Fast Track classes are a fairly recent addition to Glendale College’s many efforts to explore ways to ensure student success. Fast Track courses are part of a nationwide revolution in aiding students who test into developmental courses and are, therefore, at risk of failure – dropping out before advancing to transfer-level courses. Presenters at a 2013 CAP (California Accelerated Project) workshop noted that between 70 and 90% of incoming students entering community colleges assess below college level in English, math, or both. This problem is the worst for Latino and Black students, who comprise almost half of the California community college system’s total enrollment of 2.4 million, and more than 50% test three or more levels below the college level.
Fast Track courses—courses in which students complete two developmental levels in one semester, or a developmental level and a 101 level in credit ESL, English, and math—have been offered at Glendale College for a number of years now. In 2012, math had already begun its Fast Track program, and in October of that year, Gateway funded a proposal to create compressed learning community classes for ESL and English, giving Glendale College students the opportunity to complete several courses in one semester (e.g. in ESL, two writing levels, reading, and vocabulary; in English, two levels of writing and one reading course). Unlike accelerated courses, Fast Track courses provide students with the same number of instructional hours as if they were taking the courses spread out in any regular semester, translating into fewer semesters to complete coursework without shorting students of time with their instructors.
Fast Track students at Glendale work as a cohort and therefore enjoy a classroom bonding otherwise usually unavailable at a non-residential college; in addition, they take supplemental courses in critical thinking (previously unavailable at the developmental level) and library research. This is the third year that English students can complete two developmental levels in one semester, but this semester, for the first time, students are also able to take English 120 and 101 in one semester.
This compressed format results in numerous benefits. Caroline Sheldon, director of Research and Planning at Cerritos College, and Nathan R. Durdella, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at CSUN, in their article “Success Rates for Students Taking Compressed and Regular Length Developmental Courses in the Community College,” cited the benefits of the compressed course approach for those enrolled in basic skills classics, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity:
Higher student motivation
Student appreciation for more student-faculty interaction
Student and teacher experience of more in-depth discussions and experiential activities
Higher student retention
Higher participation in class discussion
Studies confirm these benefits. Why do compressed courses work? Rather than three or four multi-level courses before reaching college-level course, this set-up:
reduces exit points (the gaps between developmental classes, where students often give up)
gives students “less time to forget” content (they move through two levels in one semester, continuing to build their skills and deepen their retention in a subject area)
eliminates redundant material and allows students to keep their momentum to move them into more challenging material while basic skills material is still fresh
provides opportunities for the development of stronger student–instructor relationships and student-student relationships
Nikki Edgecombe, in her essay “Accelerating the Academic Achievement of Students Referred to Developmental Education” (Community College Research Center, Columbia University, Feb. 2011), cited the benefit of more relationship building and its positive effect on learning and added that while tutoring, SI sessions, conferences, and other interventions are helpful, studies have shown that eliminating the numerous exit points between levels is the most effective way of both strengthening student skills and retaining students in college (improving graduation rates).
CAP (the California Accelerated Project) began tracking students at 42 schools throughout California who teach with an accelerated or compressed English or math sequence; their studies reveal that students who enrolled in accelerated courses were more than four times as likely to complete college-level math as their peers in traditional remedial sequences. Furthermore, students in accelerated English and math classes pass their college level courses at a higher rate than those who follow the multi-level track all the way through.
Testing into a developmental class and facing possibly years of working through the levels of English, ESL, or math can be greatly discouraging, but Fast Track offers students hope of completing college in a reasonable period of time. Manifa Shahnazarian, a student currently enrolled in the English 191/120 Fast Track program, expressed initial disappointment in being placed in developmental English but explained how Fast Track gave her hope: “I was very frustrated to be placed in a lower English class and it got me so irritated because most of my friends got into high English classes. But . . . I can honestly say that being able to build everything into one little semester gave me a huge hope to succeed. I would really recommend this to any one that is stuck in lower class English. Seeing wonderful teachers working together helps us build our future and our grades.” Pedro Cortes, a student in the English 191/120 Fast Track course, concurred: “The fast track program is a great way to get all your English done in one semester. Instead of waiting to get into a college English class you can get it done in a semester and be in English 101 the next semester.”
