November 8th, 2022
GC Learning Commons model increasing student success
Student-centered philosophy, integrated services drive improvements
Garrett College's Learning Commons model has been a huge success – and the project's leaders have the numbers to prove it.
The GC Learning Commons – which integrated all of the College's student support services and emphasized cross-training of support staff – was instituted in 2017. Since then, midterm deficiencies have dropped more than 25 percent, including new record lows in midterm deficiencies over the last three fall semesters. End-of-term academic deficiencies have declined 21 percent over the same time period.
Garrett College also leads the state in all four major graduation/transfer categories tracked by the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) – and leads each category by at least 11 percent, as reported last February by MHEC.
Ashley Ruby, director of the Advising and Academic Success Center (AASC), and Learning Commons Director Jenny Meslener said implementation of the Learning Commons model has been a key to improving GC students' success metrics.
"Academic support services are extremely accessible and right at students' fingertips," said Meslener, who co-presented with Ruby about GC's Learning Commons initiative at the National College Learning Center Association (NCLCA) Conference last month. "By removing barriers to student support access, the Learning Commons has been better positioned to efficiently serve student needs in a timely manner."
"The Learning Commons has taken some pretty big steps to help increase student awareness of and ease-of-access to student support services," said Ruby. "For example, prior to the Learning Commons transition, tutoring occurred in concealed rooms, was not widely publicized, and only served two areas of need: writing and math.
"The development of the Learning Commons strategically placed tutoring as a critical priority," Ruby explained. "Tutoring was relocated to a highly visible location in the center of the physical LC space."
Ruby said enhanced collaboration with GC's Financial Aid Office also has been beneficial to students.
"That collaboration allowed for the use of federal and institutional work-study funds to hire more tutors, and, in turn, provide support for additional content areas," said Ruby. "Tutoring services were also expanded to provide virtual support. Library-related student support services followed this model in a similar fashion."
Meslener said the Learning Commons team assesses the effectiveness of their operation "semester-by-semester" in order to "adapt to the everchanging needs of Garrett College students."
"If we encounter any problems or issues, we are able to pivot quickly to address and correct those issues," said Meslener.
While implementing the Learning Commons structure was the starting point, Meslener said building a cohesive team was an absolute essential. That process featured motivating, empowering, and nurturing a team that includes library staff, academic success specialists, academic advisors, and tutors.
"Providing cross-departmental training activities and team-building events allowed the team to become closer and unified under the mission of student success," said Meslener, who also co-presented with Ruby at September's Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) annual conference. "Learning Commons potlucks, hosting a fall rumble, and interactive bulletin boards have allowed the team to bond in fun ways but still maintain the core of why we are all here."
Ruby and Meslener have instituted Friday lunchtime yoga, a community lunch table, a GC Book Club, and flexible, partial telework options to help create the team atmosphere they were seeking. Other team-centric activities include celebrating Tutor Appreciation Week, National Library Workers Day, and other similar special events.
Small gifts of appreciation – such as the Best.Team.Ever – Garrett College Learning Commons coffee mug – also help create a team-like atmosphere.
"The key to building a student-centric culture featuring a strong, positive team atmosphere is to corral the team around a central goal: student success," said Ruby. "Each member of the team has appropriate levels of creative freedom to interpret and apply their own, individual meaning to that goal."
Just as Ruby and Meslener have data that points to student success, they have data that corroborates the success of their team.
All learning commons staff – library staff, advising staff and faculty, and tutoring staff – scored better than 4.0 on a 5.0 scale in the most recent Garrett College Student Survey. All services – library, advising and tutoring – scored 4.0 or better as well.
"We have the right model, and the right people working within that model," said Dr. Ryan Harrod, dean of academic affairs. "Ashley and Jenny have done an outstanding job building a tight-knit, student-centered staff that's truly committed to seeing our students succeed."