Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Completion Agenda

as discovered in New Orleans by
Shirlee Geiger

Last year at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention, held in Seattle, I felt right at home. For one thing, coffee stations were everywhere, and the caffeine buzz could be heard several blocks away. This year, in New Orleans, it was very hard to find good coffee. Even the famous stuff with the chicory (served with a side of powdered-sugar-sprinkled donuts) was a long walk away, and the place didn't even open until 9. I was astounded by the cultural differences between hot, muggy, and slow Southern life there on the banks of the Mississippi and hyper-tensive hurry and-get-it-done-yesterday Pacific Northwest life we live here on the Willamette...

I was also astounded by the difference in the visibility of Assessment. Last year, in Seattle, there were more sessions on assessment than I could attend. Sylvia and I had to split up to get to them all... This year, there wasn't a single session with "Assessment" in the title. I was feeling a bit forlorn (as well as sleepy, without my daily dose of caffeine), but eventually realized that assessment had not left the scene. It had just receded to the background as an assumption so widespread it didn't need to be mentioned.

Of course, we assess, doesn't everybody?

So what was front and center at the AACC this year? The Completion Agenda. It was everywhere, as in ubiquitous. All over the darn place. There was no way to get away from it.

If you want a cool and clever interactive widget sort of introduction to the problem that the Completion Agenda is supposed to address, please go here:

Don't keep reading until you take the test for Oregon.

Did you take it? (Really, I think you should.... It won't take long.) (That's the kind of assurance needed for hyper-tensive caffeine-fueled Pacific NWers like me.)

OK, now that you have played with the widget, let's think about what this means for us.

The Obama Administration's Education Department wants a higher rate of our U.S. population to not only attend college, but to finish college -- having earned meaningful degrees.

This means that more of our children need to make it through High School.

But graduating High School and being ready for college are not (as we all know) the same thing. Does the push for HS completion mean more remediation needed at community colleges?

Well, if it does, that is a problem.... There is a move to fund colleges -- not on the traditional measure of how many students are served, described as fte -- but on the basis of degrees awarded. This is a global trend. Here is a place to take a quick tour: completionbasedfunding.pdf. Since remedial classes take up limited financial aid without generating credits toward graduation, there is the risk that as less college-ready HS students are funneled into college, the college completion rate will plummet. If funding is tied to completion, then our funding will plummet....

But there is another problem, as well. One speaker mentioned a study (and I don't have the reference, sorry... not enough coffee) of people who had completed the credits for an associates degree, but never applied to have the degree awarded. In follow up interviews, the people said that an AA or AAS would not do anything to increase their desirability in the workplace... why bother picking up a degree if it doesn't help? So are we being pushed to award ever more degrees, at the same time that our degrees have less and less purpose and use in the workplace?

In our new world of Higher Education, on display at the AACC in New Orleans, it is clear that assessment of learning outcomes is the norm, and the tie between degrees awarded and outcomes assessed is ever tighter. Now comes the sound of the funding shoe dropping... assessments tied, via completion rates, to budgets.

It is the kind of thing to keep a person up at night.... even if you are not wired from drinking too much coffee...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Learner Responsibility in Learning Assessment

By Cara Lee, Mathematics Faculty, Part-Time

Cara teaches at Cascade, and has presented lively sessions on student empowerment in PCC's Teaching Learning Centers

With fierce determination I stood in front of my Math 65 class last term at the SE Center in week 5. I had been feeling increasingly frustrated and drained after each class as the responsibility of the planning, facilitation and assessment was on my shoulders along with the weight of the learning for 35 students.

In my mind I wanted to chew them out for not stepping up to the plate, not doing their homework and not being fully present in class. I knew, however, that a stern lecture or speech would simply yield another “Whatever.”

Instead, I said, “Do you know what I love about teaching college?” Students started to look up from their papers. “You are adults and you are in charge of your own learning. You don’t have to be here, but you are here - by choice.” They gave me their full attention as they sat up straighter, smiled and immediately became more engaged.

In the discussion about learning assessment, I have been trying to figure out where the learners come in. What is their role and what are their responsibilities? Isn’t it their job to learn and to know whether they’ve learned the material or not?

The familiar adage comes to mind, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” I think this is the mindset of teacher-centered teaching, where the focus is on what the teacher is doing. If the students don’t get it then it’s their fault. They haven’t taken responsibility.

But rather than place all of the responsibility on the students or the teacher, I think the answer lies in the middle. We can form a partnership with our learners on the first day. Agreements are made on the first day whether we do it consciously or not. Most learners are adept at sensing what is actually required of them and whether they will have any control in the process.

In Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, Maryellen Weimer shares the way her colleague took the horse metaphor one step further. “He said it was the teacher’s job to put salt in the oats so that once the horse got to water, it was damn thirsty” (p.103).

Many students do not have experience being responsible for their own learning and don’t have the skills to know what they don’t know. It felt like many of my learners in the math 65 class wanted me to pour the water into their mouths and tell them when to swallow, while they complained about the process. But I was the one who had assumed too much responsibility for their learning and that is what I needed to correct.

In class that day I handed out a mid-term self-assessment form for each student to complete. They each wrote their goals for the class in order to determine how they were doing. They calculated their current grade and listed the number of hours they were studying per week compared to the 10 recommended (hint, hint). They listed other resources they were using. They decided whether or not they were meeting their goals and wrote out a plan for the rest of the term.

I didn’t know what was going to happen but I was very impressed by the shift in the class. The learners did accept the responsibility that I gave back to them. The complainers stopped complaining and started working and asking more questions. The biggest complainer became the hardest worker. With the awareness that they had a choice, they made a different choice.

So in learner-centered teaching, what are we as teachers responsible for? According to Weimer,

We do have an obligation to show (not tell) students the value and necessity of learning. We have an obligation to make our content relevant, demonstrate its power to answer questions, and otherwise show its inherent intrigue. Once a student interest is piqued, we have the responsibility to lead them to all the learning resources they need. As the student learns, we have the responsibility to monitor the process and offer constructive feedback and assessment” (p. 103).

And what are students responsible for?

Fundamentally, the responsibility to learn is theirs and theirs alone. We can try to force them into accepting that responsibility along with the obligation to grow and develop as learners, but we do them a much greater service if we create conditions and develop policies and practices that enable them to understand their responsibility and that empower them to accept it” (Weimer, p.104).

I work hard to show interesting and relevant motivations for my content, and I also think that if I am the hardest worker in the class then there is a problem. Some of these shifts are subtle, yet very powerful and only the beginning, I think, of the transformation from teacher-centered to learner-centered teaching. My initial response to the learning assessment movement was, “Oh great, more work for the teachers,” but now I think it’s a different type of work for the teachers and more work for the learners – or more ownership at the least.

I highly recommend Weimer’s book, which gives five key changes to practice. The five changes are the balance of power, the function of content, the role of the teacher, the responsibility for learning, and the purpose and processes of evaluation. She gives many concrete examples of how she centers on her learners in her classes.

Inspired by the Anderson Conference I have made three self-assessment tools for my students which you are welcome to use and modify to fit your style. Self reflection is one of PCC’s core outcomes and I am excited about using these tools to show students how to take charge of their own learning. You can find these tools as well as the latest handouts for my TLC talk, Create the Students of your dreams: 3 ways to empower and motivate students at http://www.pcc.edu/staff/index.cfm/1394,12879,30,html.

Now, would someone please pass the salt...

Weimer, Maryellen. (2002). Learner Centered Teaching: Five Keys Changes to Practice.

San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Across the Wide Divide

by Shirlee Geiger

Lots of PCC people attended the annual convention put on by the American Association of Community Colleges, held this last week in New Orleans. Although this is a conference primarily for administrators, PCC paid for a number of faculty members to attend. Three members of the Learning Assessment Council were there, including me, with our presence paid for by Chris Chairsell, our Vice President for Academic and Student affairs.

I was surprised -- and happy -- to see that reliance on adjunct faculty all across higher ed was brought up in lots of different sessions, and in lots of different contexts. Generally speaking, colleges and universities are being asked to expand our access to non-traditional students, graduate an ever-higher percentage with meaningful credentials (known as "the completion agenda") and do it all without increasing our costs. And how are we to do this? By staying clear on our learning outcomes, collaborating around meaningful assessments (which help us identify which practices get results and which do not), and then rolling out our evidence-based best educational practices.

This is all requiring a new and unprecedented level and kind of collaboration between educators. The Learning Assessment Council is trying to be of help by creating some new opportunities to engage in respectful and productive peer-to-peer interactions. We will be part of starting lots of new Critical Friends Groups in all our major campuses. And we have another group (the PALs --Program Assessment for Learning) ready to come to the SAC sessions where people look at assessment results, to help keep the conversations directed and productive as SAC members talk about what the assessment results imply about needs for program improvements. (It is always easier to talk abut what a SAC is doing well than what is not going well....)

