Teaching & Learning Champions 09: Impact of Guided Pathways on Academic Plans & Course Scheduling
March 10, 2020
Today on Teaching & Learning Champions, we’re joined by Dr. Gaye Lynn Scott, AVP Academic Programs & Nova Fritts, College Schedule Coordinator. We’re talking about the Role of Guided Pathways on Academic Plans and Course Scheduling.
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Matthew Evins: Welcome to another episode of Teaching Learning Champions. I’m Matt Evins, director of instructional technology and digital resources in the Teaching and Learning Excellence Division at ACC. Today, I’m joined by Gaye Lynn Scott, associate vice president of academic programs, and Nova Fritts, college schedule coordinator, as we talk about the role of Guided Pathways on academic plans and course scheduling. Gaye Lynn and Nova, thank you for joining me today.
Gaye Lynn Scott: Thank you for having us.
Matthew Evins: Gaye Lynn, let’s start with you. Teach us a little bit about how Guided Pathways plays a role in helping students develop academic plans of the college?
Gaye Lynn Scott: I’m going to start by doing what I like to do sometimes, which is go back to the 20th century when I was a student. I went to college fresh. I graduated in May and started college in June. I went to college as a math major. No one said, “Hey Gaye Lynn, why do you want to major in math? What are you going to do with that math degree? Have you thought that through? Have you mapped it out? Do you have a plan?” So I started as a math major, and in my first or second semester as a freshman in college, I took a required US government course, and I fell in love, and I took another political science course and the love was real. So I switched my major to political science. I meandered my way through a four-year degree and people said, “What are you going to do, Gaye Lynn, are you’re going to be a lawyer?” No, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I loved political science and I studied it. So then I got a master’s degree, because I like to be a student and learning. When I was a graduate student working on my master’s program, I got to be a teaching assistant, and I discovered the joy that is a classroom, especially when you’re in charge and everybody is paying attention to what you have to say. That is a typical story, I think, for many of us, meandering from one thing to another to find what you love, and then figure out what you want to do with it. The notion of Guided Pathways is that we need to allow our students to explore, but we need to do it in a more organized and directive way, so that they’re not meandering their way out the door, or transferring to a four-year school with 40 semester credit hours that don’t apply to their degree. So the idea is that students have a clear pathway when they walk through the door, that allows for some exploration of their interest in some engagement in the academic or career community they think they want to pursue. We have programs mapped to living wage jobs or to specific transfer institutions, so that they’re taking courses that makes sense for their transfer plans. We help them make an informed choice. We help them make purposeful choices about their programs and their courses, and early on, we grab them. The way that government course grabbed me, we want students to be grabbed by a course in their area of interest to really remind them why they’re in college. If necessary, we’re going to offer co-requisites that help them move through and into college credit courses as effective learners. What we really want in their first semester is for them to think through their basic educational goals and career goals, and map out their plan for how they’re going to achieve those goals.
Matthew Evins: Great. Nova, as this college schedule coordinator, I’m sure that there’s a lot that goes into making sure that like Gaye Lynn said, that students aren’t meandering between classes, and that the schedules are created in a way that allows students to flow from one to the next. So can you talk a little bit about what types of intricacies or maybe things that are unknown to faculty and staff at the college about how the courses are scheduled within ACC?
Nova Fritts: Sure. So one thing that I’m really focused on is getting on the grid. So we have what we call standard meeting patterns. So instead of starting your class at 9:05, at 9:15, we’d like to stick to the same pattern if possible. Not only so we’re not wasting space in the classrooms and they’re sitting there empty for 30 minutes, but it also helps students register for one class, then the next class and plan their schedules. This type of tight organized scheduling has a direct correlation with student completion rates. So this is something we’ve learned from some of the experts at Ad Astra, which is our college scheduling system. As we think about this grid and standard meeting patterns, it seems to be common sense. We’re like, “oh sure, everyone’s on board.” But if we really take a step back and look at the bigger picture of the schedule, we start to see how adult education classes might come in and cause a problem. Some internal staff meetings or the CE classes, maybe spanning across multiple terms, and so getting everyone on board with this more organized grid wherever possible. If you can adjust your class for that five minutes, it will really help us utilize our space more efficiently and help our students across the board, whatever bucket they are in.
