First-year experience course leads to success

Aug. 03, 2014 @ 10:14 PM

In 2011, Devangana Sharma enrolled as a new student at Durham Technical Community College.
Having recently moved from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, her hometown in India, Sharma did not know what to expect when she arrived on the Durham Tech campus.  
A First Year Experience class (the ACA 122 course) at the college set Sharma on the right path.
The course, developed by Gabrielle McCutchen, assistant dean of student engagement and transitions and director of the Teaching- Learning Center, is designed to teach new students the ins and outs of college life at the college.
It is required of all new students entering Durham Tech who are pursing an associate’s degree and for most students in diploma programs.
“I was completely new and this was the first course I took at Durham Tech, so this course was helpful to me,” said Sharma, who transferred to UNC Chapel Hill to study computer science and is on track to graduate in the spring.
Sharma plans to enroll at N.C. State to pursue a master’s degree computer networking after earning her bachelor’s degree at UNC.
After graduating from high school in 2008, Fred Yarborough took about four years off from school before enrolling at Durham Tech in 2012 to begin work toward an associate’s degree.
Yarborough, who is still pursuing that degree (progress has been slowed some due to the birth of a child), said he quickly realized that his study skills had grown rusty.
“It (the ACA 122 course) helped me develop good study habits,” Yarborough said.
He said one of the things he remembers most about the course is that students were told that they should spend twice as many hours studying as the number of credit hours they take during any given semester.
“I found that to be extremely true,” Yarborough said.
McCutchen explained during an interview in her office last week that the course revolves around three major themes – goal discernment, learning and study strategies and college culture.
“This is a sophisticated and structured way for students to make decisions about their future,” McCutchen said. “We guide them through a lot of reflective activities as well as support their research about career options and academic options available to them.”
In addition, students learn very practical skills such as study skills, memory techniques, note-taking strategies, test-taking techniques, library skills and personal improvement strategies.
And McCutchen said the course has proven to be valuable for a wide range of students, from those who know they need more education but have not idea what they want to study to those who have done extensive research on professions and college transfer options.  
For those students who come to the college with a plan, McCutchen said the course is used to help them fine tune their goals.
“We’ve got students, for example, who know they want to study engineering at N.C. State,” McCutchen said. “We help them figure out what kind of engineering, how do you get to N.C. State and how to make sure your classes transfer with you.”
McCutchen was recently featured on the Achieving the Dream website for her work in creating and teaching the First Year Experience Course.     
Achieving the dream is a national initiative designed to help more community college students succeed academically.
Community colleges associated with the initiative pledge to work to better prepare students for college-level work by focusing on developmental education, making learning more relevant to students’ lives and teaching students skills such as time management and effective study habits. 
“We got started with this course with our affiliation with Achieving the Dream 11years ago,” McCutchen said. “We used that grant and that work to focus our attention on entering students’ experiences.”
The most recent data, for fall 2013 to spring 2014, show that 86 percent of the students in the target populations, which are those student who entered the college with fewer than 12 college credits earned and made an A, B or C in the course, returned to the college in spring 2014 versus only 58 percent for those who somehow managed to “escape” the course upon entering the college.
“There’s a big difference between 58 percent and 86 percent,” McCutchen said. “Taking the course and being successful in the course is yielding higher rates of success.”
McCutchen said many students, having gotten a more realistic picture of a particular profession during the course, change their minds about a particular program and pursue something different.
“The make pretty substantial changes based on information that they have learned from the course,” McCutchen said.
The course, which is offered each semester, generally enrolls around 900 students per semester.
Yarborough said it should be taught in all state-supported institutions of higher learning.
“It’s a great class,” Yarborough said. “It should be implemented at the university level as well.”