Collaborating for Transfer Student Success at Mount Wachusett Community College and Fitchburg State University
A positive trend in recent years has been the move by many colleges and universities toward integrated curricula through which students forge connections between general education and the major and develop crucial, cross-cutting capacities progressively from the first to final year of college (such as these examples). One problem that can arise, though, is that these progressive pathways may be designed with the assumption that students complete all of their education at a single institution—despite the fact that nearly half of all college students transfer at some point. For such curricula to be truly effective, they must be able to serve transfer students as well as “native” students. Wherever they start and wherever they finish, all students need clear, coherent guided learning pathways leading to the outcomes most important in post-college life.
Creating such pathways for transfer students was a goal of Fitchburg State University and Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC). Their collaboration was one of several supported by AAC&U’s Quality Collaboratives project, which worked to improve transfer policies across the country through a focus on assessment and faculty development. Faculty from MWCC and Fitchburg State worked together to create new assessment tools and classroom assignments in order to help their shared students develop and demonstrate the common learning outcomes crucial for success at both institutions and in their lives beyond college.
Building on Previous Collaborations
About a third of all students at Fitchburg State are transfer students, many of them from MWCC, which is located just fifteen miles away in Gardner, Massachusetts. In certain MWCC programs, including early childhood education, business, and many science fields, the majority of students intend from the start of their education to transfer to Fitchburg to complete a bachelor’s degree, says Ruth Slotnick, former director of assessment and transfer policy at MWCC.
But despite the large number of transfer students, many programs at Fitchburg State were designed with the assumption that students began their education at Fitchburg, says Christopher Cratsley, the director of assessment and formerly a member of the biology faculty at the university. “There was little appreciation of the fact that this only represented two-thirds of our students.” But faculty members in a number of departments were coming to realize that transfer students, and other students who hadn’t completed the expected sequence of courses for whatever reason, often struggled with the curriculum. “We were seeing a population of students who came in and found that the curriculum was not designed with them in mind,” Cratsley says, “and so we asked ourselves how we could better serve them.”
Cratsley and Slotnick, who knew each other through their work on several statewide projects in Massachusetts, decided to apply together for AAC&U's Quality Collaboratives project. Part of the association's ongoing Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, Quality Collaboratives was a three-year project designed to improve faculty assessment of student learning outcomes within the context of student transfer, using an early draft of Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) as a reference point for quality learning. MWCC and Fitchburg State formed one of the ten campus “dyads” that worked together to establish shared assessment practices, faculty leadership and development opportunities, and policies related to student learning and success.
Taking on this work through the Quality Collaboratives was appealing for a number of reasons. The project was in many ways a natural extension of a statewide initiative titled Advancing a Massachusetts Culture of Assessment that Slotnick and Cratsley had been working on, so they already had a shared body of work that they could build on. Both institutions had worked with AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics as well, so they were familiar with a common tool that they could adapt to their institutional contexts.
The external funding provided by the project was also crucial—being able to offer faculty stipends allowed them to recruit a pool of dedicated participants. “One of our major goals was to involve as many faculty as possible using the stipends we had,” Slotnick says. She and Cratsley, who served as the overall project leads for their respective institutions, recruited thirty-two participants—a combination of sixteen faculty or staff members from each school. They agreed it was important to include staff members, who are often overlooked in curriculum discussions, and in this case they decided it was especially important to involve academic librarians and advisers who had considerable contact with transfer students.
The project team ultimately chose four learning outcomes—communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, and civic learning—and focused on aligning expectations for four learning outcomes and developing tools to assess these outcomes. Working on four different outcomes felt very ambitious, Slotnick says—“aggressive even”—but they hoped that choosing a broader range of outcomes would ultimately bring even more faculty from both institutions into their work. They decided to focus on general education outcomes, as this provided the opportunity to effect the largest group of students, and conducted a comparison of the curricula at both institutions, looking for alignment and overlap.
