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Bronte Miller, a developmental math instructor and SCALE facilitator at Patrick Henry Community College (Virginia), works with students in an active cooperative learning group.
Photo: Patrick Henry Community College
Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) offers proof that it is possible to scale fundamental changes in pedagogy and curriculum.
Since embracing college-wide use of active cooperative learning (ACL) techniques, it has increased fall-to-fall persistence rates 26 percent and two-year completion rates 30 percent. Fall-to-fall persistence rates increased from 54 percent for the 2005 cohort of 545 first-time college students, to 68 percent for the 2008 cohort of 588 students. Completion rates for those groups increased from 10 percent to 13 percent, respectively.
“There is no way our college would go back to a lecture-based institution,” said James Gregory Hodges, dean of instructional support services at PHCC.
Although PHCC is a small college, its work with ACL is applicable to larger institutions trying to scale innovations. In fact PHCC has been so buoyed by the improvements in its student success outcomes, it opened the Southern Center for Active Learning Excellence (SCALE) to teach others how to incorporate ACL techniques in their teaching. To date, more than 350 faculty members from 20 community colleges have attended SCALE's multi-day training sessions.
Addressing a skills deficient
Located in the rural foothills of south-central Virginia, the college chose ACL as its key Achieving the Dream strategy eight years ago for its potential to develop problem-solving, communication and social skills that employers seek. Unemployment in the college's service area has lingered near 20 percent for 15 years, and many of PHCC's 3,000 students are displaced factory workers.
The college also developed an online tool that helps advisors decide which students to place in ACL developmental math courses.
Hodges said the team of faculty, administrators and staff who began working on Achieving the Dream in 2004 explored a number of ways to change the culture and climate on their campus. He said their work was driven by the question: “What are we going to do to meet their (students’) needs and help them along their journey?”
Since then, all PHCC's full-time faculty and 75 percent of adjunct instructors have received professional development in ACL. In addition to investing in professional development through grant funds from Achieving the Dream and the Developmental Education Initiative, the college's state-funded renovation of two buildings included purchasing round tables and chairs and desks with trapezoid tops that can be linked quickly to form table arrangements that facilitate ACL.
To encourage faculty to adopt active, cooperative learning, PHCC:
With more than a third of PHCC's faculty attaining advanced standing in the ACL pedagogy—developed by David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota—college personnel now lead professional development programs at SCALE and elsewhere.
ACL entails students working together in various collaborative ways. For instance, a student may be assigned a partner to discuss a particular point an instructor made during a mini-lecture, and later in the class work on a problem set with a different partner or small group of students. Throughout the semester, the student will develop a project with a larger group of students. Examples of ACL activities developed by PHCC faculty can be viewed here.
Academic freedom means that some faculty use ACL techniques daily, others weekly and others only occasionally. Nevertheless, Hodges estimates that 80 percent of the full-time faculty use ACL. With this critical mass of participation in ACL, more students are taking ownership of their learning, and it is paying off:
"The proof for us is in the numbers," Hodges said.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges