POV: Optimizing Efficiency, Completion and Achievement All At Once
Three powerful headwinds are pushing back at community college leaders: the all-too-familiar “do more with less” arctic blast; the “It all comes down to completion and numbers” storm; and the business and industry jet stream: “Completers must demonstrate a set of skills, knowledge and discipline that will enable them to perform effectively in an increasingly changing and sophisticated workplace.”
Deliver more capable completers in ever-increasing numbers with ever-decreasing resources. That’s more of a challenge than Houdini ever faced, but it’s our challenge.
At Chattanooga State Community College, we’ve accepted that all three headwinds are here to stay, and we’re turning them into tailwinds. How? Through a college-wide program which is successfully driving all three goals — improved efficiency, completion and proficiency. It’s taken every member of the college community and our partners to launch it. We call it the Focused Learning System (FLS).
The FLS initiative is all about alignment. It is built on this very reasonable and not particularly radical premise: Course student learning outcomes (CSLOs) should support the outcomes of programs and departments. When departmental outcomes are merged, they should create institutional student learning outcomes which meet the expectations of employers or four-year colleges. In simple terms, everything we do to educate students should be aligned so that we can deliver graduates, efficiently and effectively, who can demonstrate a set of desired proficiencies.
Now here’s where we had to overcome some internal headwinds. Any course, department or program learning outcome that does not directly contribute to institutional-level student learning outcomes must be modified to do so or jettisoned. Learning must be focused to ensure results.
Here’s how we made this initiative operational. We asked the college community, working with our business advisory committees as part of our strategic planning process, to identify the broad learning outcomes we expect completers to demonstrate. To do so, they had to distill from a myriad of proposed outcomes a set of consensus Institutional Student Learning Outcomes (ISLOs).
We then asked departments, programs and academic areas (such as general education faculty) to generate learning outcomes specific to their domain which support the ISLOs. Any outcome they identified that didn’t support an ISLO had to be modified, scratched or brought to strategic planning leaders as an argument to modify an ISLO.
Finally, with Program Student Learning Outcomes (PSLOs) in hand, we asked the faculty to identify Course Student Learning Outcomes (CSLOs) which align hand-in-glove with their PSLOs. Faculty-generated CSLOs were intentionally shaped to complement and reinforce the outcomes of the other department/program course outcomes. If one course had “critical reasoning” as a learning outcome, for example, faculty had to show what component of the critical reasoning process they taught and how it fit with the other components taught in other courses to make for a full “critical reasoning” student learning skill-set.
Now here’s the final component, and it’s major. We are merging the data from normally isolated sources within the institution (disciplines, departments, programs) into college-wide statistics so we can map student progress and demonstrate anticipated learning achievement. This will ensure that completers have the competencies we have set out for them to acquire. And it will demonstrate that integrating and focusing learning can deliver the results we seek — more completers with greater skill sets — efficiently, and at reduced cost.
Thus far the results are remarkable. After three years of college-wide emphasis on FLS, Chattanooga State’s performance against measures embedded in the state’s new performance-based funding formula was number one among the system’s 13 community colleges. Now that’s a tailwind!
James L. Catanzaro has been president of Chattanooga State Community College (Tenn.) for 22 years. This article is one in a series being authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column.
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