The 4th Pillar: Guiding Questions to Focus and Define Faculty Involvement
Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges.
Many California community colleges are well on their way toward implementing various aspects of the Guided Pathways (GP) framework and its four pillars in hopes of increasing student success and completion. The CCC GP framework is similar to many of the strategies used in the national pathways movement, but it deviates in one specific area. This difference undercuts an integral part of the pathways approach, thereby creating a revised label and set of practices under its fourth pillar. The CCC version describes the four pillars of Guided Pathways: create clear curricular pathways to employment and further education, help students choose and enter their pathways, help students stay on their paths, and ensure learning is happening with intentional outcomes. The problem with this fourth pillar is that it does not emphasize or even mention the importance of teaching.
Perhaps the connection between teaching and learning is so fundamental that one can safely assume that ensuring learning depends on effective teaching. However, when one looks at other instances of the fourth pillar, the connection is explicit and not assumed. For example, the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement includes a more detailed explanation beyond the phrase “ensure students are learning” and one that is at the core of what faculty do and what they should be doing to improve success rates and close equity gaps. Johnstone and Karandjeff state, “To fully implement a guided pathways approach, colleges must…ensure students are learning with clear program outcomes…and effective instructional practices.” Another Guided Pathways model produced by the American Association of Community Colleges, Achieving the Dream, and others prescribes “Faculty-led improvement of teaching practices” under the heading “Ensure Students are Learning.”
While well-intended, the CCC GP phrase “ensure learning” misses the mark in helping faculty fulfill their role and responsibilities in developing and implementing their colleges’ fourth pillar. As even the most skilled and talented educators would admit, faculty simply cannot ensure learning. However, one thing faculty can ensure is effective teaching that is learner-centered and utilizes basic instructional design principles.
Assessment of learning, if fully understood and applied correctly, could be the quintessential tool for educators. However, the purposefulness of such assessment became lost in an accreditation mandate and continues to be misapplied. Over the last ten years, educators rushed to create Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), institutions invested large sums of money and resources in assessment management systems, and higher education professionals held conferences and focused efforts attempting to facilitate SLO assessment. Under this model, assessment too often meant checking boxes and inserting numbers to comply with the accreditation standards. For example, on the 2018 ACCJC Annual Report, question 20 asks, “Number of college courses with ongoing assessment of learning outcomes.” Any response to this question should suffice because the question misses the importance and true value of assessment, which is to determine whether students are learning what faculty intend them to learn. The need to comply with an accreditation mandate overshadows the real questions faculty should be asking when conducting self-evaluations, teaching, or designing courses.
To their own detriment, institutions often frame the questions surrounding assessment practice in a way that measures whether they have assessments or whether they use assessments. They ask closed-ended questions that allow faculty to move on after answering: “Faculty assess whether students are mastering learning outcomes,” “Results of learning outcomes assessments are used to improve teaching and learning through program review,” or “The college tracks attainment of learning outcomes.” Embedded in these questions is an intent significantly tied to the educators’ purposes and mission, yet it becomes lost because institutions default to a compliance mindset.
If colleges follow the current fourth pillar guidelines, their efforts may be narrowly centered around well-intentioned but misguided practices that cannot guarantee or ensure learning or improve instruction. Instead colleges must make assessment useful by asking action-oriented questions that force instructors to talk about how assessment is changing their teaching practices. Faculty need to discuss openly how assessment functions within their environment to reveal the relationship between outcomes and learning. Ensuring learning does not simply occur because courses have outcomes. Rather, outcome attainment is the result of effective teaching, and outcome assessment is the conduit that informs the educator and student as to whether learning has occurred. When a gap is discovered, instructors make adjustments to the instructional design, teach, and assess all over again. Peer discussions about assessment practices have value and can improve teaching for all. In this way, when colleges foster collaboration, the usefulness of assessment becomes apparent and faculty better understand its meaning.
Guiding questions regarding assessment: What is meaningful assessment? How does it work? How can assessment be utilized in a way that will ensure effective teaching? How are outcomes and learning connected? How much time do we schedule to engage in meaningful conversations about assessment practices? Are faculty prepared to have conversations about assessment?
Effective teaching begins with the end in mind. By identifying course outcomes or goals for students, instructors determine what they want to achieve, and this process informs all other instructional decisions. Faculty may consider how they will know if students have learned what they want them to learn, how successful completion of the course will empower students, and what will count as evidence of student success in the class. According to instructional design expert McTighe, “Learning is enhanced when teachers think purposefully about curricular planning… and effective curriculum is planned backward from longterm desired results or outcomes.” Other scholars note this point as well, adding that purposeful selection of activities and content leads to improved student performance.