Members of the council are also in the early stages of discussion on how to help get productive conversations going across the adjunct/job-insecure and full time/job-secure instructor categories. This division makes collaboration tricky in lots and lots of ways. The inequity is clearly unfair -- but the justice issue is not going to be addressed in any satisfactory way any time soon. (The resources are not increasing, any time soon!!) The question is how to keep the unfairness from getting in the way of successful collaboration regarding our common goal -- to serve students, and to serve them well.

I will be talking more about one session that I found especially valuable at a later date. Until then, if you want to read the white paper out of which the session came, I suggest reading:
Engaging Adjunct and Full-time Faculty in Student Success Innovation.

It is a remarkable read.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Are you alone in your classroom?

Critical Friends Groups
by shirlee geiger

The first year the Learning Assessment Council existed, we did an informal faculty survey. We wanted to know how familiar PCC faculty were with the core outcomes, and what they thought about assessment of student learning and the "accountability movement." We found that:
  • lots of faculty (especially adjuncts) knew nothing of the Core Outcomes
  • the reaction to assessment ranged from mild annoyance to heated aggravation
  • most faculty members felt professionally isolated and yearned for opportunities for interaction with colleagues around common concerns as teachers.

Members of the council began to see that assessment of student learning provided a promising way to create ways and reasons for teachers to work together, in order to become more effective at promoting student learning. And part of that promise is coming to fruition as PCC makes an investment in Critical Friends Groups.

In these groups, 6 to 10 instructors, librarians, counselors or APs come together and work across disciplines and divides to increase our effectiveness in meeting student needs. The groups are facilitated, and structured to build trust and respect, as professionals come together to get new ideas on their professional challenges.

These groups have been formed across the nation, at all levels of education. The same basic philosophy provides the structure for one of the exercises in the annual "Great Teachers Conference," held in Oregon at the Menucha center in early summer. I first encountered the idea of a friends' circle there, when I attended back in 2001. All the attendees had been asked to bring two short write-ups. One was of a class technique we thought worked really well, and one was of a class problem we were experiencing. The conference is held in the week between Spring and Summer quarter. In 2001, I was busy finishing grades and prepping for summer classes, so I didn't put much work into writing the required paragraphs.

But I was absolutely amazed at what happened at the conference.

We were each put into a group of 6 to 8 teachers, all from community colleges in Washington, Oregon, or Idaho. The groups were made up of instructors from all disciplines. In a structured setting, we were each asked to present our problem to the group. In setting up the exercise, the leader told us that the groups were premised on the assumption that the ability to experience a problem is a key part of reflective teaching practice. Whoever knows enough to recognize a problem already carries the seed of solution within. The circle of teachers was there to help the instructor find that solution, primarily through the process of asking questions.....

It was very, very hard to resist the urge to "fix" the problem for the presenting teacher. But over and over our leader reminded us, gently, of the conversational structure. We could ask questions, but it was not OK to "load" a question with a resolution. For example, one teacher there taught night classes. Recently, a group of young male students had been returning from break either drunk or stoned. Their behavior had not yet been so overtly "over the line" that she felt she could kick them out. But they were more disruptive and somewhat belligerent. She was nervous leaving the class, alone, once it was over. And she felt she did not have relevant experience in classroom management -- she knew how to run a classroom, but did not know how to manage people who were drunk or drugged.

Around and around the little circle we went, asking questions. Did the stoned/drunk students disrupt learning for the other students? Was it getting worse over time? Did she know who to call, and was there a phone available, if she needed help during the class? What was her experience dealing with substance abuse issues? Was she more bothered by concerns for her own safety, or for the safety of the other students -- or was it the way they were interfering with learning that most mattered to her?

The longer the questions went, the slower the answers came.... until finally she said, "I know what I'll do...." The plan had become clear to her, though not one person had offered her advice. And I remember, so clearly, that she said that she had not talked to anyone on her campus about the problem. After all, it was a night class. She was just getting there as most other faculty and staff were leaving. The campus felt so empty.... and that had heightened her feeling of fear. She had wanted to think she could handle it....

We can feel alone. All of us. But we are not alone. We are part of a large group of dedicated educators. In the critical friends groups, we can come together, and in a respectful, safe, and structured way, turn toward one another to both celebrate our successes and share around our concerns. These circles are coming to PCC. Carly Volet and Sally Earll are hosting information groups this week, through the TLCs. Chris Chairsell has agreed to fund facilitator training, so that we can start next fall with multiple groups at each of the main campuses. If you are interested in hearing more, go to one of the TLC sessions (you'll need to register), or contact me at sgeiger@pcc.edu.

Assessment of student learning requires that we turn toward one another, and learn from one another. It is true, after all....

We are all in this together.