Gaye Lynn Scott: I might just piggyback on what Nova said and take it up a notch or two. When I was a department chair here at ACC, we roll this schedule. We’ll go back to when I was a department chair, fall of 2000, and roll to fall of 2001. I looked at how we did in fall of 2000, where we were full, where we were low in enrollment, and I made tweaks around the edges. But it was me sitting at my computer looking at a spreadsheet, tweaking the government department’s course schedule for the next fall. I never talked to my colleagues who were chairs of the history department or the psychology department. I never talked to my colleagues in other dean areas who were chairs of the English department or the philosophy department. We never sat down across disciplines and across dean areas to say, how can we best serve our students? Because we know our students aren’t just taking classes with me. They’re taking a history class and an English class, and a science class, and an art class, and have we built that schedule very intentionally to support not only their ability, as Nova says, to take classes in an intentional and sequential way on the clock, but also in an intentional and sequential way on their program maps, and that’s a very complex challenge, to get people to work with each other across campuses, across disciplines, across dean areas to build schedules that help students make progress in their programs.
Matthew Evins: This question is really for either of you, have you noticed any changes in how the academic plans have changed since ACC’s adoption of Guided Pathways? I mean, it hasn’t been that long since we adopted Guided Pathways. So what changes, if any, have you seen in the development of academic plans?
Gaye Lynn Scott: So in terms of program maps or degree plans, so that’s where-
Matthew Evins: Sure. Yeah.
Gaye Lynn Scott: We have long had a semester by semester sequence that we call a degree plan. You can pull out a catalog from 30 years ago and it’ll say, take these four courses in semester 1 and these five in semester 2. So in a way, we’ve always had a program map, but what we never did very effectively was steer students more specifically. In the core curriculum for instance, there are 45 science courses in the life and physical sciences section of the core curriculum. We didn’t intentionally say, if you’re a history major, you had been a bit from this geography course or this geology course or this biology course. We didn’t say if you’re a social sciences major, you should take a statistics course rather than an algebra course. So within all of those core component areas, we didn’t give much direction to students, and they were swimming in a sea of choices. There are probably 50 options in the core component area section. So one of the things we did early on was try and really give students more direction. You can think about it in different ways. If you want to visualize the lane in the bowling alley, what do we put up for new bowlers? We put bumpers up so that their balls don’t go in the gutter. I used to tell the story of my GPS in my car. It always let me pick fastest, shortest, easiest. So we’re not trying to tell students there’s only one direction to go, but we’re trying to keep them in the lane, so to speak, keep them on the route moving forward. Part of that means giving them three choices rather than 30 choices, that sort of thing. That’s been intentional. Then the other piece I think is thinking more intentionally about our primary transfer institutions. Texas State is our primary transfer institution for most of our programs, and looking at how they have their four-year degrees mapped out so that we can take that into account is we’re refining our academic maps for students.
Matthew Evins: Now, from a scheduling standpoint, have you noticed any changes in the last couple of years since the college has adapted Guided Pathways?
Nova Fritts: I’ve seen a couple of things that I think are fairly new or are fairly new focus for the college like eight-week courses so that you can go ahead and knock out your History I and History II, your Government I, Government II, in one semester instead of over a span of a year’s time, which for me a big focus is just reducing waste in all areas. So if we can speed up that process for students, they don’t have to take the traditional semester route, offering some Friday classes, thinking about more online offerings, and just preparing for the student need, and making those decisions based on student-driven data. So our new Platinum Analytics tool allows us to really drill in to specific student academic plans and see how many students are slated to take a certain course and where you might need to offer more courses. So instead of doing what we’ve always done, we’re taking a look at real data to support the real students in what they really need, whether they’re transferring, or they want to just graduate quickly, or get a certificate and get out there and get a job, thinking about different ways to make the schedule easier, more options for them.
Gaye Lynn Scott: I would add to what Nova said, a significant challenge that’s just really presented itself in the last couple of years is co-requisites in developmental education. It’s a good thing for our students. We’re serving them much more effectively by pairing a developmental math course with a college credit math course so that they can learn and have that just in time remediation where they need it and succeed in one semester in a college credit math course instead of taking one or two semesters of developmental math. The same thing in a college-level reading and writing course. We’re pairing an integrated reading and writing section with a comp one course. But that is a complex scheduling challenge that we’re still working through. Our broad goal when we launched Ad Astra, and Nova was there at the birthing of this Ad Astra movement, we’re trying to get away from rolling the schedule and just doing what we’ve always done. We articulated our vision, which is to help students get the right class at the right time in the right sequence to complete their educational goals. That is what we should all be focused on and Nova is really helping us get there with her deep understanding of Ad Astra and what it can do for us.
Matthew Evins: It’s a very complex tool, so it certainly takes a lot. What feedback have you heard from faculty on academic plans and how they’ve changed since Guided Pathways and not only from the faculty side, but feedback from students as well? How have they’ve been impacted and how do they feel about all those?