Building Faculty Engagement
The participants were encouraged to choose which outcome they were most interested in addressing, and they divided into four teams, each focused on one of the learning outcomes. Each team comprised seven faculty members and one staff member, with membership equally divided between the two institutions; two of the teams were headed by MWCC faculty, and two by Fitchburg faculty. It was important to encourage that sense of parity and equality from the start, Slotnick and Cratsley say. “There are definitely stereotypes that people hold about the quality of community college students and therefore their faculty, or about the rigidness of state university faculty,” Slotnick says. “It’s just inherent all over the country … we have to be aware of that and keep saying, ‘hey, we have the same students!’”
In the end, the chemistry between the team members, and the guidance shown by the team leaders, proved to be one of the biggest strengths of the project. “There was a lot of ownership from all the faculty and staff members, and they ended up taking over the work in way that Ruth and I just couldn’t have done on our own,” Cratsley says.
The first charge for each team was to collect samples of student work from each campus that were comparable to each other and that demonstrated the given learning outcomes, which they then assessed using modified versions of AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics. The teams spent a lot of time “really grappling with what the work represented,” Cratsley says. “Does it really represent the learning outcomes we want? Or are there gaps—things in the work not addressed by the rubrics, and vice versa. We were trying to figure out how to align what students give us with what we say we’re interested in as learning outcomes.”
It was at this stage that the team members began to find the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) to be helpful in their work. Unlike the VALUE rubrics, with which many of the faculty members were already familiar, the DQP was a new tool for most of the faculty members, and it took some time to develop comfort using it, but “we found that it helped bridge the gap between the specificity of the rubrics and the vagueness of some student learning outcomes,” Cratsley says. In particular, faculty found the DQP useful for thinking about civic learning, which some team members found difficult to identify in specific assignments. They ended up using the competencies described in the DQP as “raw materials” from which they could fashion their own descriptions of what students should be accomplishing.
“We always worked with the understanding that faculty were using these tools as frameworks, so we could still honor what was happening on our own campuses and use our homegrown tools where they were preferred,” Slotnick says. “We never prescribed—this work had to evolve, and in most cases it was a symbiotic process as we used these various tools in concert with student work products we had obtained from other faculty, through faculty-to-faculty conversations about student work.”
Making a Lasting Impact
The final stage of the teams’ work focused on assignment design. Faculty used what they learned from the assessment of the work to modify student work assignments so as to better develop and demonstrate the intended learning outcomes. The work culminated in a joint professional development day in which the faculty leads from both institutions guided their colleagues through exercises on assignment design. The day offered an opportunity not only to build on the shared general education work, but also to “plan for future curriculum alignment at the course and program level,” says Melissa Fama, vice president for academic affairs at MWCC.
But despite the success of the assessment and assignment design phases, the next step—actually changing transfer policy—will be a bigger challenge, Cratsley says. “You can set the stage for it with some campuses and get to a place where everyone understands the shared learning outcomes and ways of assessing them ... but translating that into policies that go beyond assessment on individual campuses to facilitating transfer between institutions is a real challenge.
“It’s a challenge in part influenced by time and priorities—we had a great joint faculty development day, but how do I keep getting attention back to that on both campuses when there are so many other priorities for the individual campuses?”
Maintaining this culture of assessment and shared responsibility for students that lasts beyond the duration of any one project requires ongoing investment from faculty who believe in the work. But that’s difficult when faculty leaders retire or move to other institutions and there no more grant stipends to train new assessment leaders, Slotnick says.
Still, she’s hopeful for the duration of the collaboration between Fitchburg and MWCC—the original project team included several recent hires who may well build their careers at these institutions. “We hope they’ll be here a long time and they can take some leadership in bringing people together on these issues.”
AAC&U is producing a number of publications related to the Quality Collaboratives project, including a series of case studies highlighting the work of all the two- and four-year institutional partnerships. Check AAC&U’s website for these resources in the coming months. You can also find more information about MWCC and Fitchburg State’s partnership at MWCC’s website.