IT IS A WELL-KNOWN FACT: Tutoring helps students perform better. The trick is getting them to use it. In keeping with the cyclical nature of trends, community colleges are rediscovering the advantages of student success centers, which consolidate math, writing, and language help in one place.
Much as one-stop shops for student services allow students to easily work with the bursar and financial aid offices in rapid succession, co-locating academic resources provides students with a more robust tutoring experience.
The Oconee campus of Gainesville State College (Ga.) is a good example. Its Academic Computing, Tutoring, and Testing (ACTT) Center opened in 1995, bringing math, writing, ESL, and foreign language labs together in the library. Angela Megaw, the ACTT Center’s assistant director, says the arrangement allows librarians and writing tutors to easily refer students among their services when needed. It’s also convenient for the subject matter tutors to meet and design strategies for specific students.
“It is much easier for students to learn where to go for tutoring since all the tutors are in one place,” says Byron Drew, director of libraries and of the ACTT Center. Other advantages of the tutors being under one roof are standard hours and consistent pay and job descriptions across disciplines.
These points are supported by Oussama Alkhalili, co-director of the Tutoring Center at Highline Community College (Wash.). In his experience, a centralized center offers better reporting and can improve the ability to obtain certification from the College Reading and Learning Association, a professional association for student-centered learning.
Centers that combine tutoring and other student services might also help out with hiring future employees at a community college. Drew notes that the center at GSC has served as a training ground, with many former tutors moving on to staff or faculty positions on campus.
Deciding which one roof to locate a learning center under can be a challenge. With campus space often at a premium, and tightening budgets likely putting new construction on hold, many institutions are using existing space for a center until the program is mature enough to justify their own space, explains James Matson, associate vice president of Los Angeles-based HGA Architects and Engineers.
“The more flexible the space, the better,” he says. Areas to include are computer labs, individual work areas, rooms for group work, and soft seating. Being near a library or other natural gathering area can help increase foot traffic.
“As long as any kind of academic support is on the margin, it will be viewed as marginal,” asserts Laura Hope, interim dean of instructional support at Chaffey College (Calif.). Although Chaffey students have had access to a success center for 10 years, they were originally squeezed into repurposed space. Administrators recently opened a new, centrally located building specifically designed to be a learning center. In addition to the variety of gathering spaces Matson suggests, Hope says the center has a full reception area to receive students and point them in the right direction.
Besides tutoring and lab work, students come to the center for individual directed learning projects designed by their instructor, for instructor-led study groups, and for large group workshops. In order to match success rates to activities, the students log in and out of the center with their ID cards. “Many centers look at how much time students spent there, not what they were doing,” says Hope.
Of course, students can’t spend any time in the learning center if the campus layout prevents them from finding it, a difficulty Parkland College (Ill.) students no longer have to overcome. “We laugh about the construction of our school. You give directions but never know if a student makes it,” say Pam Lau, director of the Center for Academic Success (CAS). The academic support programs were located in four different places on campus, making it hard for students to know where to go. Title 3 funds were used to repurpose the centrally located learning lab to create the CAS, which opened in 2006. Lau refers to it as a one-stop learning center.
"We can look at the student in a more holistic way,” Lau says of the CAS programs. With community college students, the problem might not be the class work but actually getting to class. Advisors are available to help work through those problems. Faculty members refer students to the center and sometimes hold office hours there, further boosting its profile.
As Lau explains, data was already available to show that students who received academic support returned at a higher rate when campus leaders decided to place more of an emphasis on integrating CAS programs with class work.
Students have to sign in when they arrive at the center, and a homegrown software program allows Lau to compare a student’s pass rates to his or her utilization of the center. “Funding a center like this is expensive, so I have to keep the administration aware of our success,” she says.
And then there’s the issue of student use of a center. “Students are rushing to campus and then to work,” points out Richard Moyer, vice president of academic affairs at East Los Angeles College. To address the situation, administrators have begun including visits to the student success center, part of a new math and science complex designed by HGA, in academic programs in order to expose students to the benefits of tutoring. For example, a student who tests into pre-algebra may have three hours of classroom instruction and one hour of required lab work.
“Some departments resisted the fact it was an administrator’s idea,” Moyer admits of the program. But people in other departments realized the impact of the program and adopted it themselves. “Instructors are seeing retention in the classroom and better grades,” Moyer reports.
Because of the funding structure in California, even though students don’t pay for their contact hours in the lab, the school is compensated, which provides funds to run the learning center.
The success at these institutions is causing administrators at others to reassess their programs. Through the “Community Colleges CAN!” initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education through June 2009, leaders from Macomb Community College (Mich.) and Lake Superior College (Minn.) will visit Lau to see what aspects of Parkland’s program can be applied to their own campuses.
Kristin Stehouwer, vice provost of arts and sciences at MCC, explains that the campus already has a learning center for testing, tutoring, and academic support; developmental education courses are housed in each academic department. With developmental success as a strategic initiative, Stehouwer says they are looking for ways to improve. She is hoping to learn more about the success indicators Lau uses and how the program is structured. MCC already has some components in place, such as faculty members holding office hours in the learning center.
“We have data that indicates we don’t have the persistence level we’d like,” explains Rody Bowers-Hughes, associate dean of academic affairs at LSC. She is also interested in the structure of Parkland’s program. Currently, returning students might have to take two semesters of one-credit courses before progressing to college level work, which can be a roadblock for some students. “People returning from the workforce are sensitive to the time to get their degree,” points out Bowers-Hughes. Also, although some faculty members do hold office hours in the learning center, she is interested in ideas for increasing faculty involvement and making more of a connection between classroom and learning center instruction.
“Once we have a strong program, we can make an argument for more space,” she says.