As four-year universities transition away from basic skills instruction, community colleges have become primarily responsible for fulfilling this service for students.
Community colleges are beginning to implement new programs in the hopes of dramatically improving students’ academic preparedness for university-level curriculum. Many of these academic programs depend upon the creation of new technically sophisticated learning centers. These student success centers are designed to engage community college students in a variety of disciplines and interactive learning environments, and extend the learning experience beyond the classroom to a more personalized setting.
Student success centers provide individualized learning opportunities through workshops, tutoring, directed-learning activities and study groups with the goal of preparing students for rigorous college-level coursework. The most effective ones feature full-time instructional leadership and trained assistants to help students successfully complete their coursework.
These facilities can be located in a freestanding building or in dedicated rooms within a larger building on campus. But, the objective of a SSC is usually the same: to inspire connectivity among students, enhance the learning experience and pave the way for future academic success.
The physical space of a SSC often dictates how that objective is accomplished. Two exemplary community college SSC models demonstrate a clear relationship between architectural design and the successful academic preparation of students.
Chaffey College, California’s oldest community college in Rancho Cucamonga, and East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, have developed several success centers on campus during the last 10 years. The success of their physical design directly impacts academic success, and vice versa.
The main consensus among college planners is that the physical environment should be flexible and designed for multiple uses in order to encourage interdisciplinary communication and individualized learning options.
Large, open spaces can be used for individualized tutoring but noise should be considered. Soft, living-room style seating, carpeting and movable acoustic room dividers are easy solutions for reducing noise.
Open workshop environments, with tables and chairs, as well as plenty of whiteboards that can be reconfigured for group instruction, cross-learning and speaking engagements also provide a variety of instructional opportunities. Other physical elements that impact the learning experience include breakout spaces for smaller groups of eight to 15 students and private study spaces for confidential tutoring or counseling.
Chaffey College, which developed the first SCC-focused programs in the United States, currently supports eight centers on campus for Math, Writing, Language, Reading/Multidisciplinary Studies and Reading/Writing. These centers are quite different from most learning environments because they not only offer tutoring and resources, such as computers and software, but also offer curriculum that is required and designed by the faculty to complement the traditional classroom learning experience.
Individualized and specialized learning formats, such as directed learning activities, small group study, and interactive workshops, are also part of the Chaffey success center program.
Each center on campus offers approximately 300 workshops per term and targets specific skills — not disciplines.
“We designed them that way so students understand the interconnectedness of their educational experience,” says Laura Hope, interim dean of instructional support at the college.
The architecture of many SSCs mirrors this interconnectedness by incorporating a mixture of large, medium and small spaces into the overall physical layout, which can be accessed by any student in any discipline. Likewise, the flexibility of the layout gives students of all abilities an opportunity to learn basic skills at their own pace and style.
Accessibility and Connectivity
East Los Angeles College adapted the SSC model to meet a slightly different set of needs. The college’s program supports five centers on campus: MESA (Math, Engineering, Science, Achievement), a Mente Lab (for math students), a multi-disciplinary learning assistance center, non-credit learning lab (for ESL students), and a writing center.
The programs currently share spaces, but all offer computers. Many ELAC students come from a household with an annual income below $36,000 and often do not have computers at home, according to school officials.
“Our success centers typically offer students their only access to computers, e-mail and social networking,” says Richard Moyer, vice president of academic affairs at the college.
HGA Architects and Engineers recently designed a new 118,000-square-foot math and science complex on campus. Fundraising efforts are now under way for the new facility, which will include a success center inside the building for math students.
The center is designed to accommodate groups of various sizes and individual study. A large computer lab can host self-taught programs and one-on-one tutoring, while classrooms for individual workshops accommodate 15 to 30 students.
“Engaging students is a very important part of the success of student success centers,” Moyer says. “We need to convince students of their importance. Once they are engaged, they see the value of using these centers.”
In addition to the technology component of ELAC’s math and science SSC, the design will further engage students by creating a comfortable living room-type space: computers and soft seating around the outer edge of the room, with tables in the center for learning.
Accidental gathering spaces — atriums, open stairwells with spacious landings, communal gathering spots and outdoor plazas — also invite students to interact with each other day and night. These points of connection encourage open discussions among peers and faculty, and complement the existing interactive learning environment already present within ELAC’s current academic success program.
The knowledge gathering doesn’t stop the minute students walk out the door, but extends outside the building and continues as students move throughout campus.
Leading by Design
Studies have shown that SSCs improve student achievement across enrollment status, gender and ethnicity. Since 1999, Chaffey’s systemwide program has gradually improved student performance across its three campuses in Chino, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga.
The graduation and certification rates have more than tripled for students who started college in a foundation-skills class. The flexible design has contributed to the college’s success.
At the Chino and Rancho Cucamonga success centers, students had a 12 percent higher success rate than students who did not use the Centers, while Fontana reported a 6 percent higher success rate. Similarly, ELAC students who use the success centers on campus are more likely to finish classes and successfully transfer to a four-year university, Moyer says.
“The personal contact of student success centers makes a big difference in student retention on campus,” Moyer says. “These centers are a home away from home for many students.”
James Matson, AIA, is associate vice president and director of higher education at the Los Angeles office of HGA Architects and Engineers.