In response to decreasing enrollment, a panel of students at last Monday’s Academic Senate meeting explained why they chose to drop courses and expressed problems they believe professors should address to increase course completion.
Dr. Valerie Foster, President of the Academic Senate, was inspired to hold the student panel by the Professional Development Director at Mt. San Antonio College. Mt. SAC conducts a similar event annually and their faculty acquire valuable insight from hearing the perspectives of students.
“As faculty, if we can make some small tweaks and changes in our classrooms to help increase course completion, we should do that,” Foster said.
In preparation for the panel, Foster sent out a mass email to the approximately 800 PCC students who dropped classes during the first two weeks of this semester. Additionally, she took a proactive role in recruitment by spreading the word to faculty, students and on-campus organizations. She then held individual interviews with students to hear their stories and ensure they felt supported and comfortable expressing their experiences.
Without students using any names, the idea of the panel was not to single out any one professor or create divisiveness, rather, the themes that emerged from students’ stories were “common and across the board,” Foster said.
One prevailing theme among the students’ experiences was a lack of understanding for each student’s unique background.
“I think when it comes to the institution, there is a lack of consciousness in terms of intercultural communication and the different cultural backgrounds that we each come from,” PCC student Amaris Jacobs said.
Jacobs, a self-described “non-traditional” student, comes from a single mother home and is attending college in the hopes of gaining more mobility within the social hierarchy.
“A lot of us are coming here to community college for a fresh start, to rebuild ourselves, to re-establish, to regain opportunities.”
Frankie Castro, a second-year Chemistry major, concurs that professors should make more of an effort to view the students in their class as individuals.
“Take on the perspective of the student,” Castro said. “Don’t unify all of them because we all have different cultures, different backgrounds, different age[s].”
Student Alexis Corine McGowan also raised the issue of some professors not understanding the challenges faced by disabled students, including not following the protocol of Disabled Students Programs & Services (DSP&S). DSP&S requires five days notice in order to organize testing accommodations for disabled students but McGowan’s professor would consistently announce tests in less than five days.
“They [DSP&S] know her,” McGowan said. “When I said her name, they were like ‘Oh. Yeah, she’s not a big fan of us.’”
“I don’t think that she really cared about the rules much. But I felt like, as a teacher, it should be enforced to follow [DSP&S rules]. I think that’s very important.”
The students also felt neurological diversity and different learning styles should be taken into account when planning classes. While some students prefer to work individually, others thrive in group settings.
“A lot of us actually have very different ways of learning and we have a lot of different preferences,” Jacobs said.
Castro shared that the course he dropped was largely group driven. While he could understand the advantages of groupwork, he felt as though the professor didn’t adequately provide students with the prior knowledge they needed to succeed in their group assignments nor did he check up on groups’ comprehension of the material.
“The professor kind of just threw us into groups and we had to figure [out] how to get from point A to point B without any of the knowledge in between,” Castro said. “… Students would go up to him with questions and concerns and the professor would turn us back to our group settings to solve that issue amongst ourselves.”
“Be adaptive to how the class as a whole is functioning,” Castro suggested to professors. “Adapt your way of teaching as you progress.”
The acknowledgement of different teaching styles and learning styles inspired Biology professor Russell Di Fiori to propose instructors clearly explain how the class will function upfront in the first class and syllabus, or even to include it in the course description in the schedule of classes.
Another element students wanted from their professors was more personalized feedback.
Judy Jackson described a class that she struggled to find the motivation to work hard in because the professor didn’t give any feedback to students on their work.
“He doesn’t read the homework or give me feedback on the answers so I feel like what’s the point of trying to get the right answer?” Jackson said.
Overall, all the students agreed that they feel valued, supported, and motivated to work hard when their professors take time to get to know them on an individual basis and give them personalized feedback on how they’re doing in the course.
“My whole life I’ve been in classes where it’s like 30, 40, or even 50 people so it’s very hard to feel like I have a section of the teacher’s time,” Jackson said. “It’s not the teacher’s fault; overcrowding really isn’t their fault. But I really appreciate it when a teacher can give one-on-one feedback and can just have a discussion with a student.”
Students praised more open dialogue between professor and student not solely for academic feedback, but also to nurture a welcoming environment and break down walls between the parties.
“Being able to have that connection with your students – a personal connection – really breaks down a lot of the barriers [between professor and student],” English professor, Michelle Banks said. “It might be a good idea for me to establish a time when students must come in for some kind of a one-on-one conversation.”
“When you have that support and those people that genuinely love and care for you, it makes you want to keep going,” Jacobs said.
“There’s those moments where you want to drop out of college but then you know you have people in the institution who are rooting for you. So you come back and you do it for yourself but you also do it because you know the work and effort that those people have put in for you.”
While the panel focused on problems they had in classes, the students haven’t had only negative experiences during their time at PCC. At its conclusion, they each shared some positive attributes of their college experience.
While the student panel consisted of anecdotal information, the college’s Institutional Effectiveness office is also analyzing wider data trends across the college in order to increase course completion.
“We’re hoping to tackle this problem from multiple angles to try and really help our students,” Foster said. “Making the decision to drop is a real important one for students … it could totally derail their academic progress.”