Gaye Lynn Scott: It’s all over the map, I think. I’m not sure some faculty are that aware of the efforts we’re trying to make around scheduling or I think they are aware more of the changes we’ve made to program maps because those go through shared governance processes. The department faculty members get together and discuss and brainstorm. Some departments have really struggled with the notion of restricting student choices. Some departments have long been committed to letting students fly free within various core component areas and letting students figure out what interests them or what to do. Behavioral economists will tell you that if you have too many choices, you can’t choose at all. It’s The Cheesecake Factory sort of challenge. You have to turn so many pages and there are so many things on the menu, you just, “Never mind, I’ll just get a hamburger.” You just go with the tried and true. So we’re trying to find that the balance between allowing students some flexibility but also guiding our students who many of them are first generation, they don’t have some of the social capital that maybe I brought to my first college semester because I was raised by a father who was a college professor and a mother who had a bachelor’s degree. From students, I think students are continuing to try and figure it out. We can’t always predict why students take the classes they take. We give them our best guidance. You should start with course A and course B, and then in the second semester, try courses C, D, and E, but they go out and they talk to a friend who says, “Well, I’m going to take course F and this faculty members are really good so take that with me.” So we’re trying to help students understand that we map out these plans intentionally so they can really build their academic muscles, they can really gain in their understanding of how to learn and what it means to be an effective and successful college student, and really not take toxic course combinations, not overload themselves. So I think we’re still trying to figure out the student perspective on this and help them understand that we’re trying to help them succeed. Students will tell you, I think, that they would rather not go from one campus to another to build a course schedule that meets their needs. So we’re trying to figure out how we can be more responsive to that. There’s a lot of input and feedback that we get from faculty and from students. Faculty are on the front lines with our students and we listen to them because they talk to students in a way that those of us who are building the schedule may not, so they give us good feedback. We’re also trying to balance faculty preferences with student preferences. It’s a little too easy sometimes to just always want to teach what you’ve always taught. So we’re trying to think that through too.
Matthew Evins: Nova, I don’t know how much interaction you have with specific faculty or individual faculty members, but if you’ve got any feedback from the department as a whole when it comes to building out schedules for the departments through Ad Astra.
Nova Fritts: I’ve heard some positive feedback from certain department chairs because our new product, Ad Astra, offers a lot of reporting that we didn’t have in the past. So instead of pulling a report from a system and going through different spreadsheets and e-mailing those back and forth, everyone can log into the same tool, see their enrollment rates, we can customize reports for departments, we’ve customized reports for different types of coordinators, for different areas of the college, and I’ve been focused also on documenting or scheduling procedures in general so that we can see what are we doing today and how can we streamline this to make it easier. There’s tons of information available at ACC, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to find. So people that have worked on the schedule for many, many years such as my awesome boss, Diane, who knows everything, has this wealth of information in her brain and documentation all over. So I’m trying to put together a handbook for department chairs so that you know for different buckets of classes, what the instructions are, where to go. So far, the feedback has been really positive. Change is not always easy. So I think there is a little hesitation, are we going to use this system to eliminate jobs or anything like that? No, we’re doing it to support your students in the best way possible, so that you have the information you need to make decisions based on data and not just based on what we think we’ve done in the past.
Matthew Evins: That’s a great segue to the last on-topic question I have, which is, are there any other projects or initiatives around academic plans or course scheduling that are either coming up in the future or currently happening that people may not know about that you want to plug or let people know?
Gaye Lynn Scott: I can think of a couple of things really quickly. Our Board of Trustees is really interested in seeing us serve a variety of students. They believe that we’re not effectively serving working adults who might want evening classes or weekend classes, or students who might be able to arrange their work and life schedule around just taking classes on Fridays. So in fall of 2020, we’re going to try some new things to see if we can bring in some additional students or if we can serve our students more effectively. We’re going to try and very intentionally craft a Friday-only schedule around core curriculum progression. We’re going to try and offer more evening classes that start at seven or later. We used to have a thriving evening student population and that’s declined some. So we’re going to do some experimenting there. We just got a report around our Open Educational Resources Degree Initiative. This goes back to a grant from the achieving the dream that it started in 2016. It started in the summer of 2016 and ran through December of 2018. With that grant in concert with Alamo colleges, San Jacinto College, and El Paso Community College, we built out two, what we call Z-Degrees. Two degrees that students can, if they follow the right pathway, complete with zero-textbook cost classes. What we had done is schedule that Z-Degree explicitly. Does that make sense? So we have a general studies associate of arts degree. We have a general studies associate of science degree. There’s a lot of flexibility in those degrees to take what you want to complete the six required semester credit hours. The Z-Degree isn’t as flexible because it’s very directive. Take this course and look for Z classes, and then take this course and look for Z classes. We’ve never intentionally scheduled the Z-Degree, shall we say, at a campus. Start here at this campus and complete the general studies Z-Degree in two years. That was highlighted in a report from Achieving The Dream that looked at that OER Degree Initiative work. So that’s something we’re thinking about. Those kinds of things, to schedule intentionally around progression through a degree, rather than just throwing it all against the wall and hope students find it in the right order at the right time.
