By Maria Mercedes Franco, Coordinator for Undergraduate Research & Associate Professor, Mathematics & Computer Science, Queensborough Community College-The City University of New York (CUNY)
By the time I was finishing graduate school, I had done much soul-searching and had come to realize that I have a passion for teaching and a strong commitment to the mission of public education. With my new awareness came the opportunity to interview for (and soon after accept) a position at Queensborough Community College, where I was encouraged early on to incorporate innovative pedagogies into my teaching. Now on my tenth year at the college, I look back and say without hesitation that High-Impact Educational Practices have brought me closer to larger and more diverse groups of learners – and closer to my ideals for higher education – than any other practice.
About Queensborough Community College
A member of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban university system in the nation, Queensborough Community College truly serves its community. About 84% of Queensborough students live in Queens. Our students come from 139 countries and speak 87 different languages; 31% are Hispanic, 26% are Asian or Pacific Islander, 26% are Black, and 18% are White, reflecting the diversity of Queens and the larger metropolitan area. In 2013-14, 76% of our first-time, full-time freshmen qualified for some form of financial aid. In Fall 2014, 70% of freshmen needed remediation in mathematics, 27.4% in writing, and 23.1% in reading, with some students needing remediation in two (19%) or all three (12%) subjects (2014-2015 Factbook).
As stated in its mission statement, Queensborough is “committed equally to open-admissions access for all learners and to academic excellence within an environment of diversity.” In order to achieve its goals, the institution pays a “focused attention to pedagogy,” creating many opportunities for faculty to get involved in innovative teaching practices.
For several years now, Queensborough has been working on integrating High-Impact Educational Practices into the fabric of the college, a process that started even before George Kuh’s landmark book “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter” (AAC&U, 2008).
High-Impact Educational Practices (HIPs)
HIPs are pedagogical practices proven to promote student engagement, satisfaction, acquisition of desired knowledge, skills and competencies, persistence, and attainment of educational goals. Well-implemented, HIPs demand considerable time and effort from both instructor and students. They facilitate learning outside of the classroom as well as collaborations and meaningful interactions among participants (e.g. student-student, student-faculty, student-community), and they provide frequent and substantive feedback (Kuh, 2008).
Queensborough has institutionalized seven of ten practices recognized as HIPs: Writing Intensive Courses (WI), Academic Service-Learning (ASL), Learning Communities, Collaborative Assignments and Projects, Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) or “common read,” Undergraduate Research (UR), and Global and Diversity Learning. I have received professional development for and implemented four of these: WI, ASL, CIE, and UR. I have used these HIPs in varied courses: College Algebra, Pre-Calculus, Intro to Probability and Statistics for non-majors; Number Systems for early childhood/elementary education majors; Discrete Mathematics and Probability courses for STEM majors.
In courses where I integrate a HIP (or a combination of HIPs), coursework requires that students use the lens of mathematics to examine real-life, real-time problems (e.g. health care, public education, oil consumption, police-community relations, human rights) and that they educate others and/or report their findings to a real audience of peers, the community, or at a professional conference. I often have the students working in groups. In part, this is done to make my workload more manageable, but group work also allows students to serve as cultural, academic and linguistic resources for one another, and it increases the potential for learning in the affective domain. I always embed the HIP into the course so that all students have to participate, as opposed to making it optional or offering it just to the honors students in a class. Many challenges come with that choice, especially in classrooms as academically diverse as ours, and –every time– I tell myself that next time I am just going to stay on the safe side, using less involved teaching strategies. But when I look back and see how students benefited and how exciting the work was – not just for them but for me – I cannot envision it in any other way and I just consider my next HIP.
Benefits to students
Students’ responses to HIPs in my math classes have been positive. More than half of the students report that the HIP made them take more responsibility for their own learning and made them more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and about 60% report that the HIP component of the course made them understand course material better than from my lectures and readings. About three-fourths of the students report that the HIP made them see how course material can be used in everyday life, and close to two-thirds said that they are more aware of the role of mathematics in disciplines and majors besides their own. A few students report that the experience helped them to clarify their career or specialization choices.
When I ask my students what is “the most valuable lesson” learned while participating in the HIP, their responses are as diverse as they are and have led to memorable reflections and aha! moments. Many students point to lessons learned about teamwork, time management, the use of technology, or the mathematics involved. But others point to areas of student learning and student life that one would hardly ever speak of in a more traditional class, especially in a mathematics class. Here are some examples:
- students who come to class, talk to no one, and leave (common among community college students) start to realize how much they are missing out by not interacting with peers and faculty and discover how rich and rewarding academic learning and college life can be;
- some students emerge as natural leaders, more often than not to their own surprise;
- students start to see mathematics differently and some start talking more comfortably about mathematics, including talking to their children at home;
- students learn that they can. They learn that they can be thrown into totally unfamiliar territory, and that despite their many competing obligations and daunting deadlines, they can deliver. I, too, learn that lesson every time that I work on a new project with a class. While I start the semester thinking that what I am asking students to do is attainable, once a project unfolds I am just another learner, dealing with the uncertainties and unanticipated challenges, so absent from traditional textbook exercises, of working on something new and real.
I have developed relationships with students that I know would have not occurred in a more traditional setting. I have nominated students for awards and written letters of recommendations for scholarship, transfer, graduate school, or job applications for students who would have never spoken to me had it not have been because of those HIPs. Even if they had approached me, I would have had very little to say about them without those HIPs.
I must concede that I haven’t observed any differences in terms of grades and, to be honest, I am no longer disappointed by that fact. My college’s Office of Strategic Planning, Assessment, and Institutional Effectiveness is currently engaged in a multiyear assessment of the impact of HIPs on student learning outcomes and only time can tell us if there are any significant gains there. In all, my classroom experiences point beyond traditional measures of student academic success and peak into gains in social capital, and that alone makes these practices worth exploring!
What others have found is that HIPs lead to greater engagement and retention among undergraduate students and that they have a profound impact on the experiences of traditionally underserved students (Finley, A. & McNair, T. 2013; Brownell and Swaner, 2010; Kuh, 2008). These studies have, almost entirely, looked at baccalaureate granting institutions and relied on self-reported benefits. Kuh’s work, in particular, drew from datasets of the National Survey of Student Engagement NSSE. As pointed out by Finley and McNair (Finley, 2012; Finley, A. & McNair, T. 2013), there is a gap between what students think they have learned and what students can do, and the authors have called for large scale assessments of learning outcomes and students’ competencies.
It appears that community colleges have much to contribute to the conversation on High-Impact Educational Practices, and much to gain, as a large number of community college students match the profile of those most likely to benefit.
Brownell, J. E., & Swaner, L. E. (2010). Five high-impact practices: Research on learning outcomes, completion and quality. Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Finley, A. (2012). Making progress?: What we know about the achievement of liberal education outcomes. Association of American Colleges and Universities.