When people think of faculty conducting research, they may imagine tenured professors working in laboratories behind ivy-covered university walls. Most community college faculty members are not pictured as a part of that scene. Often, the perception is that community college faculty are primarily classroom instructors, imparting their knowledge, offering assistance and holding office hours to help students learn. However, the faculty members at Tarrant County College have turned that image on its head by enthusiastically engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning.
In 2013, TCC’s Center for Teaching & Learning (CTL) launched the Mastery of Teaching Institute (MTI)—a research program for faculty members who are naturally curious, have a love of scholarship and are committed to excellence in teaching. This 18-month-long program develops a professional learning community among faculty inspired to learn more about what really works in teaching students. The MTI guides each cohort of participants through a rigorous process of selecting a targeted research topic, developing research questions, designing and executing a study and documenting the results in a scholarly article. Some have gone on to submit their articles for publication in discipline-specific journals.
The CTL facilitates monthly sessions to provide faculty with support and guidance throughout the program. In addition, the CTL partners with professionals in the TCC Office of Institutional Research (IR)—specifically, Holly Stovall and Colin Jenney—who bring an unparalleled level of expertise and competency to the program. This partnership ensures that faculty participants are supported through every phase of the program and the results can be seen in the culminating MTI Journal publication.
Some faculty members may come to the MTI with little formal research experience. Because of this, the MTI experience is one in which all participants engage in helping each other narrow their focus, find creative solutions to problems, encourage each other and use a peer-review process to ensure scholarly writing. “The meetings are valuable, especially if you have not done any scholarly writing outside of the research class you were required to take in college,” said Beverly Davis, an adjunct instructor of speech. “Having someone there who you can go to and ask questions and getting help in a supportive way, without being made to think your question is trivial… made it a very supportive environment.” Davis’ research is ongoing and is exploring correlations found between the academic performance of speech students and their scores on the Texas Success Initiative test.
The MTI research topics vary widely and range from simple observations of “Does teaching a unit this way work better?” to much more complex studies involving a tapestry of interrelated issues. Christina Ross, associate professor of speech, wondered if the academic performance of Early College High School (ECHS) students differed when they were in a class mixed with college students versus when they were in a class with only ECHS students. Her study found mixed results, complicated by campus differences as well as variances by class subject. Her results suggest that it may be wise for Early College High Schools to offer some ECHS-only classes in addition to mixed classes for certain subjects.
The MTI facilitates jumping back into research because participants know their experience is going to be one of collaboration – that they will have a team helping them every step of the way. This allows them to learn about the mechanics of research and scholarly writing while exploring a topic about which they are passionate. The process is designed to allow participants to get to know each other in a low-risk environment and to be able to provide helpful critiques, suggestions and comments in the spirit of scholarly colleagues. Laurie Ertle, an instructor of biology, said, “What I know about myself is that I need deadlines, and the meetings held me accountable for my research goals. It was helpful to brainstorm and … even if their research had nothing to do with mine, it was inspiring to see what others were doing.”
Ertle’s research project examined the impact of adaptive technology in community college classrooms. Many publishers bundle their textbooks for students with an online platform of modules, quizzes and instructional elements that are designed to enhance the student learning experience. But these are an added financial burden to the student, and Ertle wondered if the hype surrounding these costly elements was worth it. The data from her study showed that classes without the electronic adaptive learning technology had higher lecture success rates and slightly lower withdrawal rates. While the differences were small, it was certainly contrary to the publishers’ claims about the effectiveness of these products.
Some research projects do not involve a classroom experiment but instead, rely on historical data. For instance, Karen Haun, associate professor of accounting, conducted a study measuring the impact of course scheduling on student success and retention rates in Accounting and Macroeconomics courses. She studied the success rates and academic performances of students in 55-minute classes meeting three days a week and 80-minute classes meeting twice a week. It is a commonly held notion that the 80-minute classes allow for a more in-depth discussion, which could lead to greater academic gains. But Haun’s study found no appreciable differences between the classes.
A question that is occasionally asked of the MTI program is, “Will any significant changes ever occur as a result of any of these studies?” Of course, it would be unusual to propose college-wide changes in procedure or policy as a result of a single study. These steps must be measured against many other issues facing TCC. But it is clear that the TCC Board of Trustees members are impressed with the program. In a recorded Board meeting in 2016, Diane Patrick, assistant secretary of the board, said of the MTI program, “I think it’s especially exciting to think about the possibilities of research at the community college level.”
We know about the great research that takes place at … UTA and other four-year colleges, but the research that’s being done through the two-year colleges is kind of a well-kept secret right now. So we need to get that out there. The synergy that can be created by these partnerships when it comes to programs, when it comes to research, is something that will be greater than all of us.
Additionally, Louise Appleman, president of the TCC Board of Trustees, said in a recorded Board meeting of MTI research presentations, “You don’t think of a community college as a research institution, but certainly you all have changed that perception and we wish you well as you continue your work.”
The program began its fifth cohort this spring.