Matthew Evins: Nova, anything else?
Nova Fritts: I think from the scheduling perspective, one of the huge changes coming up is our investment in a new ERP system, which I’m sure a lot of people have heard about. But basically, our schedule has been built in this system at Lucien college for a really long time. So now that we’re moving in the future toward a new system, I think there’s an opportunity to help streamline that scheduling process with this new tool, maybe we can build in some request forms. So everyone’s using the same form, the same format, providing the same information, so that there’s not a lot of back and forth with emails and making sure we’re doing things the same way. Ad Astra is also doing some improvements with their products. So we’re using Platinum Analytics today, but there’s a new product called Monitor, which is supposed to be a similar thing, but more real-time, user friendly visualizations. So department chairs can look in the same system at the same time. You can also tag people within that system and say, ”Hey, you should probably take a look at this class. It’s filling up really quickly.” So I’m really excited to see what that has to offer. We’re also taking a look at our administrative roles. Some of these have been around for many years. So let’s take a look at what we have documented as far as procedures and our terms and what are the rules for scheduling across a fiscal year or something like that. So making sure our procedures and rules are updated so that everyone’s on the same page and we’re all moving towards that goal of building the best schedule for a student’s success.
Gaye Lynn Scott: I might just piggyback on that. I keep doing that, sorry Nova. Remind me of other things. But a lot of folks would like to see students be able to plan out their semesters in student planning or in the new ERP when we bring it on board, so that students can say, in the fall, I will take these four courses, and in the spring, I will go ahead and plan these three courses. It’s not just the course, but this section. A lot of folks think that if we could allow our students to plan out maybe a year’s worth of their course-taking, that would help them organize their work obligations and their family obligations. But you can only plan out a year’s worth of course-section taking if we have a schedule that’s developed a year at a time. So I don’t know, we may see where we go with that, what pursuit.
Matthew Evins: That’d be really-
Gaye Lynn Scott: Yeah.
Matthew Evins: That’d be very interesting to see how that affects student retention processors. Well, last question I have is not related, but what’s your Riverbat pride for this week or last week, since it’s early in the week?
Gaye Lynn Scott: Go first.
Nova Fritts: So my riverbed pride is every morning driving to work, seeing all this construction going on. Sounds odd, but I’m so excited to be a part of the change in the community in this area. I’m a fifth generation Austin-y, a former ACC student. So anyone who’s lived here for a long time has seen Highland Mall, the changes this neighborhood has gone through, and I’m really excited about the positive impact ACC and our partners are having on this community. I’m really proud to be a part of that, supporting something positive.
Matthew Evins: Okay.
Gaye Lynn Scott: I’m going to circle back to where we started. We were talking about the impact of Guided Pathways, the focus of Guided Pathways, and the focus is the student. I know we’re always focused on our students, but Guided Pathways made us ask constantly, why? Why do we do it that way? Why do you roll this schedule? Why? It really made us think with fresh eyes and looking at problems differently. How can we better help our students not just come through our door? We’ve always been great at letting them come through our door, but how can we better help them start effectively, persist and complete to meet their goals? I think that constant asking of the question why in the last three and a half years is the reason for my Riverbat pride point, which is we are doing great work. We recently received the Star Award for our Z-Degrees, we’ve been recognized by Achieving the Dream for our exemplary work. We received recognition from excellency in education, and we’re in the second round of the Aspen Prize. That’s not insignificant. That says all this effort and churning and innovation and changing and rethinking and re-imagining has really been about helping our students, because you don’t get those awards and recognitions without the students succeeding in what they’re trying to do. So that’s a long winded version of pride.
Matthew Evins: No, that’s a lot to be prideful for.
Gaye Lynn Scott: Yeah.
Matthew Evins: So that’s great. Well, that wraps up another episode of Teaching and Learning Champions. Don’t forget that you can view blog posts for each episode on the TLED website. I also encourage you to subscribe to the ACC district podcasts on any of your preferred podcast apps, or listen to individual episodes on the TLED website. Thank you for tuning in and we’ll chat next time on TLC at ACC.
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