The Mixed Methods Blog

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Guided Pathways at Wallace State Community College: The Benefits of Bringing Faculty Into Pathways Work

Faculty members work together, smiling and holding coffee and laptops

This post is the first in a series by practitioners at AACC Pathways Project colleges describing their experience with implementing guided pathways reforms.

In my 25 years as a community college instructor and administrator in Alabama, I have participated in numerous initiatives related to enhancing student success and improving teaching and learning. Most of these have been at least moderately successful and relatively painless for faculty. Still, faculty are often skeptical about investing in a new initiative. Some feel that their valuable time and energy are already spread too thin. Others take a wait-and-see attitude to determine if the latest idea has staying power. Unfortunately, there are always those who simply prefer to be left alone; they are comfortable in their classrooms and do not see a need for real change.

To be honest, I have fallen into each of these categories at different times in my tenure. Teaching is like being in a Broadway play that runs four or five days a week, twice a day and some nights, for 30 years. That grind can at times wear you down. No wonder faculty can be skeptical when a new initiative is launched.

I was a skeptic when my dean, Dr. Beth Johnson, approached me to be a member of our college’s core pathways team. She was convincing, and she noted that our president had also mentioned my name as a STEM faculty representative. Dr. Johnson gave me some materials to read and some initial data that our college had gathered. I quickly became a believer in guided pathways. I told our president, Dr. Vicki Karolewics, “We have to do this! It makes so much sense.”

Since then, our college has done an incredible amount of meaningful work. Guided pathways has been integral to our improved student success, most notably our increased graduation rates. Everything we do at Wallace State has been impacted by guided pathways, from the way we think about recruiting to the support we give graduates as they enter the job market. That kind of far-reaching work requires a diverse team, and faculty must be heavily involved, especially in leadership roles.

Looking back, there are some valuable takeaways to be had from our experience—both in terms of unexpected opportunities that could have been easily missed and things we should have anticipated but didn’t. Both have offered learning opportunities worth considering for others embarking on this work.

Unexpected Opportunities

Breaking down silos and building support for pathways

We knew that like most colleges, we tended to work in silos, but we did not realize to what extent that was the case. Even within our academic division, each department had become an island unto itself.

When our interdisciplinary faculty committee designing the liberal arts pathway started its work, we quickly got bogged down. We couldn’t agree on what courses belonged in the pathway since students in the pathway typically have a range of academic goals, fields of interest, and transfer destinations. Because we are a small college with a limited number of program offerings, advisors guide most students to an appropriate program when it exists and help students whose program is not offered at Wallace State customize the liberal arts pathway for their goals. We had decided that we were going to specify preferred electives to help reduce student drift and simplify advising, but we realized that we didn’t know a lot about many of the courses at our college.

So we started calling individual instructors to make appointments with them. We went to their offices to be on their turf, and we asked about the courses they taught. What did they actually cover? What types of students might benefit from these courses? We found that faculty are the best advocates for their own courses, but we also found that while we were in their offices, we could advocate for guided pathways. This approach worked wonderfully for recruiting faculty to become active participants in the college-wide work. It also led to a humanities and fine arts summit where instructors championed courses under consideration for program pathways and a subsequent advising guide for the college.

Sharing ideas for improving teaching and learning

As more faculty became involved in guided pathways, there were more opportunities to organically share best practices. Professional development opportunities emerged during one-on-one conversations at lunch. Members from different departments started to have reason to interact more often and in more intentional ways.

For example, math faculty shared ideas with biology faculty about how they had created highly successful modular classes in Blackboard. Biology faculty shared with history faculty their approach to improving attendance with daily low-stakes quizzing. Faculty involved in a pathways rebuild of a course took ideas from different content areas and adapted them to their courses.

Our core pathways team mandated that all of our professional development activities have a pathways component. That development, for faculty at least, seemed to happen spontaneously.

Improving program coordination

As our pathways work progressed, numerous synergistic opportunities arose that could have been missed. Fortunately, our faculty were attentive to details, and many of those opportunities were realized.

One opportunity came about as a result of our health science division trying to build “second chance” pathways for those students who did not gain acceptance into a preferred program. The diagnostic medical sonography program had planned to offer vascular sonography, which is a high-demand field in our area given large health care centers in Birmingham and Huntsville. The biology department had been working with all of the health science programs to rebuild the human anatomy and physiology courses that served those programs. Because there was already communication between those two departments, the biology department was able to obtain money through budget hearings to purchase vascular arm models and add a component to the cardiovascular module to support that new program. Before the first students were selecting that pathway, the biology department already had the module in the anatomy course.

Other Lessons Learned

There were also things we perhaps should have anticipated but didn’t. For example, we discovered that when you designate a preferred elective, students take that course. We had to significantly change the number of sections we offered for some courses.

This change led to a second lesson: Know your adjuncts. Adjunct faculty are integral to the success of pathways, especially in departments that have a large number of students. Some adjuncts are comfortable teaching different courses from semester to semester and some are not. It became a vital function of department chairs in the academic division to locate and recruit additional adjunct faculty to help with overloads in certain course sections.

Finally, the reality is that some courses may see a decrease in demand. Careful scheduling and flexibility in assigned duties are essential. Some faculty picked up a couple of freshman seminar course sections to make up for another course in their program that was not offered that semester. In the end, the great results for our students far outweighed any uneasiness from a faculty perspective.

Want more guided pathways? Listen to our introductory podcast, or check out our case studies and full report on how colleges are managing the guided pathways change process.

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