Here at Glendale, Terence Yu is in the process of crunching the numbers for the long-range success of students in Fast Track course, but anecdotal reports from Fast Track instructors reveal that Glendale Fast Track courses are indeed improving results, confirming the success stories reported at other colleges.
The Value of Learning Communities
Student cohorts are also a large part of the success in Fast Track programs at Glendale. Teachers at Cerritos College and elsewhere offered anecdotal evidence regarding the benefits of learning communities, citing stronger attendance than average, lower attrition from the classes, and higher grade averages. According to authors Cathy Engstrom and Vincent Tinto in their article “Access Without Support Is Not Opportunity,” published in Change in the Jan/Feb. 2008 issue, after studying close to 6,000 students in thirteen two-year and six four-year colleges in eleven states (identified as having effective developmental learning community programs), “Academically under-prepared students in the learning communities were significantly more engaged in a variety of activities than similar students on their campuses, including classroom work . . . . Students in the learning communities were more academically and socially engaged.” Even in the very first English Fast Track in 2013 (English 191 and 120), 85% of the students passed the course (as opposed to a more common average of 50 – 60% under the same instructor). Students in English Fast Track classes report that bonding with students and studying interrelated material in English, reading, critical thinking, and library research connect them to both the material and their classmates in a way that gives their learning experience more meaning. Students don’t simply go to a class for a couple hours twice a week—they are engaged in interrelated material throughout their week, associating with classmates who share their assignments and investigations into topics, and are therefore immersed in more of a web of learning as opposed to engaging with discrete elements only occasionally during their week.
ESL instructor Kay Baldwin is teaching her third year of Fast Track courses and believes that Fast Track facilitates language learning—both spoken and written—and feels that learning communities develop comfort for her non-native speakers; it creates, as Dr. Pat Hironymous says, a kind of lingua franca for them.
A number of students in the English 191/120 Fast Track Fall 2015 program noted their appreciation for their cohort: Boeun Kim exclaimed, “I like having the same people in all of the classes because whenever I have questions for anything, I can ask them directly in person because we meet each other every day, so I think I do not only learn from the professor, but also from the students that I take class with.” Manifa Shahnazarian said that:
"The Fast Track program that we are a part of is an amazing program because it helps us get ahead in our education and be better learners. The students that are in our class are really nice and it is a blast to work with such wonderful individuals. Being able to build a bond and be with people that care for education and our friendship will make us better individuals in the future. When we look at other classrooms, we can see how students don’t interact with other students because they just have an hour with them and they won’t see them for another week. But with the fast track class the students in our classes room meet every single day and being able to see people for three months everyday will help us in the future and our achievements. "
Adjua Lake, newly arrived from the Virgin Islands, is able to give and receive help from her classmates; she explains, “Seeing the same classmates in every class is fine with me because you can get to in touch with anyone who can help you with the work in class if you don’t understand. For example, one of my classmates didn’t understand some of our class work . . . so I helped her as best I could.” Lissette Batz, wrote, “Having two English courses in one semester is really helpful. I'm positive that this will help me in my future classes here in GCC. This is a great program to be part of and has made things much easier and faster; also it is loads of fun. Being in the same classes and having the same people around is great. Everyone knows each other and seems to feel comfortable with what they have to say. It’s an amazing environment.”
While the bonding in cohorts has proven an invaluable benefit, the opportunity to interconnect materials is another important advantage in learning communities. For example, in Fall 2014, Nancy Getty (library), Emily Fernandez (reading), and Denise Hagerty (writing) worked closely on course content. In her reading class, Ms. Fernandez taught the novel Frankenstein, and Ms. Hagerty assigned readings on monsters in our culture exploring what we fear, why we fear, and how fears are often culture-specific. In both classes, the readings led to discussions of difference, including attitudes toward those with disabilities (and “freak shows” of the not-so-distant past), attitudes about race (and how Blacks were once seen as “monsters” and how that perception worked its way into literature and film), and attitudes toward mental illness (and the need to maintain a large distance from those who are mentally ill since mental illness could “happen” to anyone and therefore presents a very real fear). These discussions, in turn, dovetailed with English 193 and the unit on emotional intelligence, which Ms. Fernandez then connected to a discussion about whether Victor Frankenstein did or did not have strong emotional intelligence. Ms. Getty created research assignments in her library course based on content in both Fernandez’s and Hagerty’s classes. Fall 2015 English 191/120 student Giselle Cortez noted, regarding the interrelated topics, “You get to see how although every class is a different course title in English, they are somehow all related. You can relate ideas being taught in one class with another, when you’re discussing different topics.” Arlete Ghazaryan, another 191/120 student, said, “The assignments given to us have amazing topics to learn about. We not only learn about English, but we have very interesting discussions, especially in English 193. The essays given to us to write in English 191 have the most interesting topics and make you want to actually learn about them.”
