Give Students a Compass

Interim Grant Progress Report to
Walter S. Johnson Foundation

California State University Foundation
“Give Students a Compass”

February, 2013

(1) Accountability Plan

      The overall goal of the “Give Students a Compass” (Compass) project is to infuse “high impact educational practices” into the state’s higher education general education transfer curriculum, providing a more engaging and effective education in the first two years, which will reduce achievement gaps and improve retention and graduation rates. We are now just past the halfway point in the original 3-year period proposed to the Walter S. Johnson Foundation and the project continues to be on track to meet the performance measures.

      The inputs/capacity met or exceeded projections.  Currently, there are 6 pilot projects and 11 networking partnerships, involving 14 California State Universities (CSUs) and 25 California Community Colleges (CCCs). At our previous interim report (April 2012), student enrollments were slightly lower than expected, but they have now skyrocketed. As of January, 2013, those pilots and networking partnerships have reported reaching more than 2000 students in project-related courses. Through formal faculty development programs organized through project staff and/or participating campuses, at least 290 faculty members have participated to date. Many additional faculty members have attended Compass conference presentations and webinars.

      In terms of the proposed quality outcomes, the project is also progressing well, though challenges have been identified at several sites, leading to local changes and refinement of the overall Compass vision (to be discussed in the “Lessons Learned” section). All of the pilot projects and 7 of the 11 networking partnerships have implemented new and/or revised courses which include at least one high-impact educational practice and a focus on Essential Learning Outcomes ( identified by the LEAP Initiative of the Association of American College and Universities (AAC&U). Two of the pilot projects enrolled their first student cohorts in Spring, 2012 (CSU Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College; CSU Channel Islands and Oxnard College), while the other 4 pilots and 7 networking partnerships enrolled their first student cohorts in Fall, 2012.

      Assessment of pilot project outcomes is underway and our initial evaluation plans have been expanded. All of the pilot projects have been reporting their progress to us on a regular basis, focusing on what is/is not working as planned and on how they have been modifying those plans. We have not yet received data on their impact on student success measures (e.g., persistence rates, GPAs, and assessments of student learning outcomes). As noted in the original accountability plan, the timeline for completing these analyses is by the end of Year 3. We expect to be able to provide preliminary analyses based on the first full year of implementation by late spring, 2013. Several of the community colleges have run into challenges in obtaining persistence and GPA data from their institutional effectiveness offices. To address this issue, we are consulting with the RP Group on how they can help us obtain that information through the CCC Chancellor’s Office.

      To supplement progress reports and outcomes evaluations, we have added two teams of doctoral research fellows. Two Ed.D. candidates at CSU Long Beach are working under the guidance of Dr. Jonathan O’Brien on the qualitative experiences of students participating in pilots and control groups on three campuses (CSU Northridge, Pierce College, and Golden West College). Two Ed.D. candidates at CSU Sacramento are working under the guidance of Dr. Terry Underwood on a qualitative and quantitative study of the impact of creating e-portfolios in first-year experience classes on student learning outcomes and on student and faculty experiences at CSU Sacramento and Cosumnes River College. In addition, Dr. John Tarjan, a business professor at CSU Bakersfield and a member of the CSU Chancellor’s General Education (GE) Advisor Committee, is beginning telephone interviews with faculty and administrators at pilot campuses. We are also working with videographers from the Advanced Media Production Center at CSU Long Beach to document student and faculty experiences.

      The evidence about pilot projects outcomes outlined above is essential for documenting the effect/impact of this work at the participating CSUs and CCCs. However, to reach the broader potential of the project, we need to build a strong case for increasing the use of engaging, high-impact practices in GE throughout both systems, changing the GE transfer curriculum, and supporting more faculty development. The relatively short time-frame and modest scale of the pilot projects is too short to fully demonstrate how their innovative practices can improve student persistence, completion, and learning, particularly for those students who are most at-risk, regardless of major, academic preparation, or where they begin college. As the project has evolved, we have identified the need for additional evidence. One strategy that we have built into the broader Compass initiative is to tap into the expertise of the networking partnerships to help to evaluate the degree to which successful practices at the pilot campuses can be adapted in their local settings. A second strategy is to identify other sources of related research, which we have been doing through a range of educational organizations such as AAC&U, the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, the National Resource Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, and the RP Group. But we are also exploring possibilities for new research with several of these organizations and with other departments within the CSU and CCC system offices. The revised accountability plan for a two-year renewal grant proposes to incorporate the lessons from the Compass initiative to assist in the implementation of the new community college Associate Degrees for Transfer so that learning in GE and the major fits together more seamlessly.

