Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Community College, Will You Marry Me?

A colleague sent me this article with the following comment:

I hope the data described below trouble you. they damned sure trouble me. yeh, I know, we’re trying and we’re doing better. that’s nice, but pathetic.

The issue is “student engagement” at community colleges. The question, I think that needs to be addressed but never is, is what is a realistic expectation for student engagement? Certainly we want all to be optimally engaged. Realistically, I think that's ridiculous. The data discussed in the article seems to fall into two categories: Engagement in the classroom and engagement out of the classroom. What the author says about engagement in the classroom confuses me:

“In the classroom, engagement figures were…still notably low. Twenty-eight percent said they had either “often” or “very often” made a class presentation, and 46 percent said they had either “often” or “very often” worked with other students on projects during class… These figures were higher for students at four-year institutions, according to this year’s NSSE report — 33 percent of first-year students had “often” or “very often” made a class presentation and 60 percent of seniors had done the same. Additionally, 43 percent of first-year students at four-year institutions had worked with other students on projects during class either “often” or “very often,” while 47 percent of their senior counterparts had done the same.”

I’m not especially confident that “making classroom presentations” and “working with other students on projects during class” are worthy measures of “student engagement” in the first place, but I can play along and pretend. Then the question becomes what comparisons should we make? If we’re going to compare CC students to 4-yr students, and if we’re given the option of comparison between first year students and seniors at 4-yr schools, (unless someone can present an argument otherwise) it sure seems wise that we compare CC students to first year students. So, yes, 33% making class presentations is a bit higher than only 28% - but not drastically higher (BRCC is at 22.2%). But, no, 43% is not higher than 46% - CC students are *more likely* than first year students at 4-yr schools to do group work in class (BRCC is at 44.8%). Given the data, it just does not seem to me that CC students are significantly (in a non-stats sense) less engaged in class that their 4-year counterparts.

Outside of the classroom, yes, there seems to be a big difference. 16% of CC students “reported that they discussed ideas with their professors outside of class.” (BRCC is at 10.7%). While it isn’t in the IHE article, I dug up that “nearly 2/3 of 1st year students…at least sometimes discussed ideas from readings or classes with faculty members outside of class” (page 11). Sure, that is a significant difference. But I’m simply not convinced it is realistic to expect similar “out of class” engagement numbers between CC and 4-year students. 62% of the subjects in the CC data are part-time. It never quite mentions the percentage in the 4-year data who are part-time, but it does indicate that at least some of the analyses are based only on full-time students (page 18). I think it unrealistic to expect that part-time students spend as much time out of class “engaged” with academics as full-time students.

I suspect also that a lot of the variability between CC's on "out of class" student engagement is a function of whether the school is commuter (like BRCC) or residential (with dorms, like those I worked at in Colorado & Arizona). It always seemed to me that students spend a lot more time just “hanging around campus” when they are (1) full-time, and (2) at a residential college (CC or 4-yr). More time “hanging around campus” likely corresponds with more time chatting with professors out of class. Realistic expectations should be different for this measure of "engagement" at different types of colleges.

Oddly, the IHE article doesn’t even mention any data on the two measures of “student engagement” that I think are really indicative of it: Student effort and academic challenge (anecdotal comments are made on academic challenge).

Ultimately, to get at my colleague's point: No the data don't trouble me much, nor do I think them sufficient to conclude that what we're doing is pathetic.

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