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The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

New Insights for Guided Pathways Reforms From Research on Community College Student Momentum

By Davis Jenkins and John Fink

new insights for guided pathways reforms

There is a growing body of evidence that early momentum—students’ earning a substantial number of college-level credits in their field of interest during their first year—is a strong leading indicator that a student will likely complete a college credential in a reasonable timeframe.

Recent research led by Xueli Wang of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping to identify the academic behaviors and college practices associated with community college students who achieve momentum on a path toward transfer and a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields of study. Her research is providing new insights for the growing number of community colleges nationally that are seeking to help more students navigate the path to postsecondary credentials by implementing “guided pathways” reforms.

In a recent chapter in the Higher Education Handbook of Theory and Research, Wang advances a holistic model to explain the mechanisms by which momentum may lead to higher rates of degree completion for community college students.

In empirical research leading to and informed by this model, Wang combines analysis of students’ transcripts and background data with surveys and interviews with students at different points along their paths to understand their educational aspirations, perceived self-efficacy as learners, classroom learning experiences, frequency of use of information and supports from the college, and financial and emotional support from family members and peers.

These data on students’ experience and perceptions, combined with an analysis of student characteristics and transcripts, enable Wang and her research partners to gain insight into the factors that propel some students and thwart others along the path toward a credential in their field of interest.

The findings from Wang’s research provide added evidence for practices that are central to the guided pathways model, while also deepening understanding about how colleges can better help students achieve their degree goals. Specifically, Wang’s research findings highlight the importance of three sets of guided pathways practices.

1. Ensure that students take a college-level course in a field of interest in their first term.

In a study published in 2016, Wang examined how course-taking patterns are related to whether or not community college students pursue transfer pathways in STEM. She analyzed survey and transcript data from a nationally representative sample of baccalaureate-seeking community college students who took at least one college-level STEM course in their first term and used data mining techniques to examine the connection of student characteristics and course taking patterns to whether the student transferred to a bachelor’s degree program in STEM or another field, or didn’t transfer at all.

A key finding from this research is that the early course-taking pattern most common among students who transferred to a bachelor’s program in STEM was taking a transferable STEM course in the first term, followed by math courses in subsequent terms. This finding is noteworthy since community college students are often encouraged to take math courses (often at the developmental level) as prerequisites to courses in STEM and other subject areas. It is consistent with the idea, emphasized in the guided pathways model, that students need to begin the process of exploring career and college interests from the start. One way to do this is to require that students take a college-level course in a field of interest in their first term. This way, they can see early on if they are excited about a particular field, and if not, they can continue to explore other areas.

Of course, to take a course in a potential major in their first term, there needs to be a mechanism for helping new students identify career and academic fields in which they have an interest. Redesigning the new student experience to enable students to explore career and college options, and develop a full-program plan by the end of the first term, is a central strategy of guided pathways reforms. Prerequisite remedial requirements can also prevent students from taking a college-level course of interest in term one. In light of the growing positive evidence for “corequisite” approaches that contextualize academic support into college-level coursework, colleges should explore how they can provide integrated supports in key college-level program gateway courses not only in math and English but in other subjects as well.

2. Give students ample opportunities to engage in active learning, particularly in required introductory courses in the student’s field of interest.

In another analysis, Wang and her colleagues looked at how active learning in required math and other STEM classes contributed to students’ intention to transfer in STEM. Wang surveyed students who entered two-year colleges intending to major in STEM or took college-level STEM courses in their first term. The survey gauged the extent to which students were engaged in various active learning experiences including critical thinking, problem-solving, questioning, or analyzing information in STEM courses required for their programs.

Using a path analysis of the survey data, Wang and her colleagues found that the experience of active learning in initial required STEM courses had a direct and positive effect on students’ intent to transfer in STEM. Moreover, the researchers concluded that active learning was associated with a stronger sense among students that they were capable of transferring, which in turn strengthened their intention to transfer. As Wang and her colleagues wrote, "For those who were interested in majoring in STEM, active learning experiences pulled them toward these fields instead of pushing them away."

For colleges seeking to strengthen pathways to success for students, these findings indicate that active learning is not only associated with better academic outcomes in students’ courses, as previous research has shown, but can also increase students’ motivation to progress in their programs. Colleges should therefore make every effort to ensure that introductory courses are well taught, including providing ample opportunities for students to explore questions, solve problems, and analyze information. The sense of confidence as learners that students gain from engaging in active learning and doing well academically helps them gain momentum in their field.

3. Scrutinize the equity implications of particular reforms.

Wang and two colleagues also studied how a college’s transfer services and students’ perceived support for transfer may affect students’ aspiration to transfer over time. They found that STEM majors and early STEM coursetakers who used transfer services increased their “transfer aspirational momentum toward STEM,” that is, their intent to transfer to a bachelor’s program in STEM. However, the effects of the amount of transfer service usage were not evenly distributed across student groups. Men who used more transfer services were more likely to sustain a commitment to transfer in STEM than were women who did the same. And White students, who had more perceived support for transfer, were more likely to maintain transfer aspirations, while Black and Hispanic students were less likely to do so. The implication for guided pathways is that colleges should scrutinize the effects of particular practices on different student groups and consider how they may need to be adjusted or targeted to benefit particular groups.

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The field needs more research of this sort that combines analysis of student progression patterns using student transcripts and demographic characteristics with data on students’ aspirations, experiences, and perceptions as they move along their paths. One reason that such research is rare is that it takes so much time and effort to do it well. We are grateful for the important work that Professor Xueli Wang and her colleagues have done along these lines and look forward to more important insights for guided pathways reforms from them.

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