If student success is tied to effective teaching, community college educators need professional development to progress and grow as teaching experts. Metaphorically, the instructor is the stylobate of the pillar, and his or her subject area expertise is only part of the composition of that foundation. For institutions that embrace Guided Pathways, the opportunity and faculty imperative of the fourth pillar is to build capacity in areas that support effective teaching and learning through professional development. This process should include assessment training in addition to learning opportunities based in instructional design.
Guiding questions regarding professional development: What professional development opportunities are available to help faculty build skills for instructional design and course planning? How can the college ensure adequate resources are available to faculty to improve teaching skills? What pathway is available for faculty to become teaching experts? How does the college prioritize and make training accessible for part-time faculty?
The Guided Pathways movement is designed to help community college students “progress more quickly and with a higher chance of completion.” The Four Pillar Model was implemented by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to give colleges a “highly structured approach to student success.” The plan was to disrupt traditional institutional practices in order to achieve widespread organizational change that would positively impact students and reduce equity gaps. Some faculty bristle at the overused phrase “student success” or are skeptical of the imposed new structure. These educators should remember that the fourth pillar is their domain, a part of the 10+1 areas of academic senate purview. Faculty have the opportunity to define, shape and implement their institutions’ Guided Pathways approaches to helping students succeed. The fourth pillar situates faculty as agents of improvement and designers of student-centered learning systems. That faculty have purview in this area is important because studies suggest that faculty can contribute to educational equity and increasing student success. Specifically, the research links success to intentionally designed courses and faculty-student interactions.
In one study, “transparency,” explained as, “structuring learning experiences to meet the needs of students,” improved underserved students’ educational experiences. In another study, the Center for Community College Student Engagement examined the experiences of men of color and identified four areas of importance for student success: personal connections, high expectations, instructor qualities such as showing interest in students, and engagement. If student success is tied to effective teaching and relationships, community college educators need to know how to design, assess, and evaluate the entire learning system, focusing not only what they teach but also on how they teach. This perspective creates a new set of goals or outcomes. In this system, student learning outcomes describe where faculty want students to go and allow faculty to measure whether the students got there, and equity outcomes are used to describe and measure faculty responsiveness to diversity while teaching. Based on Linton’s Equity Framework, equity outcomes applied to instructional design would include the following characteristics: expectations, rigor, relevancy, and relationships.
Work in the fourth pillar begins with faculty acknowledging their roles as the designers of the learning system and with a willingness to apply the equity framework to their design. This approach, too, is a fourth pillar imperative: to operationalize equity, create equity outcomes, and commit to instructional design practices that help faculty attend to diversity. For example, when built into the design of the learning system, SLO assessment may tell faculty to increase the amount of practice students need to develop a new skill, while equity outcomes assessment may reveal that students do not see themselves in the content. The goal is to create a learning system that simultaneously considers unique student needs and evaluates design elements such as outcomes, assessment, lesson plans, and the instructional environment. This new and equitable assessment and design intervention could prove an innovative strategy to improve teaching and learning. In addition, at its core this approach may help educators form a more complete picture of the learning system.
Guiding questions on instructional design: How will interactions in my classroom affect learning? In what ways is the content relevant and inclusive? Who are my students, and how will structured learning experiences reveal who they are? Are lessons and activities organized in a way that allow students to feel heard and respected? Why are activities and learning materials having the results indicated by learners? How are assessment practices considerate of student needs? How is trust-building promoted in this course? How are students given opportunities to interact with each other in a way that supports learning? At what intervals are students asked for feedback? How is data used to understand how to serve all students?
One of the most detrimental approaches to Guided Pathways is to limit the involvement of faculty, assign work to a specialized group that becomes conversant in the language of the movement, and reduce the knowledge and learnings for successful implementation to a few buzzwords or catch phrases in order to make it easy for the culture to embrace. Organizational change is not easy and requires a resilience, a type of tenacity that believes the work of building understanding is never complete. Kezar describes this activity in the change process as “sensemaking,” a way of understanding change and making it meaningful for stakeholders. In her study, college teams undergoing widespread change efforts made the most progress when faculty developed common understandings of their work relative to the change initiative, and campuses that stalled in their progress stopped giving their teams opportunities for sensemaking because they believed that task of understanding was complete.
An institution may fail to experience genuine faculty engagement that results in transformational change if it starts packaging essential functions and elements of Guided Pathways into phrases such as “equity mindset,” “ensure learning,” and “culture of assessment” hoping they will have meaning or be inspirational. Faculty may struggle to see themselves connected to Guided Pathways if they are not given opportunities to arrive at shared meaning, defining or learning what those words really mean and understanding how they are situated in the local context of their college. Faculty need time and space for sensemaking in order to fit into Guided Pathways as the instructional drivers of the redesign: building capacity for professional development, making assessment a useful practice, and designing equitable student-centered learning systems. Colleges should commit to a plan that includes activities for all faculty, part-time and full-time, to understand their roles in the redesign and encourage opportunities where faculty collectively shape and make sense of the fourth pillar.
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