year experience” in which a large number of our students who might benefit most will be taught by a team of faculty for most or all of their coursework in their first year at Valencia. Restructuring this experience may be one of our most powerful action research projects in the college.

Because we still have many students who “churn” in their earliest coursework, withdrawing, failing to perform, or both, we will develop efforts intended to accelerate their progress, especially through developmental coursework and beyond to their fifteenth hour of college credit. The goal is to increase what one researcher calls their “academic momentum.” The college will also be implementing and measuring the impact of a new course withdrawal policy toward improving student success and reducing withdrawal rates, as well as seeking to infuse and reinforce student success and other core skills in the learning experiences beyond the courses where they are already explicitly taught.

All of these strategies have been born out of deep conversations in the college. This work is by its nature collaborative. Our collaborative culture is rich, but should not be taken for granted. Our commitment to collaboration as the only way to build a culture of “Learning Assured” has to be continually renewed. This too will be a topic of “courageous conversation” in the coming year and beyond.

While we cannot guarantee that every student will learn, we can remain steadfast in our belief that every student can learn. This shared belief makes the “Learning Assured” goal powerful for shaping the future of Valencia as an authentic and extraordinary learning community.

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