      To assure that the impact of Compass continues beyond this project, we are continuously informing key constituencies about it through conversations with the GE Advisory Committee, Compass Steering Committee, grantees, statewide administrative and faculty leadership groups, and relevant state and national professional organizations. Our next statewide Compass meeting is slated for March 8-9, 2013, at Cañada College in Redwood City. We have also hired a faculty development specialist – a faculty member at both CSU East Bay and Las Positas College with extensive experience in GE, high-impact practices, and training – who is collaborating with campus faculty development directors and creating a new online “teaching commons” through MERLOT ( which will be launched in February and be sustained under the auspices of the GE Advisory Committee once this project has ended.

(1a) Revised Accountability Plan

      Not applicable. A new accountability plan is included with the accompanying proposal for a new 2-year grant.

(2) Lessons Learned

      In the previous interim report, we identified several major lessons learned. On the positive side, we found considerable eagerness on the part of many administrators and faculty to embrace pedagogical changes that can improve student success, good alignment between the project and other efforts in the CCC and CSU systems, and recognition that the project is on the “cutting edge” of developments in higher education. More challenging, we found structural and cultural barriers to changes in the GE curriculum, a need for investment in faculty development and change in reward systems, and budget issues. These lessons have helped to shape the evolution of the project.

      We have been capitalizing on the facilitating factors to strengthen bridges with related efforts like the Linked Learning Alliance, AAC&U’s Quality Collaboratives project, the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education’s Interstate Passport Initiative, and a 5-state project, “Mobilizing STEM Education for a Sustainable Future.” A particularly positive development is that several community colleges that are not directly supported through Compass have approached us to join in our work.

      The structural and cultural barriers to curriculum change have prompted some modifications in our approach. Based on the experiences of the projects and input from the steering committee, we have concluded that disseminating examples of best practices plus offering technical support is likely to be more effective than policy mandates in leading to faculty and administrative commitment to adopting high-impact practices.

      This strategy has led to some promising outcomes. For example, Golden West College drew on training from CSU Fullerton to add a service-learning component to 10 GE classes. West Valley College and SJSU have created GE learning communities focused on “global citizenship” in English and anthropology classes involving about 400 students. And CSU Northridge and Pierce College consulted with CSU Chico (a grantee in the first phase of Compass) on how to develop interdisciplinary GE “paths” with a civic engagement emphasis. Together, the two campuses reached 1159 students in fall semester in “paths” focused on social justice, global studies, and sustainability.

      The projects at Sacramento State and Cosumnes River College and at CSU Bakersfield, Bakersfield College, and Taft College are experimenting with assessing student learning outcomes in writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and/or oral communication. The former project used writing e-portfolios compiled by new Sac State transfer students from Cosumnes River to meet a GE writing proficiency requirement rather than taking an exam. The Bakersfield project is assessing critical thinking in GE courses addressing other content areas, which could help loosen the connections between individual courses and GE requirements. Both projects are important steps that pave the way toward allowing students to earn credit based on demonstrated learning outcomes. The GE Advisory Committee is open to considering waivers of existing credit requirements for future curriculum innovations with clear strategies to measure learning outcomes.

      A “lesson learned” from the first pilots to get underway was that the encouragement for the CSUs and CCCs to test parallel programs made them more complicated and less able to focus on site-specific conditions. Both the CSULA/ELAC project and the CSUCI/Oxnard project ran into difficulties coordinating joint efforts (a shared seminar, common service-learning placements, a common e-portfolio platform). They have subsequently modified their designs.

      To address the faculty development challenge, we have expanded this project component. As noted above, the new faculty development specialist has been working with a variety of groups to expand opportunities and is beginning an on-line MERLOT “teaching commons.” In the long-term, we are seeking ways to invest in ongoing faculty development to promote GE that increases student engagement.

      One emerging “lesson learned” appears to have major potential for improving GE. Interdisciplinary thematic GE “paths,” like the model currently being piloted at the CSUN-Pierce site, has surfaced in some form at many other Compass projects. Sustainability, health and wellness, global studies, and social justice are most common. Faculty, administrators, and students all have expressed enthusiasm for this approach. It has not been formally designated as a “high-impact practice,” but may warrant being added to that list if evidence indicates that it does increase retention and graduation rates and improve learning. The themes can be woven into courses in every GE area and address “big questions” which enhance their relevance. As we outline in the proposal for a new two-year grant, we believe that these themes may help to link GE with the majors in the new associate degrees for transfer.

      Another “lesson learned” is that many of the goals addressed by the GE curriculum also surface elsewhere across campus, in places like developmental education, co-curricular programs, and career/professional programs. Also, post-secondary educators are paying more attention to non-cognitive factors, like hope, self-efficacy, and fear, which affect student motivation. As we move ahead, we expect to look more closely at how Compass can build on the knowledge base in other places to increase student engagement and success.

Compass continues to draw much attention from from educational audiences around the state and the nation. As the largest U.S. university and community college systems, we find that others are eager to learn from our experiences.