That’s why the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), a nonprofit organization based at the University of Texas, surveys hundreds of community colleges every year to see how well they encourage things like group projects, class presentations, and interaction with faculty in and out of the classroom. It’s also why CCSSE results make up the bulk of Washington Monthly’s community college rankings.
For trade school educators, the revelation was nothing new. “The technical college faculty were saying, ‘What’s the big deal? We’ve been doing that for centuries,’ ” recalls Leslie Mercer, associate vice chancellor for research, planning, and effectiveness in Minnesota’s public higher education system. A trade school by tradition and a liberal arts college by choice, Saint Paul has demonstrated an uncanny flair for putting these state-of-the-art pedagogical ideas into practice.
The ethos starts with the way students and faculty interact. About two-thirds of Saint Paul students are either first-generation college-goers, of color, from low-income families, or some combination of the three. Many are immigrants, reflecting the area’s high concentration of Somalis and Hmong. Students like that tend to drown in impersonal lectures. So Saint Paul classes are small, averaging nineteen students. Teachers roam the rooms, providing guidance as students work on individual assignments and group projects. “You have to be approachable,” says Penny Starkey, a chemistry instructor, “willing to work closely with students.”
Rather than holding limited office hours and then retreating to their homes, teachers are regularly on campus with their office doors wide open. It’s not uncommon for instructors to give out their cell phone numbers and take calls and answer e-mails on weekends. Dan Paulnock, a popular speech teacher who has won several teaching awards, gives students a personal guarantee. “I tell my students that they have a lifetime warranty on my teaching,” he says. “I give them my cell phone number on my syllabus. And they can call that cell phone number at any time, as long as it’s not eleven at night or seven in the morning. I get calls constantly.”
Of course, all colleges have some inspiring teachers. What the CCSSE data show is how widespread effective teaching practices have become at Saint Paul College compared to the norm. For example, nearly all of the students surveyed at Saint Paul said they had discussed ideas or readings from class with their instructors outside of class time. At most two-year schools, close to half of the students never do this.
The interaction between faculty and students isn’t limited to academic pursuits—the college also encourages extracurricular activities and service projects that help students feel like they are part of a real community, not just a commuter school. Timothy Strand, a veteran carpenter, spends a huge amount of time with his students. “Especially in the trades, we’re with them from seven or eight in the morning till two in the afternoon,” Strand says. “We’re their mentor, their counselor—we help them solve problems.” That role extends out into the neighborhood as well: every year, Strand and his students remodel homes for a nonprofit that serves severely disabled people. “The halls have to be widened, the doors have to be widened, we put in special bathtubs,” Strand says. “We do one to five houses a year for them—whatever they need.”
Again, this kind of experience is the norm. Ninety-three percent of Saint Paul students work with their instructors on activities other than coursework. Nationwide, about 70 percent of students at two-year schools say that they never do this. Ninety-eight percent of Saint Paul students say they’ve taught or tutored other students. Less than one-third of students nationwide have had the same experience.
Among the more than 650 community colleges nationwide surveyed by CCSSE, Saint Paul scored highest on “Active and Collaborative Learning.” In the trade classes at Saint Paul, welders join pieces of metal and culinary arts students prepare meals. In science courses, students build models of the endocrine system and chart the readings of an EKG. Hands-on projects are such a part of school culture that every year the school holds an arts and sciences fair. Ninety-eight percent of students say they’ve worked together on projects outside of class. Nationally, only about 60 percent of students at two-year schools say this. Saint Paul students have a distinct edge in this equation: the modern workplace is rarely solitary, and employers value people who know how to work in teams.
No rules at Saint Paul dictate how many projects teachers must assign, or how they must run their classrooms. But the college does have a strong set of expectations and policies that reinforce this kind of teaching. The administration gives awards to teachers who come up with innovative new classroom methods, and the teachers control a staff development fund to pay for ongoing education. An internal Center for Teaching and Learning helps instructors improve their skills. And the school has veteran teachers mentor new ones, so they can pass on the shared educational values of the school.
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