A number of instructors offer other important innovations to their Fast Track courses. In the fall of 2014, reading instructor Emily Fernandez incorporated mind mapping into her course. In mind mapping, students create visual diagrams to organize connected information. In the case of Fast Track students in her class, they created diagrams showing connections between their novel Frankenstein, the essays from writing class on monsters and their connection to varying forms of discrimination, and their critical thinking concepts of emotional intelligence and human connection. Students enjoyed the mind mapping immensely and displayed their diagrams for the public to enjoy.
Elizabeth Bryer, who teaches the English 120/101 Fast Track (and its paired critical thinking course), has integrated principles of “growth mindset” into her course. Growth mindset, a term coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, describes the idea that students’ ability to progress is not set in stone, but rather that hard work and effective strategies can develop intelligence and skills; motivation can transform individuals’ ability to progress. By learning basic principles of neuroscience (e.g. neuroplasticity—the brain CAN change), students are “more likely to persevere in facing challenges and setbacks, [whereas] people with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up when faced with difficulties.” One of Bryer’s students, Josselin Fuentes, said this of Growth Mindset and Fast Track:
"I think fast track has helped me improve a lot not only in English but also with my mindset. I think being in Fast Track with other students has helped me overcome challenges because I get to learn something from them every day. Since we are in all of the same classes, I feel comfortable being around them . . . . I would recommend Fast Track to other students because it's an easier environment to work in. You get to work with the same people and it is easier to focus on one subject."
In the summer of 2015, in the interest of bolstering the support of developmental students even more, Dr. Pat Hironymous applied for and received a Student Equity grant for embedded tutoring. Embedded tutors work both in the classroom with students and in the Learning Center, playing traditional tutor roles. The Fast Track for English 191/120 includes two embedded tutors, one who works in the classroom on group work days (Manoush Krikor), and another who works in the classroom on days they are writing in the English lab (Christina Grigorian). Students have warmed beautifully to their peer tutors (both of whom also work in The Learning Center as tutors specifically for the one Fast Track class). Christina said of her role as tutor, “The job of an embedded tutor teaches much about the roles of a teacher. I've become aware of just how vital the answering of one simple question is. It can either guide a student or confuse them to the point of no return. Being able to be in a class room setting and help students who are in the process of learning is so much fun. I have done traditional tutoring in high school, but I truly believe that in-class tutoring is far more beneficial to students.”
It is a win-win-win situation: instructors have support in the classroom during group work and tutors in the lab who have specifically studied the class material; students get tutoring from individuals who are fully familiar with the course material (and from tutors who have had the instructor for previous classes and are clear on the instructor’s expectations for essays); tutors get valuable experience as paraprofessionals, both in the classroom and the tutoring center.
Shant Shahoian, director of the Learning Center, has worked closely with Pat Hironymous to make the embedded tutoring program happen by referring tutors to the various tracks and by giving Fast-Track-only tutors a professional environment in which to work. Elizabeth Bryer notes that in addition to students working with her embedded tutors, some of her students have appreciated a valuable recent addition to the Learning Center: Smart Thinking. Bryer reports that Smart Thinking has been a special boon for those students who find it hard to ask for help from a face-to-face tutor.
Commendations to all the Glendale instructors (and embedded tutors) working closely with one another and with students to increase the chances of success for Glendale students. As hairdressers are quick to say, “Change is good.” Fast Track is an enormous boon to students testing into the developmental level. As Nikki Edgecombe noted, “The accelerated structure complements the reframing of developmental education teaching and content and acknowledges the complicated lives of many students by purposefully reducing the time required to complete these academic requirements.” English 191/120 student Cynthia Cruz stated it simply when she explained, “Fast Track will help others improve the English skills, such as reading, writing, and using citations and will help with your critical thinking skills as well. It will help new freshmen to improve, like it’s helping me.”
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